Interviews

Carel Neuberg, Co-Founder, Marie-Stella-Maris

In an era in which brands are being accused of ‘woke-washing’, Marie-Stella Maris is an example of what a brand can be when purpose lies at the heart of its customer-proposition.

Izzy Ashton

Assistant Editor, BITE

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In 2010, the United Nations declared access to clean drinking water and sanitation to be a basic human right (Resolution 64/292). Yet currently 1 in 9 people lack access to safe water and 1 in 3 lack access to a toilet, according to research from water.org.  While these statistics are deeply shocking, they are not on many consumers’ radar, a state of inertia that the Marie-Stella-Maris brand is determined to puncture. The Dutch lifestyle brand has social mission at its heart, selling natural mineral water and luxury care products, which donate a proportion of proceeds to safe drinking water.

Founded in 2011 and launched a year later in Amsterdam, the brand’s co-founder Carel Neuberg revealed that their first decision had to be “what will be the purpose and mission of the brand?” Neuberg, who previously served in the Marines, started his career in the corporate world of banking but left after a couple of years. His next job took him into telecoms but, having spent much of his career in the business world where they “did a lot of talking,” he decided he wanted to “do things, create things” instead. “I wanted to start something new; a brand or company with a purpose,” he explains.

The brand’s basic idea was born out of the UN Declaration. They decided to create bottled mineral water with 5 cents in every litre going to fund clean drinking projects, predominantly in Africa. It was only on going to visit the various projects in Africa that they realised their mission aligned with the WASH projects: Water, Sanitation and Hygiene.

I wanted to start something new; a brand or company with a purpose.

Carel Neuberg

Sustainable growth

In 2014 the next phase of the business growth began with the introduction of soap, followed by beauty and care products. These products contain natural ingredients, no parabens and don’t test on animals. As Neuberg said, the brand wants “to provide a good experience. That’s what people expect from our brand; not only social but you have also to be sustainable.” This sustainability-first approach has extended to the recent introduction of refill packages for all their glass bottled hand and body washes.

Neuberg is honest as he outlines how running a business with purpose at its heart comes “with all the challenges that a normal business has because we are not a foundation, we are a commercial company.” But, what Marie-Stella-Maris wants to prove to its huge competitors around the world is that “you can combine a purpose with being commercial.” Neuberg also stresses the importance of having “360-degree communication” in order to fulfil the brand’s mission.

The brand chose to partner with a small independent company that specialises in finding and supporting clean drinking projects across Africa. As the business grew, so too did the contribution that it could make to each project and eventually, to the number of projects they could support. Marie-Stella-Maris’ focus is on small, rural communities rather than big cities, empowering people within those communities to “take local ownership…really engaging the community into the project is really critical I think.” As Neuberg details, “this is where you can make with 20 or 30,000 Euros, immediately a difference.

[We want] to provide a good experience. That’s what people expect from our brand; not only social but you have also to be sustainable.

Carel Neuberg

Moving beyond woke-washing

Marie-Stella-Maris is an example of a new-breed of brand, many of which have launched within the recent decade, with a built-in environmental bottom line. Products launched on a brand promise that everything they sell, and the money made in turn, will be used to create the most social and environmentally friendly company possible. What’s also interesting to see in more recent years are the larger conglomerates starting to change their behaviour and the way they operate as well.

In 2018, Unilever’s Sustainable Living Brands grew 46% faster then the rest of the business and delivered 70% of the brand’s turnover growth. This is the kind of stat that proves Neuberg and Marie-Stella-Maris’ theory, that purpose can come hand in hand with commerciality. Neuberg reveals that by the end of June this year, the brand will have surpassed the €1 million they have invested in projects. When I offer my congratulations on such a milestone, he is restrained as he says simply, “it’s a step.”

You can combine a purpose with being commercial.

Carel Neuberg

Within Marie-Stella-Maris itself, Neuberg says they look to work with “energetic people who believe in our mission” to keep pushing the brand forwards. Once an individual has worked at the company for five years, they are given the opportunity to visit the projects the brand supports. “That’s where you find your inspiration because that’s also the reason why we set up this company,” says Neuberg. “Sometimes you forget it…and then you have to go back.”

The brand’s goal is to provide clean drinking water to 100,000 people within the next four years. Only then will Neuberg be satisfied. And perhaps not even then. In the midst of a flurry of criticism of brands and the creative industry for ‘woke-washing,’ Marie Stella-Maris is an example of the power of a truly purpose-driven brand.

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Q: Talk a bit about how and why you started your business.
A: We wanted to create a brand/business, where people, consumers and business, could easily contribute to the clean drinking water shortage in the world. And with products that link logically to our purpose.
Q: What’s the most challenging part of starting/running your own business?
A: There are several. Creating a competitive advantage (distinctiveness) in product design, scents and a clear statement on ingredients. We are in markets with our mineral water and care products that are dominated by multinational brands with a lot of money and power. Creating brand awareness with small marketing budgets. Finding the right production partners, who understand the nature of the brand and can meet our quality standards. And finding the right partners and projects for our clean drinking projects.
Q: What role did marketing play when you were starting up? How did you increase your visibility?
A: Physical placements of our products in leading hospitality locations like hotels and restaurants so consumers can really experience our products. We have our own in-house creative/communication team that also work on packaging design. And we’re creating our own (online) community.

We wanted to create a brand/business, where people, consumers and business, could easily contribute to the clean drinking water shortage in the world. And with products that link logically to our purpose.

Carel Neuberg
Q: What brands and business leaders do you look up to?
A: For mineral water, Pellegrino. For care products, Aesop. Amongst business leaders the founder of Rituals, Raymond Cloosterman.
Q: Looking ahead, what do you think is your biggest challenge? And what are your ambitions for the business?
A: We want to expand the business outside the Netherlands which means finding the right distribution partners. As the world is rapidly changing to more sustainable brands and solutions, we have to adopt this shift in our product strategy. It’s about balancing between price, design and the use of more sustainable packaging materials for our products.
Q: What is the failure you think you’ve learnt the most from?
A: Starting with our mineral water in the supermarkets in the Netherlands. It was a very costly introduction; not the way to start building brand awareness.
Q: What would your advice be to someone who has an idea for their own business?
A: You will engage in situations that were not in your business plan. You must be able to adapt to this without losing your vision personally, as well to your possible investors.

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