In 2010, the United Nations decided that water is a human right. A year later, two Dutch business partners founded lifestyle brand Marie-Stella-Maris with a bold mission: Clean water for everyone, everywhere. Their built-in social bottom line contributes directly to a better world: A fixed amount for each purchase goes to clean drinking water projects.
Carel Neuberg, co-founder and CEO of the social enterprise, started this journey to prove that it is possible to use commercial success to make an impact in the world. In this conversation, Carel shares the founding story of Marie-Stella-Maris, explains the power of a strong D2C brand and why they invest in an in-house creative team.
Silja: And one of these people is Carel Neuberg. He's the CEO and co-founder of the company and invited us for a chat to their Amsterdam headquarters. Marie Stella Maris is an excellent example of this new breed of companies. They promise that everything they do will be used to create the most social and the least environmental impact. A model that's appealing to small businesses but inspires big players to do the same thing, too. Of course, there was a life before turning towards social entrepreneurship and starting Marie-Stella-Maris but will better let him tell the story.
Carel: So my professional background before Marie-Stella-Maris was within Telcom: in commercial, marketing and board functions. This was a big, big company in the Netherlands, KPN. So we made a huge growth, doing business internationally, having a big company where there are a lot of stakeholders. Decision making is often not so transparent. Who takes decisions? So I learned a lot. But also to prepare in a professional way your presentations and to get these decisions made. So this was, I think, the major part of my career. Of course, before I started working, I did my university. I also was two years within the Marines. This was, by that time, still normal in the Netherlands that you also had your military service. So I thought, well, why not joining a force where you can really learn about your capabilities? And I can tell you: when you were with the Marines you learn how to survive, which is important. So it's also about the discipline. It's about reaching your objectives. So that's where I learned a lot. Being alone, surviving.
Silja: And also a different perspective on strategy and how you make a decision, probably.
Carel: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You were alone with your platoon. You have to make tactical decisions on how to approach some things. And I was at the time the youngest by far. So I also learned how to, you know, manage a platoon but also to be aware of your position. Because there were a lot of people with a lot of experience, skills — much more than I had, much more, so that's where you also learn "OK, you may be in a position, but you need the rest of your platoon also to achieve something." So that's about skills, yeah. And that's still what I can apply in my working environment.
Simon: During that time at the telcom company and then transitioning into that new venture: I mean it was almost ten years ago, right? When you started Marie Stella Maris? What was that the motivation to turn away from big corporations to do your own?
Carel: Yeah. When you have a lot of experience, and I've worked with a big corporate company you like to use this also for a new venture. I met Patrick Munsters, my business partner, and he asked me to join into a new initiative, which was Marie-Stella-Maris. And, you know I very much liked the idea from a beginning because I could use my experience. I could work with young professionals. But also, maybe the most important part, building a brand with a mission. I think building brands is one thing but also having a message where you can contribute a little bit to a better world is nice. But of course, you have to balance commercial and having a social contribution, so that's the big challenge of course. But that was the time in my period, in my life when I thought well it's good not only to work for yourself and earn a lot of money (because within telcom you can make a lot of money) but also contribute. And this was for me the way to contribute to the world. But also creating a nice team, a nice brand and seeing the direct results of everything you're doing because that's also important.
Simon: So that was baked into the company directly from the beginning that you set out and planed this to be not just the water and care brand, but also …
Carel: No. So this was my personal motivation to join Marie-Stella-Maris, and the initial idea was „water for water". So creating a social enterprise which contributes to the problem we face today that there is a lack to clean drinking water. That's the basic idea. Creating products, of course, in the beginning, it was mineral water, where are you directly when you buy a product, contribute as a consumer or as a business, a business customer you contribute directly. So that was the main purpose, and when you create a brand like Marie-Stella-Maris, you can think of a lot of products which also fit the brand. But it started with water for water because there is a very direct relationship between selling water and creating water sources.
Simon: So you use that direct symbolism of a person here in Europe buying a bottle of water and then giving the same kind of symbolic value to another person.
Carel: Actually, it's more than symbolic because you have to make a very clear statement transparent. There is a fixed amount for each bottle we contribute which is 5 cent per litre. This was very important because when you are a startup, you will not make money in the beginning because you are creating a brand, so you have a lot of costs involved. So when you are entering the market, and you cannot explain that you are directly contributing to clean drinking water. People will say "Well, OK, this is not alright". So although it was very, very tough, we decided to say every bottle contributes directly.
Simon: So that was a set principle that not a single person could change anything with that.
Silja: And also maybe a part of the secret, why it works now is that it was part from the beginning that you say… kind of get used to having this fixed amount per bottle?
Carel: Well, I think some entrepreneurs in you know in the restaurants or the hotels choose for Marie-Stella-Maris because of this social contribution, but some others will choose for the style of the brand. So it's more that it's a clear statement for everybody who wants to understand it or will deep dive into what we are doing exactly that we made a fixed contribution and we make it transparent. So if you're interested to know because you have a nice branding and a nice social message, but what are you doing exactly? You have to explain it. So this was basically also where we put a lot of time into to set up the real fulfilment of our message.
Simon: And the Marie-Stella-Maris Foundation? That's the company organizing the projects and building up the relationships with the partners?
Carel: Yeah. So we actually have two companies now. Well, we have one company, of course, but we have a legal entity which is called Marie-Stella-Maris, and all commercial activities and branding activities and product development activities take place in this company. And then we have the Marie-Stella-Maris Foundation, and the relationship is that we transfer the money we earn with selling the products to the foundation. It's a foundation where nobody is working, but of course, we do have an advisory board, and we work together with a foundation in The Hague. They are very specialized into water and sanitation advisory, and together with this company called Aqua for All, we have developed the policies towards clean drinking water projects. It's very transparent. The money flows into the foundation. We do not want to make costs into the foundation because you know in the Netherlands everybody is very sceptical. So you must be transparent. You must say it flows into the foundation. We do not have any costs there except maybe for annual reporting, but we don't have staffing there. The money flows as much as possible, really towards the projects — today in Africa.
Simon: And that was the foundation set up in the beginning as well? Or was that part of the journey when you started to learn how you can set this up in a good way?
Carel: Yeah, the first couple of years, we had a different construction through a third bank account where we put the money on this account which was called the notary. So they were keeping the money on the account and then we had this collaboration with Aqua for All already. So when we approved the projects, it was financed from this bank account, and then we decided after a couple of years to create the Marie-Stella-Maris Foundation because it gives extra credibility, but it also can give some fiscal advantages for companies who want to support us. And of course, there are some rules and regulations having a foundation, so it makes us even more professional.
Simon: And can you give us an example? Because we're now realizing "OK, someone bought this bottle of water or a care product", and then part of this money flows into the foundation. And what exactly happens then with the money? Can you give us an example of where this is applied in the real world?
Carel: Yeah. So we get proposals, proposals from Aqua for All according to the policy we set out. So how it works: the communities mainly today in Africa, but we also did some projects in Bangladesh. They are supported the communities by local NGOs. They will write a proposal, a short proposal of why they need money for their projects — clean water projects. We have sort of a discussion with Aqua for All on which projects fit our criteria and why we should invest in this community? So after it's approved by our foundation, we get it operated. And then maybe you're interested in knowing what kind of projects we are doing? Because that's the most important thing. From the beginning, we chose a rural area. So those are mainly areas where there are a lot of farmers, some schools where children from all over the place come, and we chose for the communities because, in the beginning, we had a well not so very big contribution. When you start like 30000-40000€ which was by the time the first year very much, you can make the difference immediately. Because you can have like five, six, seven boreholes at important locations, you can have the toilets which are very important. So you can make the difference for a complete community with like 1500 or 2000 people. Investing the same money into a big city, would not make a very obvious difference. Maybe for the people living there but not for a whole community.
Simon: So you chose the lowest possible threshold to make a big difference for the people.
Carel: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
So this is, of course, one of the criteria that we did choose for a sustainable solution which you can reach in the communities. We did not choose for aid. There are a lot of wars going on or issues, and you know, there's a lot of need for clean drinking water, but then we are like that small into a big problem. So we decided there was not our way to go into aid but to go for a structural approach.
Silja: And I think it's kind of obvious you also want to change behavior, customer consumer behaviour. Can you say it's already a difference now almost ten years into the journey compared to back then?
Carel: You mean the commercial customers?
Silja: Are they more open? Is it easier to get the story across to make a difference because people are more aware?
Carel: So what we found out is that once people know about the brand, they like to buy the products. Of course, the products must be good, but of course, if there is a scent you don't like, you will not buy the product. If the packaging is not your style, you will not buy it. So your product must be good, the styling must be good. And then if you know the brand message, you will come back and buy the product. If you like the scent, if you like the packaging you know "OK, Marie-Stella-Maris is the brand which also contributes. We do not have a lot of customers churning.
Simon: So that's loyalty factor there.
Carel: Loyalty, right. But of course, not a lot of people know the message of Marie-Stella-Maris, so that still is a challenge.
Simon: So let's maybe take a step back. You said you didn't launch the mineral water but also a care line. And that was probably not from the beginning but now during the set up of the company.
Carel: Yeah. This was in 2014. So then we decided to have not only the mineral water but also the care products.
This also had a business reason because the care products are easier to sell also outside the Netherlands. You have much more capabilities through the web, e-commerce, for instance. So we thought we need a second product line which was already in the minds having a second product line. But we didn't know which one because we also could enter into tea or coffee or you know everything fits the brand.
Simon: What was the factor?
Carel: Yeah, yeah. So in a couple of brainstorms, you know, we did a lot of ideas, and then we came up with the idea of care. In the projects, we are doing today in Africa; soap is very important. It's about water. It's about sanitation. It's about hygiene. So we call it WASH projects (Water, Sanitation, Hygiene). And hygiene can be translated into soap. So when you walk into the communities, you see how important soap is for hygiene. So this was the basic idea. And then once we had this idea you know, you can go wild into creativity because we can make nice packaging, we can develop good scents. So it also has a very creative aspect of the care products, but the basic idea was you know having a category which also fits the mission.
Simon: Yes, and where did this motivation or where did this knowledge come from that? Because if you look at the product lines, they are very well designed, the packaging is thought out; the branding is thought out. Your online touchpoints are very in line. Where did this realization come from that you have to nail this kind of first impression?
Carel: When we set up the company, we thought it's a very important asset to have an own creative team with graphic designers. So because we thought packaging and design are very important and once we have their capabilities in-house, it's not too difficult to design the bottles, to design the packaging for the care products. So this was not so difficult for us. What is more difficult is to think about the ingredients. Because that was not really what we had in-house (that capability) but the design part … that's really the strength of Marie-Stella-Maris, and we do have the capabilities in-house.
Simon: So that was again a clever prioritization from the beginning where usually you would say "OK this is something we could outsource". We just you know get some advertising agencies or design agencies who do it for us. But that was from the beginning of an asset.
Carel: That's the soul, the heart and soul of the brand. And you have to have it in-house and then you know it's all about the brand. So people have to understand the brand but also believe in the brand. And when you have it in-house, it's completely different than having an agency working for you.
Simon: How many people are working right now at Marie-Stella-Maris?
Simon: And I also read about, I think it was last year, that you did kind of a company session where you got together and let them choose projects to invest in? Was that the case? Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Carel: Sure, sure. So one time a year, we do have a foundation day. Why? Because everybody is working hard. We are a commercial company, so there are a lot of things going on. And once a year we have to think of why did we start this company? So then we have a foundation day. Last year, we were thinking of what's a nice idea to have all the people working here get involved, thinking about how they can contribute to new ideas? And then we said well we do have a budget from the projects for selling the products. And how can we spend? It was a couple of thousand euros, not that very much. How can we spend it the best in our projects? And then we gave two recent projects, and we said well we could extend both of them, but we have to make a choice. You will make a choice. So then we split into teams, and then you know they were deep-diving into the projects, and they raised questions, and they could also call external people who were involved with the projects. So by the end of the day, we said well we have to make a choice. You have to make your presentation. And then one of two projects won. So that's the kind of involvement.
Silja: Giving the responsibility to the employees as well; put them into the position that you're sometimes in. How do you choose? How do you make a decision?
Carel: Exactly. How do you choose? Why did you choose and because we have criteria and then it was very interesting to see how they thought of the criteria which are important to them. And well this was very interesting.
Simon: And you just recently crossed the, I think, 1 million € kind of threshold or milestone of what flowed into the foundation. And you also have plans to expand that beyond the Netherlands, right?
Carel: Yeah, yeah.
Simon: Because I think if you look at Amsterdam you have your brand store in the city centre and you know people know that brand from hospitality from hotels from restaurants. What's your plan, your outset into the future?
Carel: So, of course, reaching this 1 million threshold was very important for us. And then we celebrated the moment which is very important with the customers internally and then, of course, everybody's curious to know what is the next step because while 1 million is nice but what's the next step? So then I said the next step would be like 100000 people — helping 100000 people to clean drinking water. Today we have like 35000. So that is a big step. And we can only achieve it by growing. And growing is not only good for your mission but also for everybody working here. Because then you get new possibilities, new challenges. So we have to grow and even outside the Netherlands. And we created a brand which is possible to export outside the Netherlands. So this is our main mission to bring the brand outside the Netherlands. Today we are in Belgium already for three years. We are in the German market, which is not so easy. And we started in Tokyo, Japan in April this year. So we are extending the brand. This is what we do with the distributors.
Silja: And is it mainly the care products?
Simon: So the water is in the Netherlands and in Belgium, which can be easily done from inside the Netherlands also transporting the water to Belgium. When we started the brand, we said the mineral water has not to be shipped all over the world because we feel that's more sustainable. Having said that it's not so easy to start up an operation let's say in Germany to find a bottling company who produces the water and you have to sell up there. So these are typically the challenges we face. With the care products, it's a little bit easier, but there are also some more international partnerships. I think one of the more important ones is Netaporter/Mr Porter, you might know them. They're a worldwide platform for fashion and cosmetics. So today we are worldwide available through is this partnership. And of course, people can also buy through our web store, and we send all over the world.
Silja: And these partnerships are they initiated by you or do they contact you and want to be a distribution partner?
Carel: Yeah. So it's both. We do have plans to roll out in two countries, but sometimes you are contacted like the guy in Japan. Japan was not in our plans. To be honest because first we've all wanted to build a European brand and then maybe extend, but then we were connected like one year ago, and he said I'm very interested in bringing your brand into the Japanese market and I would you like to come over to Amsterdam. That's always a positive sign when somebody is coming over, and you spend one week up here. He wanted to know everything about the brand. And then it developed into a partnership and then we decided to enter this market. So it's both. It's having a plan but also being entrepreneurial and seeing the chances.
Simon: One side note which I've found clever is that you separate the brand name of the mineral water from the source name where the water is coming from. From that reason to kind of scale that in a different country and then choose another source and not being reliant on one source and ship it all over the world.
Carel: Exactly. So this was the basic setup that we separated brand and source. Like S.Pellegrino is coming from San Pellegrino. Spa is coming from Spa. Evian is coming from Evian. Marie-Stella-Maris chooses its own sources. But it must be good mineral water. And it's much more sustainable. But having said that as you have to you have a couple of other challenges to startup and you a new source.
Simon: And I think that's another indicator that you (when you set out to do that) you didn't set out to do the next big mineral water brand. You set out to do a company which can balance both generating profits but also yeah and using it as a vehicle to do something to change something in the world. In your case, water and sanitation. One last question. Do you do split your work still? You and your co-founder? How is it structured within the company? How are you splitting the work or how are you involved within the company?
Carel: Yeah. So basically, Patrick is the creative part. And I run the business including you know from customers into logistics, product development, everything involved. But Patrick is really the genius of the creative part. Yeah. So that's the split.
Silja: If you wish for something in the future that happens, what would you wish for? In the context of maybe more companies joining or for Marie-Stella-Maris itself? What is the future? Where is the company in ten years from now?
Carel: Well, of course, talking about the own company: I hope we can grow, make a lot of impact. Having this 100000 objective is, I hope, achieved in two or three years. I hope we can grow much faster. Maybe we will be joined by other corporate companies who take a stake in Marie-Stella-Maris because being alone is being alone. So when we have a nice brand in three or four countries, maybe we can have the help of one of the big companies who say "we can do it in 20 countries or 30 countries". So that is specifically for Marie-Stella-Maris, and I hope that outside of Marie-Stella-Maris, a lot of other companies will also integrate (one way or the other) impact into their brand and the business. But I'm sure this will happen. I'm sure because people are asking for it.
Simon: So, in the end, it's consumer-driven. The consciousness and the realization.
Carel: Exactly. But it's not, you know, I'm not thinking about "ideologie" (dutch for ideology). I'm practical. So you must combine commercial and impact. And if you're too much impact-driven, you will not make an impact because you need to think commercial. You have to understand that. If you're not understanding it, you will be a foundation. Nothing wrong with a foundation but you have to think in a commercial way and then contribute.
Simon: Thank you so much for listening. If you enjoyed this episode and would like to know more, head over to www.theidealists.co! As always there's one more thing we ask our guests which is: Who should we talk to next?
Carel: Yeah I think … well, we have one great brand in the Netherlands. It's called Tony's Chocolonely. Did you talk to them?
Simon: Not yet.
Silja: Not yet.
Carel: Well, that's your next one. It's fantastic what they have achieved. They are a couple of years further than we are, but they did a great job.
"If you’re too much impact-driven, you will not make an impact because you need to think commercial. You have to understand that. If you’re not understanding it, you will be a foundation. Nothing wrong with a foundation but you have to think in a commercial way and then contribute."
— Carel Neuberg [00:28:50]
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