Unify Water is a small, Lexington-based startup company that hopes to sell premium-priced bottled water in a crowded beverage landscape dominated by corporate giants.
As entrepreneurial challenges go, this is a big one. Besides, isn’t water just water, the most common of commodities?
It will be a challenge, said Joshua Sizemore, 34, a University of Kentucky business graduate from Hyden.
But Sizemore, who spent a decade as a brand development executive in Los Angeles and Detroit for fashion companies including Lacoste and Shinola, thinks he has found a good niche.
Sizemore this week will launch Unify Water (Unifywater.com) in more than 30 Lexington-area groceries and other retailers served by distributor Kentucky Eagle Inc. If all goes well, he plans to rapidly expand to Louisville and other regional cities on his way to national distribution.
Why does Sizemore think Unify Water can succeed?
First, he says, it is good-tasting natural spring water, not purified water like many brands. That is important to people willing to pay $1.69 for a 20-ounce bottle or $2.19 for a liter.
Sizemore bottles his water at Murphy Mill Spring near Tazewell, Tenn., about a dozen miles south of the Kentucky line near Cumberland Gap. He has a 30-year lease on the 55-acre property, which is owned by one of his investors. It came with a small bottling plant, which he has improved.
Unify Water also has an advertised pH of 7.3, making it less acidic than most bottled water brands. That also is important to water connoisseurs, putting it on par with Fiji, a leading premium spring water brand.
But Unify Water’s most important branding pitch is an appeal to altruism: For every bottle customers buy, the company will donate a gallon of water to non-profit organizations serving people in need in this country and overseas. For every case sold, Unify Water will donate five gallons.
When he first came up with the idea, Sizemore said, he naively thought he could ship Tennessee water overseas. But he discovered the money would go much further if he gave cash to a non-profit organization that could source clean water closer to where it was needed.
Unify Water has launched the plan with a $12,000 donation to The Water Project, which will allow the non-profit to provide 1 million gallons to African communities in need. Sizemore hopes to develop a long-term partnership with the group.
Logistics for domestic donations will be easier, Sizemore said. The company plans to work with non-profits to get water from his spring, which he said produces 10 million gallons a day, to meet needs such as disaster relief. A group plans to take donated truckload of Unify Water to Flint, Mich., later this month.
“People want to give back,” Sizemore said. “I think customers will like this concept, and it will help build the value of the brand.”
As a way to differentiate a bottled-water brand, this charity effort seems like a smart one, said Ellen McGeeney, president of Winchester-based Ale 8 One, who has met with Sizemore about his plans for growing his company.
“He is really a gifted marketer,” McGeeney said.
Sizemore knows that to be successful he must build Unify Water into a national brand, and he has begun talks on scale-up plans with InterContinental Beverage Capital, a New York merchant bank that specializes in the drinks industry.
Unify Water has $200,000 in startup capital and is now in the midst of raising another $1 million, Sizemore said.
For now, Sizemore and a couple partners can run the automated bottling line. But he is making plans for adding employees and more equipment. He has even thought about improvements to the bottling plant property, which includes the ruins of a former fish hatchery at the spring’s hillside source.
“I’m trying to get Jon to come down and do our landscaping,” Sizemore said of his cousin, renowned garden designer Jon Carloftis, who also lives in Lexington.
Sizemore said entrepreneurism runs in his family. His mother, a nurse, earned extra money by opening a store that sold surgical scrubs. His wife, Sundral, who was an executive chef at several California restaurants when they lived there, is making plans for a new restaurant concept in Lexington.