There’s a new player in the cooler industry. This spring, Hydro Flask jumped into the soft cooler market with the Unbound Series. Here, the brand explains its latest venture.
A few weeks ago, a unique package arrived at our Denver office: a soft-sided cooler full of ice and cold craft brews. Sent from Hydro Flask’s headquarters in Bend, Ore., it was a creative display of the performance of the brand’s newest product category: soft-sided coolers.
Hydro Flask, known for its colorful insulated bottles, launched its waterproof Unbound Series coolers just this month. Included in the initial launch are the 22-liter Pack and 24-liter Tote coolers. For more context and insider info on the newly launched category, we caught up with Jason Valdez, soft goods category manager for the brand.
Interview: Jason Valdez, Hydro Flask
GearJunkie: What sparked the idea of creating a backpack cooler?
Valdez: We’re definitely known for temperature retention, and with the company’s growth, we had a chance to look at adjacent categories. We took a look at what’s out there in the soft-sided cooler space (from super-high-price-point to the classic low-price-point products) and started thinking of how we could create a quality product for our audience.
After a large qualitative survey and focus group sessions, we began to see what the pain points are with the current cooler offerings. Not only that, but we also began to unpack what people were wanting to see in the cooler space and whether or not consumers thought our brand was a fit for the category. Very quickly we were given a resounding “yes,” so we went for it.
What was the initial theme for this new category launch?
The initial internal mantra was around “everyday adventures.” There are lots of offerings in the higher-end space that tout super hardcore, drive your truck over it, etc. Our brand is very inclusive, with an even male-female split, so we opted for more of the “everyday” approach.
That said, we knew our product must stand up to epic core adventures. It had to be durable and insulated well enough to keep things cold for any situation, from picnics to soccer games and backcountry fly fishing. We thought about what we could design and develop that could always be ready for any adventure.
It was all about “untethering” someone to allow them to go about their daily adventures. So instead of a picnic at the trailhead, you can go on that great hike and have an epic picnic at your favorite overlook. Or, for someone in New York City, you can ride the subway several stops to the farmer’s market and back with everything comfortably on your back.
How long did it take from idea conception to finished product?
Once we saw the opportunity, we wanted to move rather quickly. In total, it took a little less than 18 months.
Where is it made, and where do the materials come from?
The materials come from a variety of places. The zippers are from Hong Kong (AquaSeal YKK) and the main body materials come from Taiwan. The coolers are manufactured in China.
How did you test its durability and ability to keep items cold?
We have an awesome internal R&D team that was a big contributor to this project. They spent lots of time replicating specific environments to test the products in.
Additionally, we used a pretty large consumer-testing group out of Utah composed of different outdoor athletes and gear enthusiasts. They each received a 24-liter Tote and 22-liter Pack and played around with them for about a month, giving us ratings, recommendations, and feedback at the end. The overwhelming feedback from the group was super positive, a resounding “yes, you guys came out with a stellar product.” They were just bummed they had to send the coolers back.
What is an ideal use/situation for the coolers?
We didn’t and don’t have preconceived notions for what people will use the coolers for. We wanted it to be used anywhere, in any way. It’s not bound by any specific type of adventure, so you can roll with it on a bike to a farmer’s market or the beach, bring it to sporting events, hike with it, etc.
The aesthetic really lends itself to that point. We get loads of comments on how nice-looking the pack is. It disguises itself as a cooler, especially since it’s not bulky or cumbersome.
We went down the route of “covert.” The cooler space has a lot of options that scream, “Hey, I’m a cooler!” So we went the more inconspicuous route.
What sets this cooler apart from others?
Really, it’s a mix of things. The design and then its performance tech, being the lightest backpack cooler on the market. Through our R&D efforts, we inadvertently became foam insulation experts. We played around with thicknesses and the simple science of “cold goes down.” So we increased the thickness at the base of the cooler, allowing us to go thinner on the sides and make it more streamlined.
Playing with the foam thicknesses ultimately made the cooler lighter and more malleable, allowing it to conform to the body for comfort when slinging it over your shoulder or wearing it on your back. It has the ability to move with you instead of against you.
We looked at what was out there in the market and considered how people would be using these coolers. And, knowing we’d add more soft-sided coolers to the line, we wanted the 22-liter Pack and 24-liter Tote to be the first sizes brought to the market.
Why no hip belt on the backpack cooler?
We did play around with a hip belt, but when we started to think more about use cases (i.e., people won’t be taking a backpack cooler on three-plus-day backpacking trips), we nixed it. We just kind of decided it would be an extraneous thing that would change the look and aesthetic without being used much.
Any warranties or guarantees?
We currently have a five-year warranty on the Unbound Series products, one of the best warranties in the market. As for guarantees, we say that it keeps ice for up to 48 hours. Depending on the climate, it can last longer than that.
How many colors do the products come in?
The Tote and Pack both come in four colors: black, mist (light-gray), storm (grayish-blue), goldenrod (yellow). We knew colors were going to be expected. Color choice was a lengthy process for us; we went through 16–18 colors and whittled it down to the four. The decision was based on merchandising and color trends, mostly.
Are there any cooler accessories?
We’re exploring all kinds of things for the future. But currently, we do not have any accessories. In fall 2018, we’ll have an ice pack product available.
The Unbound Series coolers are really well thought out in terms of the whole experience. There are dry storage pockets and a stretchy mesh pocket for a water bottle or phone … just lots of really neat, subtle additions that make it a great unit as a whole.
We had one guy tell us that it passed the “Corona lime test.” There are pockets for the limes, a separate space for a cutting board and knife, and the Coronas keep cold in the main compartment. It can keep everything separate and fresh.