Young entrepreneurs mix charity, commerce and choice with Liquid Change water brand

A group of entrepreneurial young Westlake Boys students are doing their bit to prove that businesses with a soul can help make the world a better place. And Liquid Change, a bottled water business with a charitable twist that started off as part of the Young Enterprise Scheme, has gone further than most of its student ilk: into the fridges at one of the country’s biggest oil networks, Z.

Jesse Medcalf, the managing director, Westlake Boys head boy and 18-year-old son of local marketing juggernauts Vernene and Graham Medcalf, says the team got serious about the idea in October last year and started talking with a few Auckland-based charities that would be willing to put their logos on the bottles. 

From left to right: Sam Walsh, Max Rogers, Jesse Medcalf, James Rankin, Matthew Canham

In the end it went for a mix of charities that aimed to appeal to a broad audience—SPCA, Canteen, St John and Kids Can—and by February, they started sorting out all the supplier agreements (NZ Quality Waters, Adhesif for the labels and Mainstream for storage and delivery). They ended up with 4,200 bottles to sell, with $1—100 percent of the profit from each $3.40 bottle—going to the charity listed on the label. 

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At the North Auckland regional awards the team was awarded with the High Growth Potential Award and Excellence in Commitment and Medcalf was named Young Male Entrepreneur of the Year. The team also won a national excellence award, which they will collect in Wellington at an awards dinner in December.  

Medcalf says it originally approached BP, which is a sponsor of the Young Enterprise scheme, to see if it would sell the water in its stores, but it declined to stock it, as did Farro Fresh, Nosh, The Food Show, Animates and a few others. Locals, a cafe that swaps cans for coffee, agreed, and he then wrote Z chief executive Mike Bennetts a letter about what Liquid Change was all about, why he believed in it and why Z would be a good match. Bennetts then sent the email on to the appropriate people to see if it was viable. And it was approved, so it agreed to start with a trial in all the outlets on Auckland’s North Shore (Medcalf says they loaded up a car and delivered the boxes to the various locations themselves).  

Medcalf believes the business is a great fit with Z’s brand, especially given the similarities to the Good in the Hood scheme and the voting mechanism it used that allowed customers to choose the community projects the company supported. Z is also assisting with the creation of some in-store advertising and some retailers are already thinking about doing a pie and a bottle deal.

“People buy water, however stupid that is, but there’s no brand differentiation. So this is about giving consumers an outlet for their altruism without them having to go out of their way.” 

Fusing commerce and charity isn’t a particularly new idea (then again, success isn’t generally about being new, it’s often about timing and execution, as the rise of YouTube and many other tech companies attests). For example, Medcalf says Water 4 All gives money to that particular charity at a rate of about 5c per bottle. And a few All Blacks got in on the act a few years ago too. But the point of difference with Liquid Change is that it offers consumers a choice—and gives a much bigger chunk of the sale back to the charity, rather than spending it on admin.

He says most of the other Young Enterprise scheme products “end up being sold at Sunday markets or to family and friends. But to get into a national retailer definitely doesn’t happen frequently”. And while there have been a few other Young Enterprise successes, like the idea for pink chocolate to raise funds for breast cancer awareness stemming from a group of young Wellington students and executed by Whittaker’s last year, he says the difference with this project is that “we did everything ourselves” (the companies are established by and exist under the Young Enterprise scheme, but the members are able to buy companies back for $1 if they want to continue operating in the real world). 

Medcalf has high hopes that might be a scalable idea that could be rolled out across the country if it works well in Auckland. And with scale he says it will also start to get a better prices (although it won’t have the novelty factor to play on anymore). He says it has had requests to sell at events around Auckland, as well as sports games, dance studios and markets, and other international charities have approached them about possible partnershipsSo if it takes a small bit of share off the other water brands and forces them to change their approach or become more charitable, then he’ll be happy.

“A lot of people have said it’s a model we can apply to a lot of areas. But it’s been less about the money coming in and more about the social aspects of it. We want to challenge the way that companies are producing profit for themselves. We want to create social profit and we want to be part of this new paradigm where profit is dedicated to more than just a CEO’s salary.”

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