The New Breed of Innovator: Global Brand and Industrial Design

The New Breed of Innovator: Global Brand and Industrial Design

It was August, and Chuck Jones was at Michigan International Speedway competing in a vintage Indy car race. Jones started racing cars at the rather young age of 8, turned professional at age 15, and now—in addition to his career as vice president of global consumer design for the world’s largest appliance manufacturer, Whirlpool Corporation—at age 44, he still keeps sharp by participat­ing in a half dozen high-speed races each year. Driving at speeds of 168 mph requires a level of concentration that anyone could learn from, and Jones excels at it…he is still winning regional champi­onships against competitors less than half his age. Jones considers this experience to be the kind of event that allows him to escape from the daily grind and keep things in perspective. He learned how to man­age quality programs when working at Xerox Corporation, programs that were a major part of the Xerox success story of the 1980s. At Xerox, he directed several successful product programs for new copiers, and he came away with a thorough understanding of digital product interface. The discontinuities between his day job and hobby are very much how he views innovation—the ability to arrive at discontinuous solutions that yield paradigm shifts in your product, service, and brand.

Although Jones’s formal degrees are in industrial design and human-factors engineering, his first degree was really from the fields in Indiana, where he grew up in farm country. He knows all about machines and how to disassemble and fix an engine. As a side note, Jones family lore has it that Chuck successfully diagnosed a problem on an engine, disassembled it, reassembled it, and got the engine run­ning at age 5. On the farm, innovation meant having to find a fix for a broken gear on the combine during harvesting season at 4 A. M. when no stores were open. Discontinuity meant working on the fam­ily farm at 4 A. M. during harvest season when running the farm was just a family hobby and your dad had a day job as a chemical engineer. Tending to a hobby farm at 4 A. M. as a kid built a strong work ethic and solid values.

Although he trained primarily in industrial design, Jones, like Kapur, has balanced capabilities in the left and right parts of his brain. His engineering side is comfortable with the precision and logic of math, which has enabled him to thrive in management; at the same time, he explores the possibilities of creation through design. After finishing college, he gained experience in business and quality systems development. He went through several product development cycles at Xerox and had developmental jobs such as running the business strat­egy office, eventually becoming the manager of industrial design and human interface. Whirlpool recruited him, and he now directs one of the biggest global brand design, user interface, and consumer under­standing programs in the world. From the headquarters of little – known Benton Harbor, Michigan, he manages the global design empires of the Whirlpool and KitchenAid product lines in the United States as well as the 11 other Whirlpool global brands, and he manages design for appliances under the Kenmore and iKEA brands.

one brand innovation championed by Jones and a team inside Whirlpool’s North America business unit is the Gladiator GarageWorks line of products for garage and basement storage systems. The innovation team that developed the idea of Gladiator GarageWorks recognized that, in many households, women tend to take the lead for purchase decisions in every “living quarters” room— the kitchen, living room, bedrooms, bath. Therefore, the last bastions for men in the home are the basement and garage. With the Gladiator GarageWorks system, consumers may pay up to $25,000 extra when building or refurbishing a house for the sake of a “dream” garage shop, complete with quality shelving and cabinetry, a “Freezerator” that allows one to adjust the percentage used for refrigeration versus freezing, and a “Beverage Box” to keep 170 cold ones. The appliances sense both hot and cold temperature extremes; they not only refrig­erate, they also have built-in heaters, ensuring that the contents stay chilled in a steamy hot garage but are never frozen in an unheated one. This new Whirlpool brand brought in $25 million in revenue in just its second year!

Jones’s timing in going to Whirlpool was perfect. He had just gained experience in a company that went from being a “copier com­pany” to a “document company.” Xerox was in the printing business and making some of the most complex modern industrial and busi­ness printers in the world. The company was attempting to integrate complex digital-driven products with electronic, electromechanical, and mechanical systems in one product. The daily use of these machines is intense, and the complexity of interaction and range of users demanded an entirely new approach to the design of the inter­face of the products. Jones learned the power of digital interface design to connect people to machines. The best copier or printer in the world is useless if you cannot understand how to use it and if you waste more time making mistakes than the copies you want.

Jones understood that the appliance industry was ripe for the same change. He recognized that an appliance company could dom­inate in the industry if it could figure out how to improve the func­tion and service without making the product interface too complex. He also knew that most appliance companies were still living in the “big white box” world without grasping the fact that the market had changed. Kitchens and laundry rooms were taking on a whole differ­ent meaning in the contemporary United States home. The washer and dryer were seen as a bland and generic commodity—a “sea of white,” as Jones likes to call it. The old paradigm was that no one cared about the aesthetics of the laundry room—when one machine broke, you bought any other one, and possibly from the same brand. Only 18 percent of washers and dryers were sold as pairs.

So Jones leveraged the international structure of his group and, along with global engineering and brand marketing in Europe and the United States, helped create the Duet washer/dryer. The Duet adapted a technology platform from Europe to the tastes and relia­bility expectations of North America. The focus on consumer inter­action and ergonomics led to the insight that the washer and dryer should be raised on a pedestal so that consumers do not have to bend over to reach inside the machines. The aesthetic and ergonomic statement of Duet has changed the face of laundry rooms. Today, more than 90 percent of Duets are sold in washer/dryer pairs. The product is so successful that whirpool was able to raise the price three times after its initial introduction. Each Duet machine sells for three times the average competitive machine because of its integrated consumer benefit package of world-class aesthetics, great energy efficiency, and benchmark ergonomics. Consumers see the value, and that is successful innovation!

While the Whirlpool brand has been enjoying tremendous suc­cess, there is an equally interesting story in Jones’s developments in KitchenAid (another brand of Whirlpool Corporation). The KitchenAid mixer is an icon of the American kitchen and stands head and shoulders above the competition in perceived value. In the age of digital-driven products, the KitchenAid mixer stands alone as a throwback electromechanical marvel. Timeless like any great icon, it sits supreme in a kitchen of baby boomers or newlyweds. often the anchor gift for a young couple’s new kitchen, the mixer will last them until retirement. That’s the good news.

The bad news is you cannot sell a lot of products if each lasts a lifetime—that is, unless you can leverage the brand equity, which KitchenAid has done with its new Pro Line series of countertop prod­ucts. If you go to the nearest Williams-Sonoma store in the United states, you will see a line of products that are all in a neutral, metal­lic gray. They look like scale models of little factories and embody the heft and robust nature of the KitchenAid stand mixer. These are seri­ous, professional-looking products. This new line is the interaction of organic growth and consulting at its best, designed by the in-house KitchenAid Brand Design Studio with support from Ziba, one of the world’s best design consulting firms. The new line of gray KitchenAid children sits right next to the proud mixer parents, which come in a range of colors and finishes. The offspring are contemporary but bear a striking family resemblance both in appearance and in their iconic potential. The price tag of many of these new products is a mere $300 plus tax. Williams-Sonoma signed an exclusive agreement for six months, and, during Christmas 2003, they could not stock them fast enough. Imagine paying $300 for a waffle maker, which in the Pro Line series is not a waffle “iron” but a waffle “baker.” On display nearby is a European waffle maker that sells for $50. Why would someone pay $300 for a waffle iron?

It is often the case that an experience on a vacation can become the stimulus for the purchase of a new product. For example, your kids may have loved the brunch at a Hilton because of the make-your-own-waffles experience with the large-scale professional – grade waffle iron. This big waffle iron has large handles that lock shut and allow the whole unit to be turned over, enabling users to make two waffles at a time. You walked the children through it the first time, and from then on, they were on their own. The machine steamed and hissed as the waffles cooked. The kids loved turning over that big han­dle and in a few minutes, out popped huge, thick waffles. Forget the muffins, Danishes, pancakes, and eggs. All the kids wanted to eat were waffles, and lots of them. Wouldn’t it be great if you could give your kids the same experience in your home? Somehow the small, single­waffle iron no longer cut it. So when you got home from that vacation, you went to Williams-Sonoma, and there it was. Sitting next to the $50 Belgian waffle iron is the $300 KitchenAid waffle baker, just like the one that made the waffles the kids raved about on vacation. People buy SUvs for the experience of height, the roominess, the safety, and sometimes for all-wheel drive. These benefits are worth the extra fuel costs. Similarly, people buy KitchenAid for the experience; cost and size are thrown to the wind. Now Saturday can be a special family event as everyone relives a vacation experience.

What Jones (in a Field of Dreams scenario) knew and the team delivered on was that if they could make a compelling product that drafted off the success of KitchenAid, they would succeed—“If they built it, they would come”.. .and they would buy. The profit margins are enormous, more so than for many traditional Whirlpool products. Giving Williams-Sonoma a six-month exclusive for the new line added to its appeal and supported the price tag. The rest of the story is equally as interesting from a brand perspective. If you go into Target, you will see the same KitchenAid mixer (because this product crosses all demographics), but you will not see the Pro Line series. What you will see instead is a $50 set of KitchenAid products in Target red and individual KitchenAid tools selling for $20. This extension from upscale to box store is not easy to accomplish. Using the KitchenAid mixer as the anchor is an innovative marketing move that so far has paid huge dividends. The idea of updating and extend­ing the brand of KitchenAid caught the competition napping.

Like Dee Kapur, Jones has learned to see the other perspectives in the company with equal clarity and respect. While he has a keen sense of visual design and style, he also knows the issues that impact the bottom line—the core business architecture. He and his Brand studio directors oversee a group that includes industrial design, graphic design, interface design, user research, and human-factors engineering. His brand teams are multidisciplinary and work in an integrated way with other areas of the company.

Jones is one of the new breed of innovator. in five years, he has built his global brand group to more than 100 people from the 15 he started with, and his staff are all in demand from other brand – and consumer-driven companies that hope to hire them away and capture some of Whirlpool’s success. When Jones was awarded the Smithsonian Institute’s National Design Award at the White House in 2003, it was the culmination of his and his team’s success of a multi­year strategy to make Whirlpool the most recognized appliance brand in the world and recognized as a design leader. Consistent with Kapur, Jones can “see” the playing field; that is, his experiences have enabled him to see and understand the interconnected challenges of design, engineering, and marketing.

As a leader of innovation, Jones has several main goals:

1. Make the resources—time, space, money—available for the team to explore; 20 to 30 percent of his resources goes to innovation.

2. Use the resources to keep a pipeline of innovation going; on a yearly basis, the group generates hundreds of ideas, explores dozens of the promising ones, and then focuses on a dozen as possible product or brand introductions.

3. Make the tough decisions on which ideas fit the corporate business case.

4. Create an environment where everyone has the opportunity to contribute; to build such a rich team of talent is meaning­less unless you use that talent.

5. Track innovation, understand its impact, and make it visible throughout the company so that the value of the group is clear; what gets measured gets attention!

6. Hire people who embody both “book smarts” and “street smarts”—those who can use both sides of their brain.

Updated: September 24, 2015 — 7:41 am