• Transform magazine
  • December 15, 2018

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Brand profile: Kohler

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Kohler’s global faucet design strategy was revolutionised due to cultural research that helped the company maximise its product range, while at the same time driving internal change within the business. Brittany Golob reports on the shift

One of the most common complaints by foreigners on moving to the United Kingdom is the concept of dual taps – or faucets – on bathroom and kitchen sinks. Instead of the single ‘mixed tap’ in use elsewhere in the world, Britain has a cultural quirk that means it traditionally employs two separate taps, one for hot water and one for cold.

The reasons relate to water regulation and safety, but it has, over the years, become a definitive characteristic of British taps. Like Britain, many regions and cultures have distinctive, firm ideas and practices about decorating, bathing and hygiene. That variety makes the job of a home decor manufacturer complicated, and creative. “What’s interesting with a brand like Kohler is that its main expression lives in the products that live in people’s homes,” says Julie Jenson Bennett, CEO of strategic design consultancy Precipice.

Kohler is a 145 year-old American company with a global footprint and product offering ranging from taps to bathtubs to home decor, under the Kohler Kitchen & Bath brand. In 2012, it began working with Precipice on what would become a long-running cultural research programme to better understand the needs required by different audiences around the world.

Mark Bickerstaffe, director of new product development for kitchen & bath in Europe & Asia Pacific at Kohler, says, “The objective was to bring some form of understanding of the role of each of the products in our, at that time, very extensive portfolio of products. To make sense of that in the context of our customer and our brand.” He said Kohler worked hard to avoid using the common vernacular and language that defined products in the home manufacturing industry. In effect, Kohler wanted to “live up to what we believe the brand to be,” that is as an innovative market leader willing to take up that mantle on a global scale. “We don’t want to be one of those global businesses that is described by the local culture at our headquarters,” Bickerstaffe adds.

Little did Kohler’s executive leadership, or its design team for that matter, know but that objective would require a long term redefinition of the company’s product portfolio and design language.

One of the challenges was to shift the internal thinking away from simply designing things that the designers liked the look of to meaning-driven design. That also meant avoiding following trends too closely and stepping away from the company’s longstanding ‘safe quirky’ design ethos. But the change wasn’t made wholesale, it was gradual and it was, crucially, supported by research. Precipice undertook global cultural research to better understand the meanings that people ascribe to products like Kohler’s. The extensive study created different groups based on those meanings, rather than around style or demographics. Jenson Bennett says the research required an examination of the cultural phenomena that shape people’s opinions, actions and beliefs.

“When you have a baby and you think about what to name them, you think you come up with something entirely unique and then it turns out when they all go to kindergarten, everybody’s picked the same entirely unique name,” she says. “That’s because we’re all responding to
the same cultural patterns that are shaping what we think is going to be meaningful.” By understanding those cultural patterns, Precipice was able to analyse the bath and home products category to figure out what was important to people. The agency spoke with interior designers, people undergoing bath and kitchen remodels, conducted a survey of 100,000 people worldwide and examined cultural material to eventually create six types of meanings for faucets.

What Kohler found when it examined its product range through the lens of these cultural meanings was that its products overlapped. Many sub-brands had similar profiles and fulfilled similar needs. The ‘clusters’ as Bickerstaffe calls them, focused on specific needs, but left big voids in other areas.

“We fought the inherent tendency in our business to want to seek easy differentiation, but in doing so, changing the intended meaning of the product. It gave us a language that allows us to protect the intent of the design”
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Gradually, Kohler began to redesign its global range. “What the guidelines did was really help us to fight the inherent tendency in our business to want to seek easy differentiation, but in doing so, changing the intended meaning of the product,” Bickerstaffe says. “It gave us a language that allows us to protect the intent of the design.” Taking a global approach, defined around Kohler’s brand positioning as ‘gracious living,’ allowed the company to hone in on those six need states through its core range, but still cater to local needs as required.

Jenson Bennett adds that the meaning research meant Kohler could design products that match those meanings. But, “The trick,” she says, “was blending meanings in a way that was uniquely Kohler.” By doing that, Kohler would be able to offer a new statement to a group of people without “reflecting the meaning back to them.” Precipice highlighted a range of 14 product opportunities for Kohler to focus on at the global level.

Since 2012, Kohler has refreshed its portfolio based on the structure provided by the research. “Their entire portfolio of faucets is a huge commercial asset,” Jenson Bennett says. “You can’t change everything at once, but it gave them a priority. They could look at that strategic plan and we gave them tools to measure the relative strength of those opportunities.”

The strategy was one thing, but realigning the internal structure within Kohler to enable this change was another. Bickerstaffe says the creation of a ‘design storytelling’ approach helped facilitate that. It gave the external communications team the language through which to talk about the new products and strategy. It gave the product designers an objective to work toward. And it also gave the Kohler family, which still runs the business, a way to engage with a different approach to design that still lived up to Kohler’s brand positioning.

To align all these groups behind the new approach, Bickerstaffe implemented a series of design sliders that could be toggled to allow designers to target one need more than another. One slider, for example, allowed designers to create a product that was on the range from ’attention seeking’ or ‘blends with surroundings.’ Another went from ‘flimsy’ to ‘robust.’ Bickerstaffe says, “I think that started to help the designers to release their creativity.”

The result was a cultural shift within the 35,000-strong business. “That complete cultural shift is probably bigger than we appreciate at the moment. It’s something that we try to build on not just in the faucets category, which is where we started, but build it across into other parts of the business and into how we approach efficient portfolio management for the business going forward,” Bickerstaffe says.

The new approach sets Kohler in better stead to cater to its customers – both B2B and B2C – and to more effectively communicate internally and externally. However, it also prepares the heritage brand for a future that might look drastically different than today’s market. With the rise of smart home technology, Kohler will have to adapt. “One of the things that we identified with Kohler six years ago, very clearly, was that intelligence and connectivity was going to increasingly move into places like the bathroom and the kitchen. It would change people’s expectations of what a face or a sink or a shower is and how they should interact with it,” Jenson Bennett says.

By equipping Kohler with cultural research and market research, it can now better address those changes. This year, Kohler exhibited at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, prompting Architectural Digest to ask, ‘Is this smart toilet the craziest launch at CES?’ about one of Kohler’s smart home innovations.

Bickerstaffe says, “There is an open question which is what next? I don’t know the answer. We are still very much practicing and learning and we are still on that road to discovery because we are constantly changing. I think that’s how it should be. It should constantly change and evolve and we’re still learning how to do that at the rate of change at the world around us.”

Technology, and cultural attitudes toward technology, will eventually impact the home and manufacturers like Kohler. But, with solid research and a more cohesive approach to design, communications and brand positioning, the brand stands in better stead to face
those changes.