I made a note before yesterday’s post, and so I'll make a note before today's also. I am post-dating these and filing them late as it has been all action here in Switzerland. That being said, I am trying to keep up and am happy to report that the experience here has been so amazing and has provided so many rich avenues to explore in this blog that I have have ideas for lots of writing for the coming days and weeks. Should keep me busy on the plane on the way home.
So, day two! Well I started at the Frank Gehry designed Vitra Center with a presentation on Vitra originality, and their goal of spreading that message around the world. This is obviously important to me because that is the goal of the program that I am taking part in, but I have also become more and more interested at looking at the methods that companies that I am interacting with employ to interact with current and potential customers. Vitra approaches the problem in a “positive” manner, preferring not to talk about counterfeits and their deficiencies at all, but rather uses the story of the product and its designer to emphasis the originality which they stand for. An example of this is the Panton chair, which started as a sketch and a dream which no manufacturer was willing to take on board as they saw the project as undo-able. A smaller company at the time Vitra took on the task and worked with Panton for many years to test, develop and perfect the form and manufacturing, and together they created an icon.
Vitra's vision for spreading these stories (alongside their more traditional means) is a traveling installation at showrooms and dealers which focuses on certain designs and the stories behind them, which seems like a great way to link the narrative of the product to the product itself. So the critical view on this..? Maybe its easier to talk quickly about Vitra's demographics in terms of their customer: think 40+ with disposable income. The reason this is important to me, is that when listening to all of the ideas which are being shared and explored, I have to keep in mind that these are expressly not aimed at me. Vitra wants to encourage younger people to invest in quality furniture, but engagement with them is largely wasted (except for brand recognition and exposure) as they are generally unable or unwilling to afford many of the pieces Vitra produces. For a brand associated with high-living, high-fashion and quality, this distance between itself and a large portion of people who would love to get on-board seems a really interesting problem I might not have considered before (or had only considered from a very one dimensional perspective).
Next was a meeting with the head of Marcom—not a graphic novel publisher as the name might suggest, but an abbreviation of marketing-communications. Here I got further insight into how Vitra relates to its own customer base and how they tie their own ideals to those of their customer. Vitra has a few very core ideals which it represents through its marketing (and generally thought the company in general). One of these is the Eames’s trait of collaging an environment within ones home, and the more organic growth of an identity which intersects with culture rather than just brand. This lines up pretty well with another, the promotion of home heritage and the heritage of home products. This means that these items should have a life and that life is even beyond one individual, but can also be represented through the passing-down of these items from one generation to another. Within Marcom, “Listen and try” is the mantra by which they live. Marketing campaigns are led by desires within company or customer needs and come from the heart of the company (the Vitra campus).
Without getting too in-depth here, I wanted to look at a business-y aspect of the company for a moment, because I think it is interesting as an outsider. Looking at Vitra, knowing of it as a design observer and student, it seems its focus is in B2C (business-to-consumer), as this is where we might see more iconic advertisements or the more outrageous pieces of furniture. Of course B2B (business-to-business) is in fact the main income for the company, selling large numbers of systems to corporate or hospitality settings. The reason that I bring this up, is that when you consider how incredibly different these two segments of the market are and what they’re needs are, Vitra attempts to speak to all of them with one voice. Imagine how hard it is to compose a story which reaches all segments equally (no mentioning culture specific holidays, etc). Beyond this difficulty Vitra recently centralized its social media taking separate Vitra country accounts and combining into one, which definitely makes sense, but at the same time try to compose a story which speaks to all cultures equally. This is a really interesting problem in my eyes, and one that usually those of us who are still being educated never get to see or even consider, and the earlier we start to think about the depth of these type of problems, the more prepared we might be. One thing Vitra is test here is a hightened interaction between the brand and its customers on social media—having them post customer led stories and interact with the brand to create a community and also a more direct relationship.
Along side this, Vitra is a essentially a manufacturing brand which relies on dealers and showrooms to sell its products and this comes with the difficulty that they don’t actually get to really have a direct interaction with their customers, only a proxy connection through the dealers. To this end, they have started an e-commerce segment of the business, but obviously this in itself is in direct competition with dealers. Vitra marketing is interesting due to reliance on print supplements too, as currently their interaction with dealers and customers is a very specific person, but also that the brand is all about physicality and texture. Going back here to the demographic—a potentially older, more wealthy individual—this too is reflected in the people who actually sell the items. Therefore Vitra is fairly limited in how they can communicate, moving in a tech heavy direction too quickly could alienate both the client and the dealers. Another super interesting problem within the company.
Vitra is definitely not letting this stop them from experimenting though, they moving into more social media engagement and testing more interactive tools like task-chair microsite and interactive manuals for their chairs. Honestly, I expected the discussion around social media to be fairly boring, but it was incredibly interesting in terms of Vitra’s attempts to engage people and make an object desirable, but ensuring that they are also educating them enough at the same time so that they don't buy a counterfeit, either by accident or due not understanding the long-term cost. Stick with me here, we’re nearly at the end of the day.
Obviously, one of the most important things to learn about at Vitra is the process of product development. Vitra work with some of the most well know and talented designers in the “biz”, so it was very interesting to hear how this relationship between these individuals and company occurs. As a family owned company, the process is incredibly organic—and maybe that’s why so many designers love working with this brand. Either the company might define an opportunity space or problem, or a designer may approach them with something which they want to explore (as happened famously with Panton). When Vitra defines an interest, designers are picked by their characteristics to ensure they line up with the brief of the project in terms of its nature and needs. The process is an incredibly interesting one, which involves a lot of back and forth, but huge freedom to the designers and leads to potentially iconic and typology defining designs. The company also has access to a huge wealth of designs through the estates of previous designers like the Eames.
The day was capped of with a tour of some internal spaces, including the fabulous Citizen Office concept, which I cannot provide sufficient information on, but there is a great history of it here. Now it may look fair regular, in terms of a open plan community work space, but this was conceived and created in the early 90s before that experience was synonymous with offices. I also was able to tour inside some of the internal showroom spaces used to show larger B2B clients potential solutions which Vitra is able to offer.
As you might be able to tell, the days here have been long, in-depth, but interesting as hell.