Cooked on design culture

Posted on 7 Apr 2009 by The Manufacturer

Good design and a consistency of design and branding can be extremely important to the success of manufactured goods, particularly those aimed at consumers. Ian Johnstone tells The Manufacturer about how the internal product development culture developed at Glen Dimplex Home Applicances has been largely responsible for the company’s success in a market where many British competitors have floundered

Glen Dimplex Home Appliances (GDHA) has established itself as an iconic British manufacturer. The Prescot, Merseyside-based company, which produces 350,000 cookers every year under its brand names Belling, Stoves and New World, is the biggest producer of cooking appliances in the UK and is about to become the sole remaining UK manufacturer of cookers. How has it survived when other British brands have moved abroad or been bought out? GDHA’s head of design, Ian Johnstone, believes the answer lies in the company’s internal product development culture.

The company’s history demonstrates its speciality in reviving well known UK appliance brands. Founded 35 years ago as Glen Electric, the company bought Dimplex, the leading brand in the UK electrical heating market and followed this with rapid expansion into the cooking appliance market, rescuing the ailing Belling brand in 1992 and acquiring Stoves and New World in 2001. All three brands are now performing well, with Belling currently named as the UK’s number one cooking brand (source GFK Group, November 2008, MAT Value).

With the bulk of its sales in the UK and Ireland, GDHA’s products are very much designed for the domestic market, making an effective product development culture, based on advancements in design, engineering and innovation, a vitally important component in our success.

The first challenge we faced in implementing a product design culture was to overcome the fact that we manufacture products for three distinct cooking brands, with differing customers. Operating multiple brand strategies in competitive markets has its challenges. While we accepted we would see some crossover in terms of technology and design, we had to develop an internal design culture that would support the individual values of all three brands and appeal to the customer, but that would make products that could still be manufactured, developed and delivered on budget.

Everyone has an opinion
Central to the development of this internal culture was to ensure we were involving key areas of the business in shaping and developing our product designs. We undertake monthly ‘open book’ feedback critique sessions involving departments such as marketing, manufacturing, purchasing, innovation and sales, to offer their input. This is extremely valuable — many of these departments, particularly sales, have more day to day interaction with customers and retailers than we do and provide us with direct feedback and ideas. The sessions also provide a good forum for showcasing ideas and technologies, as well as providing us with a way of ensuring any ideas we have are “on message” for each of the brands.

Our UK manufacturing facility has been a major strength in bolstering our internal design culture. Having our headquarters in the UK has made it much easier to ensure our products are aligned to the domestic British market. The UK has a specific and peculiar cooking style; we do more grilling than any other country and we have a preference for double ovens and single cavities. Being based in the home market allows us to interact with other British designers, developers and architects, keeping us ahead of the development of the modern UK home and allowing us to create products that fit in. In addition, our manufacturing facility offers us product flexibility and the opportunity to develop technology and multiple product platforms on a short timescale, enabling us to react to market requirements more quickly, reduce product development time and introduce successful products to the market, all things which are vital in remaining competitive.

Accentuate the positives
The cooking appliances manufactured across all our brands have been designed over time with a strong identity in mind. The design strategy for the business is based on key core values for each of the brands, each of which is appropriate for its own target market. However, developing strong inherent identities that are easily recognisable at consumer level does takes time to develop, and naturally it is something we have evolved over a number of years. Stoves and Belling were both struggling brands when they were acquired by GDHA but they had a strong back catalogue of products and some loyal followers. Therefore we knew it wasn’t about reinventing the wheel, but about capturing the important elements of the brands, accentuating the positives and bringing them bang up to date with the latest technology. Once we were happy with the changes we produced a ‘Brand Bible’ for Stoves, Belling and New World which outlines the values, customer profiles and key product ranges for each brand, ensuring every time we design a new product it fits the profiles perfectly.

For example, in the design of Stoves products, our premium brand aimed at the high end of the market, we focus on designing a product which is style conscious and contemporary with intelligent functions. New World, a brand targeting the younger start-out generation, is kept simple, fresh and forward-thinking while Belling, a family orientated brand, is the nation’s favourite. So, when we’re designing products for Belling we will literally ask ourselves “is this going to be the nation’s favourite?” If the answer is no, we’re on the wrong track.

Products which have been developed over time with brand identity in mind date back to the Baby Belling, which is celebrating its 80th birthday this year. The Baby Belling was one of the first table top cookers and the product which made the Belling name famous. We have now taken the original concept and evolved it, creating a technologically advanced table top induction hob called the Belling Pronto. The Baby Belling paved the way for other Belling products such as freestanding ovens and hob tops — even the freestanding oven. All of the evolved products have sustained the brand identity by retaining practical, easy to use and durable functions.

Keep hold of your identity
As competition in this market has increased, many brands have lost their identities and were forced to move manufacturing abroad to cuts costs. Sustaining a strong brand identity in the market has been crucial for GDHA and our internal design department has played a vital part in this. Off the shelf solutions may offer attractive margins but very often they compromise on ‘design language’, forcing a product to fit rather than developing it with the customer in mind.

In the current market we accept that there are occasions when it is necessary to outsource, either to retain margin or to access additional expertise but, even then, we retain a tight control on the identities of our brands. When purchasing an off-the-shelf solution from an OEM supplier, one of the design team will accompany the purchasing team to ensure the balance between attractive margins and a product that fits the intended brands’ identity is kept. By purchasing products in this way, we are able to choose a product that can be adapted to maintain brand identity and design continuity, while enabling us to redesign the product quickly offering more style choice.

While the design language for each of GDHA’s core brands is constantly evolving, the main product platforms or building blocks and technology developments form part of a slower moving, longer term strategic manufacturing programme. This takes into account, developments in technology, process innovation and new materials.

Our ability to react to changes in the market on a faster-moving, seasonal basis is helped by the flexibility of our aesthetic package which, through considered design at the early stages of product development, has been engineered to offer choice and variety without the need for re-design and heavy capital investment. For example, if we want to respond to this season’s colour trends, we can implement this through our internal paint process in a matter of days rather than months.

Whole range of styles
A good example of a product developing over time to reflect modern tastes would be the range cooker. The range cooker was initially developed by placing two freestanding ovens next to each other and has evolved to offer a variety of sizes accommodating consumers’ different living spaces, colour choices, quality expectations, cooking requirements and style.

Range cookers are available from all our brands, from the premium Stoves Flavours range, which offers six different colour finishes on the 110cm Range (including jalapeno, aubergine, papaya, sushi, coconut and pomegranate), as well as the Mini Range at just 55cm in jalapeno, aubergine, papaya and sushi colour finishes, to the entry level New World range cookers which are available in a variety of sizes.

A variety of colours and sizes means we can adapt the ranges in line with trends and seasons, continually developing the product offering. We also strive to create unique offerings, such as the 76 litre tall oven available on the Belling Kensington range cooker, which augments our strong reputation in domestic appliance manufacture.

The importance of product development culture has never been so apparent. The recession affects everyone, and consumers are looking for reliability, consistency and quality. For reassurance, consumers are looking to known brands and expect them to deliver quality, innovation and good design. Although the initial cost of internal development is higher than outsourcing, the long term pay-offs and the all important brand control that internal product development offers make the investment worthwhile.