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International Interior Design Association

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The Power to Engage

By Alice Edland

"Good design by a manufacturer or retailer establishes customer confidence. Good design is about detail, and paying attention to detail makes for a better product and more satisfied customers."
—Alice Edland

Within the retail sector, design can evoke a strong sense of consumer confidence and ownership, empowering shoppers to take the plunge and make a purchase. It has the ability to stamp a distinct mark in the minds of buyers and convince them to return time and again to a particular store or brand. It makes a strong statement about the Kohler Co.’s marketing savvy and skill that its headquarters are ensconced in Kohler, Wis. — one of the nation’s first planned communities and home to Kohler’s American Club, a AAA five-diamond resort that includes the Kohler Waters Spa and Golf Course. Perhaps best known for its bathroom and kitchen fixtures, Kohler brands also include several lines of furniture and home accessories, as well as an additional golf resort destination in St. Andrews, Scotland. Perspective spoke with Alice Edland, Kohler’s Group Vice President for Hospitality and Real Estate, about how Kohler design and these “Kohler experiences” work together to translate into sales for the company.

The Kohler Waters Spa was created as part of the company's American Club five-diamond resort in order to improve the guest experience and give potential customers an innovative way to experience Kohler products.

Blackwolf Run Clubhouse at The American Club Resort, home of Kohler's Waters Spa and Golf Course, was created, in part, to give guests an activity in the winter, when golfing is not an option.

During afterhours at Kohler's Design Center, customers can try products such as tubs and showers.  Kohler's 36,000-square-foot, three-level Design Center. The company also boasts a brand-new showroom at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago.

How does design influence the buying habits of customers?
Good design by a manufacturer or retailer establishes customer confidence. Good design is about detail, and paying attention to detail makes for a better product and more satisfied customers. When a product or service is designed well, it gives the buyer confidence that it will work well and meet their needs.

How can design contribute to the branding of a particular product or company, and what are the effects of this on consumers?
The Kohler Co. has used a lot of leading designers, especially in our furniture design. Barbara Barry designed for us at one time, and now we have Jacques Garcia and Thomas Pheasant, among others. Using leading designers, along with our expertise in manufacturing, gives us confidence that the items will work well and look terrific, which adds strength to the Kohler brand.

Rather than developing one particular look, Kohler offers a range of designs for a variety of tastes. Our Baker furniture has traditional lines, and our Thomas Pheasant accessories are quite distinctive. Customers may not instantly realize they’re Kohler, but if they’re familiar with the designers, they’re likely not surprised to learn Kohler is working with them.

What motivates a business executive to make a substantial investment like a spa to increase product awareness and, therefore, influence a purchase?
Kohler’s mission statement says we are to “increase the level of gracious living” for our customers. Under that umbrella, we manufacture products for homes, and we also provide services and experiences for our customers.

Since 1985, we have had a 36,000-square-foot, three-level Design Center where customers can walk through and look at our products. I’ve been with Kohler for about 25 years, and every time I walk through the Design Center, I walk out and feel inspired to do something at home. Looking is inspiring, but we’ve found that experiencing adds a whole level of understanding a product and what it’s like to be in an environment where those products are used.

The Design Center staff found when it first opened that people came in and wanted to try the products, particularly the tubs and showers. They do allow customers to do that after-hours, but now, customers also can walk down the street, and in 20 minutes, be in a robe and a lovely chair in a lounge area getting ready to have a soak treatment in a tub at the Kohler Waters Spa at The American Club. That’s a whole different way of marketing products than just looking at them.

The spa business was actually more driven by a desire to improve the guest experience at our hotel, rather than by marketing. Golf is terrific in the Summer, but in the Winter, we needed some indoor activities, and the spa seemed like a natural option. We also knew that potential Kohler home products customers came to our resort, and the spa provided a fun and interesting opportunity for them to experience our products.

We provided some spa services in Sports Core, our heath and racquet club, before the spa opened in 2000, but we built the separate spa within the hotel grounds so we could concentrate on using more Kohler products and provide more services incorporating water. Spa guests can spend time in a sok tub with color therapy and unique water features, such as effervescent bubbles or a special shower, and then have a massage. We’ve worked to integrate different water products that clients could incorporate into their homes.

Have you had the results you hoped for since the spa opened?
We know the Kohler Waters Spa does influence product awareness and purchasing, but the question is, to what extent? Our spa reception desk has a notebook that provides details about all the spa elements, including paint colors, tiles and other things in the environment, because guests always ask, “What’s that yellow paint in my room?” We don’t make the paint, but we can tell them. That sort of interest indicates that when people come here, they are very attuned to the environment, and they want to know where they can go to purchase its components. It’s not often that someone comes to a spa and asks about the paint, but here, the clients are in an environment where they’re clearly thinking about their home experience. Maybe we should form some sort of partnership with a paint company!

Do the Design Center and spa facilities serve similar or different purposes in the Kohler marketing strategy?
They’re similar in that both expose customers to products and provide something fun and interesting to do. Customers may learn about the spa from displays at the Design Center, but it is not a particularly common occurrence that customers immediately walk down the street to the resort. However, if someone is at the Design Center — close to 200,000 people per year visit — they may become aware of the spa and become a customer at some point. The spa also works a little differently within our marketing strategy because it is first and foremost a part of the resort experience. Guests may be there for a business meeting, and their exposure to Kohler products is incidental.

What successes have been attributed to the strategy of investing in an experience for consumers?
For Kohler, our biggest success is establishing ourselves as a lifestyle brand. It’s not just about plumbing or furniture, but a lifestyle. We provide products and an enjoyable way to experience the products. Our golf courses are world-renowned, and unlike many others, they feature state-of-the-art Kohler bathrooms. It has been fun to take the company-owned land and build beautiful golf courses and resorts. We continue to find ways to cross-market and expose people to our products.