NeoCon 2017: We've Seen the Future. Turns Out, We're Working In It.

Innovatude Newell Brands

We recently completed our annual pilgrimage to the mecca of commercial interior design that is NeoCon. Again, we are struck by the rapidly changing universe of design on display. We saw what was HiP, what won Best of Awards, and where the buzz was. As we reflect on the show, here are the four points that stand out to us: 

1. The death of the open office has been greatly exaggerated: Occasionally, we see articles alerting us to the coming backlash against the densified open office. Noise, lack of privacy and falling productivity are what forecasters project will topple the now pervasive workplace planning concept. Here's the catch. The manufacturing, marketing, and sale of products designed to combat noise and privacy complaints is now BIG business. Herman Miller's charming Prospect Solo Series is one example of an individual venue for focused work designed to help noise-besieged workers find some semblance of escape. So is OFS Brands' Heya Lounge. And every manufacturer has an offering that serves a similar need. Clearly the market is there, but the gigantic question is how to stand out.

2. Toto, we're back in Kansas: You see, it turns out we are going home. Never before has the influence of residential design on the workplace been so overt or so strong. We saw it in color palettes (subtle flesh tones, anyone?) and the styling of sofas, lighting, and rugs. The Merchandise Mart at times had the feel of High Point Market—and this evolution is a welcome change from the sterile, monochromatic white that has ruled contract product development and workplace design. If you think millennials and co-working environments aren't affecting how corporations think about real estate, NeoCon offers abundant evidence to the contrary.

3. If it's a surface, let's call it a whiteboard: After acoustic materials and solutions, the most common accessory was the whiteboard. Herman Miller offered test drives of Google's flashy but pricey Jamboard. Metal writing boards, glass whiteboards/projection surfaces, and smart boards felt ubiquitous. Around every corner lurked another entrant into what is now a crowded and highly competitive marketplace. 

4. Marketing hits and misses: Some marketers seized opportunities while others left some on the table. Perhaps the single most intriguing pre-NeoCon announcement belonged to Interface, who announced the successful prototyping of the world's first carbon-negative carpet tile, "Proof Positive." Make no mistake, this is a potential sea change in the carpet industry, and the implications are truly mind expanding. But the tile itself? Its design was pedestrian at best–an unfortunate missed opportunity. A ground-breaking product deserves an attention-grabbing design.

On the other hand, Buzzi and OFS continued their respective runs of great design and compelling experiences. BuzziPleat, for instance, took home both a Best of and a HiP Award. 3Form dazzled with their space—a tribute to the artist Richard Serra. And the temporary spaces offered intriguing new product innovations (e.g., Thinking Quietly by DarRan Furniture or Jabbrrbox One & Chromebooth by Jabbrrbox) and a great example of using 3D printing and rapid prototyping to test and launch new products quickly (WilsonArt and LaminArt). The new frontier for these innovative companies is to align their marketing (and the experience in their space) with their products.

Our own contribution to the show (above) was a temporary space for our friends at Rubbermaid Commercial Products, who allowed us to draw inspiration from retail and hospitality. Sparked by visual merchandising, we used paper sculpture to introduce motion to four vignettes; in each, the movement draws the viewer's eye to RCP's product. And with a tongue-in-cheek "Let's Talk Trash" tagline, there was no doubt what RCP was selling. For more on RCP's customizable architectural recycling and waste solutions, please click here

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Glimpses of the Future at NeoCon 2016


Glimpses of the Future at NeoCon 2016

The world's largest interior design party, NeoCon, ends today at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. Aside from product introductions, client tours, philanthropic events and awards galore, NeoCon also presents an opportunity to assess the state of commercial interiors industry. As always, the event delivered intriguing insight into commercial interiors and the manufacturers whose products are used to create the built environment. Here are my five key take-aways:

1. The open office, now largely devoid of private offices and cubicle partitions, has made acoustic products the hottest category out there: One could hardly walk a corridor without seeing another entrant in the acoustics category, another way of dampening sound in the built environment. It's an exciting category that promises to rescue workers from loud offices in the near future. 

2. Many of the so-called "second tier" systems furniture companies have catapulted their way to the top tier of innovators: OFS Brands made a splash last year with their extensive and impressive new introductions, led by designs from Silicon Valley's O+A. This year they showed not only that they intend to hold onto the mantle of innovation and design leadership, they also gave us a glimpse of what's next. And let's just say it may redefine how we think about work surfaces. OFS was not the only standout: Davis, Keilhauer, and Teknion all had notable launches that captured the attention of designers and Best of NeoCon judges. Not to be outdone, Knoll's collaboration with The Rockwell Group, and Steelcase's suite of office solutions stood out as well. But in this category, the design race is on!

3. Here comes Big Data: Early introductions of wearable technology that connects to your sit-stand station and the Internet of Things that surrounds you in the built environment are here. Look for Big Data to become a Big Player at NeoCon next year. The technologies exist; what's missing is the imagination to make divergent thoughts and technologies converge. When that happens, expect radical disruptors to redefine how we interact with the spaces we inhabit. 

4. New entrants are going to inspire designers to rethink who their go-tos are: Rubbermaid Commercial Products launched two new lines of trash cans worthy of a designer's spec: select sizes, finishes and materials that fit in or stand out. We were proud to be part of RCP's NeoCon by designing their space (see above). LogicData's sit-stand work stations and Framery's exquisite privacy pods also show the up-and-comer is going to take market- and mindshare. 

5. The flooring industry is undergoing massive change: Interface not only launched a new mission to take carbon from the atmosphere, it also added LVT to its flooring systems in sizes, heights and geometries that match its carpet tiles. In fact, as a category, luxury vinyl tile (LVT) was the big flooring story. Non-PVC hard-surface flooring companies (e.g., Shannon Specialty Flooring, UPOFLOOR Zero) were abundant this year, with products every bit as handsome as traditional manufacturers/distributors. And government regulations will catalyze growth in PVC- and plasticizer-free flooring in the next few years. As the trends change, look for mergers and acquisitions to proliferate and for nimble start-ups to give stalwarts a run for their money. 

NeoCon 2016 had a feel-good vibe, with designers and manufacturers finding renewed optimism about the economy. It also showed us the future of commercial interiors, and that future is incredibly exciting. Now that the industry has re-calibrated to meet the demands of a new generation and of getting a higher ROI on rent, it seems to be ready for the Next Next Thing. And we are too. 

What's the plan for taking your next thing to market? Innovative products require innovative branding and marketing to drive revenue and profit.  Standing out is critical, and marketing that delivers meaning and value to customers is more important than ever.  Understanding who you are, what sets you apart from the competition and how that is going to make a difference in your customers' lives will be fundamental to your success. 


High Point Market: Opportunities Abound


High Point Market: Opportunities Abound

We just got back from our semi-annual pilgrimage to High Point Market, the largest home furnishings show in the world. The day before we left, we received shocking data about the challenge of winning the attention of designers, who now see an average of only one rep per week—and that rep is typically a trusted advisor. Seventy-five percent of products specified come from tried-and-true companies, making it especially tough for a new company trying to break through. 

The Spring 2016 High Point Market was a festive event. New products were plentiful, new lines opened new possibilities, and the mood was inspiring. Optimism continues to reign. The bullish feelings definitely came through.

But appearances can be misleading. When we dug a little deeper into conversation—with heavy hitters and up-and-comers to the market—we heard the same thing: Everyone is looking for a way to up their game in this trendy, fickle environment.  

A new breed of showroom is emerging: More and more square footage shifted over to experiential environments. The glorified stock rooms were slow. Busy were those with a lifestyle focus, or that emulated rooms in the home, or both. In a showplace of over 2,000 exhibitors, getting buyers in the door is the name of the game.

Customer experience is a major focus: Manufacturers have been hit hard with the realization that Amazon and Zappo’s have created customer expectations that apply to them as well. Gone are the days when the B2B world gets some slack. Real-time, transparent information in the form of push notifications, faster delivery, lightning-quick issue resolution: these are all very real, very pressing issues for manufacturers. The need to design the infrastructure to meet these expectations is immediate.  

Create a robust online experience to stay relevant: Increased expectations online and a massive generation that relies almost solely on mobile devices for virtually everything have companies nervous. We heard small and large companies voice the need to get it right, but neither necessarily know the path forward. 

Our fearless prediction is that these trends will be the buzz at High Point Market for many shows to come. In a saturated market like retail, you’ve got be exceptional to be noticed—like Joanna Gaines. 



An Ass and Two Bales of Hay—A Tale of Brand Relevance

This donkey has important lessons to teach about brand affinity. 

This donkey has important lessons to teach about brand affinity. 

It turns out Greek philosopher Aristotle may have been the first brand guru. Way back in 350 B.C. he introduced the concept that would later be popularized by 14th century French thinker Jean Buridan. The story of Buridan's ass goes something like this: Place a donkey directly in between a bucket of water and a bale of hay, it will be unable to make a decision and, eventually, die of hunger and thirst. 

Turns out brand relevance works along similar principles. If your brand is as relevant to your customers as a competitor's brand, it will be hard for your customer to choose you. Without a brand advantage, you run the risk of having to win on price. Commoditizing to close a sale is a tried-and-true method, but compromising margins to win a sale isn't sustainable. 

Instead, imagine your customer placed between you and your competitor. This time, because you've taken the time to get to know your customer and what matters to her, your brand is more relevant. It's more relevant because your customer feels greater affinity to your brand. She feels she means more to you than she does your competitor. The distance from the customer to either brand is no longer equal; her path to your brand is shorter. She opts for you. 

When you place the customer at the center of your organization, and focus everything you do on her, you defeat this 2,500-year-old paradox. And you gain brand affinity and customer loyalty, which in term give you higher pricing elasticity and the ability to add to the top and bottom line. 

While Aristotle's tale wasn't written as a cautionary parable for brand leaders, it offers us a simple, powerful message: Stay closer to your customer than any of your competitors, and you can and will be chosen by that customer every time. And in that scenario, it's your competitor who will slowly die of hunger and thirst. 



Transparency: A Marketer's Weapon of Necessity

We've lived with a double standard for decades now. As consumers, we order and expect real-time information about our order status. We opt for text notifications when our package ships and is delivered on our doorstep. And, frankly, if something goes wrong, we're ready to hop onto social media and indulge ourselves in customer service shaming of the company we did business with—because we expect speed, accountability and transparency. 

When we step in the office, our expectations have typically been lower. As B2B customers, we realized real-time information is hard to come by. We held our B2B suppliers to a lower standard. And that double standard has evaporated. B2B consumers want the service they've come to expect from companies like Amazon or Zappos. 

According to a Robert Craven article in Entrepreneur magazine, "a recent study from Harvard Business School took a look at the concept of transparency in a restaurant setting where the cooks and customers could literally see each other during the food prep and dining experience.

The results showed a striking improvement of 17 percent in customer satisfaction and 13 percent faster service when customers and cooks can see each other. This is a fascinating look at the power of transparency, and it indicates that customers are happier when they feel they've been made part of the process."

As marketers, we are surely aware of the emerging demand for transparency. So powerful is the push for it that radical transparency has been named one of the top marketing trends for 2016. 

What this means is that we need to engage the customer, realize the relationships we have with our customers or those who want to do business with us is all there is. We no longer control our brands; social media took care of that in one dramatic flourish. The only choice is to embrace transparency, make sure it permeates every department, every decision, every customer interaction—and to be authentic, empathetic, and honest. Those who embrace the era of radical transparency stand to rise above the pack; those who resist, I'm afraid, stand to be swallowed by that pack. 

Be aware this represents a fundamental shift in the role of marketing within an organization. No longer a department where products are sent to find a message and audience, it now must drive operational decisions throughout the organization. Marketing becomes a critical role in the C-Suite. How prepared is your organization to think holistically from the point of view of the customer and ensure radical transparency?



Creating Competitive Disruption

In business, it's often incredibly difficult to create a tangible competitive advantage in the eyes of your customer. But we are seeing more and more often a new species of the same problem: competitive advantage that is ceded. Left unrealized. Squandered. 

Take this example: Company A can get deliver make and deliver their product to your door in 72 hours. Company B needs 15 days to do the same. Company A has tighter manufacturing tolerances and quality control, making it more likely their product will be right than Company B's product. Company A has HUGE advantages of speed and quality.

How do they tell customers about those advantages? Their sales people politely quote lead times and carefully avoid saying anything negative about Company B. If a customer wants to comparison shop, they have to engage Company B, and Company A's competitive advantage? Poof!

How do you avoid this mistake. Don't stop with competitive advantage. Create competitive disruption. We'd tell Company A to post lead times on their website, never mentioning a competitor. But the transparency of how Company A conducts business will put incredible pressure on Company B to do the same. Speed + Quality + Transparency = Competitive Disruption.

Want ideas on how to operationalize competitive disruption? Contact us. Your competitive disruption awaits. 




Why Talent Matters

We are working with a client who is in the midst of trying to maintain rapid-growth mode; for the past few years, after riding out the Great Recession, sales have been growing at enviable levels. 

Here's the challenge: As the president of the company attempts to attract the talent necessary to take the next leap forward, a lack of leadership in her existing team is making it difficult to attract top-tier new talent. The culture is great and mostly healthy. The brand is vibrant. And while many employees see faults, they also acknowledge that those faults are common among companies growing at this velocity. 

As it turns out, the president has had to make some difficult decisions this month, and fire people who have been there for quite a while. The president feared these changes, not so much because it was change but because of the timing. It was right after the holidays. But with some change management and consistent articulation of a vision for the future, most embraced the change. 

Here's the latest challenge. Because the internal talent has lagged in some parts of the business, the president relies heavily on consultants on the West Coast, or on other continents. And in so doing, devalues the opinion of the good people he has on staff. He's accustomed to relying more on those outside than in.

Why do you need top talent? To lead people from one plateau to another, to help hold the brand and culture in place. To integrate new talent. To manage the process of change. Why do you need to trust your good people? They're the only way you get from Point A to Point B. And if you don't show how much you value your top talent every day, they'll quit, and the journey from Point A to Point B will be longer and more arduous. 




I recently saw for the first time this new television ad for Toyota's ubiquitous Prius: 

My first reaction was that the ad was really well done. My second reaction, however, was "Wait a minute, didn't the Prius conquer this audience long ago? Is this speaking to the early adopter?" In other words, does this ad help Toyota sell more Priuses?

I did some digging and found an intriguing fact: When it comes to buying hybrids, image is everything. Quite simply, consumers will value a hybrid that has no gasoline alternative (like the Prius) MORE than one, like the Honda Civic, that comes in hybrid and gasoline models. Why? The Prius conveys an image. We like how it looks when we drive a hybrid. So much so that a pure hybrid retains more value longer than does an "impure" hybrid (one with a gasoline model option). 

So, why is Toyota pushing the multi-generational, green lifestyle image in the Rain spot? To sell more Priuses, Toyota needs to flesh out the story we as consumers can tell ourselves about why buying green is advantageous--even if it's not easy. 





For many companies, attracting more likes, followers, mentions, retweets and higher SEO rankings has become a high priority. Why? Social media and web analytics feeds a narcissistic streak that I suppose runs through us all.

But what if we focused on making the lives of our customers better, easier, delightful? Customer experience is not bleeding edge. There are great blogs, amazingly entertaining sites and Twitter pages devoted to highlighting whom is getting it right...or not. And there's proof in that pudding: Companies that provide excellent customer experiences can command 7% higher prices and are 13 times more profitable than companies that struggle with customer experience (data from Strategic Planning Institute).  

The C-Suite has caught on. In a survey of 300 corporate execs conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a heady 80% believe a customer experience correlates to higher customer loyalty. What's more, 76% believe it correlates to higher revenue and 75% believe it leads to higher profits (news flash: The believers are correct). 

Here's the gap, and it's a shocking gap: Only 46% of those 300 corporate execs work for a company that tracks customer engagement. 

We've all heard the saying that you get what you measure. Why are executives who "get it" not measuring customer engagement? Call Innovatude if you want to close your customer engagement/measurement gap. 





Earlier this year, in a New Yorker article entitled "Twilight of the Brands"James Surowiecki  argues that brands are waning--with the exception of the luxury space. Nicholas Bordas has taken some exception to this while still claiming that this is a dangerous time to be a brand. 

I disagree. It's a dangerous time to still believe that you are in sole control of your brand, or that you have the luxury of stasis. The speed of business is accelerating and not only your brand, but your business model itself needs to be reexamined and redesigned on a much more regular basis. At the center of that reexamination and redesign needs to be an obsession with your customers. 

We are in a human-to-human era of business, when connections matter more than experiences. Whatever business you think you are in, your real business is understanding the pain of your customers and helping them remove it. If you think of your brand as centering on serving others rather than disseminating an image, your brand and your business will be far more relevant, current, and necessary. 




How much has the world changed since the dot com boom? Arguably, that was the highest peak of the design world. Fees and work were plentiful. The only regulator we had was the number of qualified bodies and hours in the week. 

When the bust happened, we figured out how to work faster and to get the work done within the fees. We succeeded. Clients learned. We could do 13 weeks worth of design work in 8 to 10 weeks. So the pressure mounted to work faster. 

Here's the rub. In the decline, the forces that came into play are still in force. Faster. Longer hours. Shorter schedules. Tighter fees. What has that done? Blurred the boundaries. The difference between designers and manufacturers has disappeared. 

For manufacturers, you're being asked to participate by helping designers understand how to apply your product in your designs. But there's a catch. Design now happens 24/7. Manufacturers, are you ready? Can you provide product support at all hours of the day and night? Turn drawings around over night?

That's what I thought. This is what bridging the gap is all about. What does your customer need? How can you adapt your business to make the life of the designer easier? Help her design fast enough to stay on schedule? It's time to think of the pain and pressure your customer is feeling, and solve them. Design your business to help her succeed. That's what it takes. Let's get it done!






This is one of my favorite topics, because the economy seems to continue to accelerate, and busy people are being asked to do more while hiring lags. That's good news for the U.S. economy, but not such good news for a lot of the people cranking the gears that keep it moving. 

I spoke yesterday with a friend of mine who is the president of a company. His CFO had left and taken several employees with him. It was a bitter end to a bitter economy, especially in real estate, which is the industry in which my friend works. 

As it turns out, however, as he always does, my friend landed on his feet, maintained a steady deal flow, and is now growing and as busy as ever. I was extremely happy for him, because I knew how incredibly painful the downturn had been for him. 

Here's the problem: In his hustle to keep ahead of his flow of work, his marketing materials still show the ex-CFO and the employees that left with him. I see a lot of this, whether it is details that have been left behind as companies scramble to keep up, or failures to understand how the company's customers' needs have shifted. And I guarantee they have shifted. 

So, as the speed of business accelerates, your customers' needs are more fluid. How dynamic is your organization? Is it designed to keep ahead of the acceleration, or are you static and in danger of fading? Have you bridged the gap to make it easier and more appealing for your customers to do business with you? Now is the time to rethink how to innovate the experience your customers have with you, and to make it the reason you win. 

Why? A shocking 89 percent of customers who have a bad experience will find another company to buy from. And those that get it right? They can command a 7 percent cost premium and are, on average, 12x more profitable. Think bridging the gap doesn't offer a return on investment? Think again. 




Marketing and design are intuitive. I'm a believer in delivering surprises, little bits of delight that a buyer may not have known she wanted or needed. The skill, the art, lies in determining what those are. 

Yet in the consulting and design service business (whether design is architecture, interiors, industrial or graphic design) the other challenge is scientifically separating the client who makes decisions in a clean, linear fashion from one who requires iterations to understand what will have the greatest upside. Neither is better than the other; the art is in matching the process with the client, which requires knowledge or right intuition up front.

Last week I was talking with a friend who owns a development company, and he was wishing for a tool that would help him determine which clients were linear and which would be iterative--who will stay on script and who will want to improvise a bit. All design firms would be more profitable if they gauge this accurately before starting work. And again today, I was reminded that sometimes turning down a project beats forging a relationship that may not work for the client or me. 

What am I suggesting? It's equally if not more important to understand the nature of the relationship and establish some rules of engagement before getting engaged. If the personalities and expectations mesh, it will be a whole lot easier--and more fun--to work together. Whether you are a client or a service provider, know with whom you work well and with whom you don't, and make decisions accordingly. Life's too short, and great projects are too much fun to get bogged down in experiences that don't delight. Love what you do, like who you are doing it with.




Why do you need to design the customer experience? A whopping 89 percent of customers who have a bad experience with a company buy from a competitor the next time. If you can't afford to lose 89 percent of your customers, design their experience. Map their journey through every contact they might have, and make sure each contact adds what you want it to add to the brand experience.

Don't guess. Create an understanding of who your customers are, what they need and want, and how they perceive you. Make sure the understanding of your customers is widely disseminated and thoroughly understood throughout the company. Otherwise even well-intentioned efforts to create better experiences can backfire. 

Once you've developed a strategy for what you want your customers' experience to be when they interact with your company, design it. Test it. Invite your customers in to test it. Here's a great example: Marriott's testing ground, housed in the basement of their Bethesda, Maryland headquarters. It is here that the company designs the guest experience they want Millennials in particular to have with each of the company's brands. It's white box theater:

The future of hospitality, Marriott style. Led by a strategy, informed by a deep understanding of the customer, designed. And opened for feedback. 

Strategy. Customer Insight. Foresight. Design. Test. Launch. 

It's a great strategy for bridging the gap. 




I relaunched my business this month to focus on the growing divide between customers and companies, especially in the building products and interior design industries. Closing the gap catapults you into an arena of tremendous competitive advantage. The question is, why aren't more companies doing it?

First, you have to realize that you need to meet the customer where she is. What is her state of mind? What are her needs today, and how are they trending? In other words you have to have insight into your customer, and when your customer speaks, you need to hear her. And rather than fitting the customer's opinion into your corporate operational routines, you and your company likely need to flex to meet the needs of the customer. 

There is a lot of debate these days on inbound marketing versus content marketing (let's just say BOTH rather than OR). But without knowing your customer, you don't know what content will resonate, and won't be able to draw her into your inbound. Create an experience that matters, that makes your customer's life better, easier, simpler, more meaningful. And watch the opportunities open up. Bridge the gap by meeting the customer where she wants and needs to be met. 

It's a time of great opportunity. Seize it!




There are so many types of marketing popping up today. It's easy to be seduced by the promises of newer, easier ways to market. Here's the trick of inbound marketing: The inventors of inbound marketing give away white papers. You download, and your phone rings immediately. It's the trigger for a telemarketing call. 

Great! You say. It still has a higher hit rate than direct mail. This may be true. But so what?

Imagine launching a campaign that had people rushing to your website. Hits are spiking. Why are they coming? What do they want? What are you going to do to make their lives better? 

You can ask questions when you interact with your customers. But they'll likely just tell you what they think you want to hear. To make a difference, watch. Observe their behaviors. Or ask different questions. Ask what they think you think of them. Meet them on their turf. I once asked an interior designer how his life had changed post-Great Recession and learned he made all of his purchasing decisions between 11 pm and 2 am, when my company was completely closed. We developed a suite of new tools to make ourselves easy to interact with 24/7. Sales grew exponentially. We gained huge market share. Site traffic was up. But it was because we realized purchasing behaviors had shifted, and we adjusted more quickly than our competitors. That's what marketing should be: Observing what's happening, aligning your organization internally to deliver, and getting to market better and faster than your competition. It requires insightful observation, high levels of collaboration, and, above all, a desire to meet your customer where they actually are. Not where you think they are.