Washers and dryers are the "tighty whities" of the appliance world. Typically hidden from view in laundry rooms and closets, the clunky metal machines are often far more utilitarian than aesthetically appealing. In contrast to other devices – such as comparably exotic espresso machines and fancy food processors, which sit full-frontal on countertops – laundry appliances are about as titillating as a Speedo-clad Kevin James.
Not surprisingly, launching a new line of washers and dryers is a fairly frigid affair. Sure, companies can tout a product's exterior finish or energy-saving features, for example, but they're still selling a clumsy box with the wow factor of sensible undergarments.
In 2013, this was the exact product-launch predicament that plagued Miele GB, the U.K. division of Gutersloh, Germany-based Miele & Cie. KG. Late that year, the firm began planning the U.K. launch of its washer and dryer (the W1 and T1, respectively), which it felt revolutionized the laundry experience, but which also carried the price tag of a high-quality appliance manufacturer. So to stimulate sales and awareness, Miele faced a formidable challenge: How do you generate excitement and perhaps a bit of sex appeal for a big white box?
Laundry List of Challenges
Tarting up its products wasn't the only directive Miele handed down to the London office of InVNT, a brand-communications agency headquartered in New York. "To help its products stand out from the crowd, Miele wanted us to make the brand sexy," says Dina Green, managing director of the U.K. division of InVNT. But the challenge was more complex than just adding rhinestones and lace.
First, while Miele has an amazing history of quality and innovation (launched in 1899 as a manufacturer of cream separators, it has produced everything from motorized bicycles and canister vacuum cleaners to coffee makers and steam-iron systems), consumers view the brand as rather cold, humorless, and impersonal. "Although Miele is top of the line in terms of engineering, it's also seen as straight-laced and aloof," Green says. "The brand is all about long-lasting quality, but not necessarily artistry." Since the U.K. market is generally less somber than its German equivalent, making the brand more approachable, Miele felt, was critical to both washer/dryer sales and long-term U.K. success.
The second hurdle involved the need for fast cash. The firm had recently infused its laundry products with a nearly $147 million investment, which included the construction of a new production plant and redesigns of all 1,600 appliance components. Generating revenue sooner rather than later was paramount with this particular launch, and Miele hoped to create enough excitement to prompt dealers to purchase washers and dryers for their stores on site.
Third, the product was expensive and functional almost to a fault. Since quality engineering doesn't come cheap, each unit ranges in price from $1,300 to $2,345. That's a cash outlay of $2,600 to $4,690 for the pair. "Plus, a washer/dryer set breeds indifference, rather than anticipation," Green says. "No matter how amazing it is, it'll never create the same buzz as a new smartphone or TV." Thus, the event would have to create the excitement inherently void in laundry products.
And as if all of that wasn't enough, Miele's event would need to impress a two-pronged audience. The company wanted press and influencers to tout the new products to the world. But the event also had to convince U.K. dealers to carve out shelf space for the pricey new models. If Miele could impress dealers enough to score real estate, it figured that it would generate sales revenue for years to come.
This dealer audience, then, included independent appliance retailers along with reps from department-store "doms" such as Harrods. Since these dealers have been there and laundered that a thousand times, they're as likely to be wowed by another product demo as Gordon Ramsay is to praise a fledgling chef. So when Miele and InVNT started planning the launch in late 2013, they knew that in order to drum up sales and awareness, and give the brand a bit of a fluff and fold, they'd have to devise a game-changing event that put attendees' perceptions on the spin cycle.
Sorting it Out
Straight away, Miele and InVNT realized that changing the game would also require some strategy alterations. "Miele made a gutsy move to shift its focus away from traditional events," Green says. "In the past, they typically relayed info via conventional speaker presentations." So rather than playing it safe, Miele decided to loosen its tie and turn its utilitarian appliances into the equivalent of laundry lingerie.
Given its new parameters, the team developed a radical idea. What if it transformed the launch into a multisensory experience with performances that represented those product features? And what if, instead of a traditional event planner, they brought in someone completely unexpected?
With that, the Science of Perfection launch event was born. None other than Kim Gavin – the artistic director for the closing ceremonies of the London Olympics – was enlisted as its creative director. Guided by his vision, the event would use artistic performances to explain how the products' features create that perfection. "The idea was to bring life to the product innovations, and to make a lasting impact via a spectacle that had never been seen before," says Dominic Worlsey, Miele's U.K. marketing director.
Gavin surmised that a series of performances – including everything from aerial-silk acts and ballet dancers to balance contortionists and tap dancers – could recreate what happens inside the appliances as a way of touting the features, while at the same time adding warmth, humanity, and whimsy to the brand. Gavin's artistry would be the main act, but then guests would see museum-quality exhibits to learn about the technology. Thus, the event would serve the needs of both dealers and industry press. However, to ensure that attendees could network with peers, Miele planned to hold one event for the press on Feb. 11, 2014, and an identical event for dealers the following day.
The next task was to secure a venue. But given Gavin's aerial acts, the team needed a distinctive location that would provide not only a bit of sex appeal but also a ceiling height to support Gavin's high-flying acts.
The East Wintergarden event space in Canary Wharf, positioned in London's financial district, fit the bill. Designed by Cesar Pelli and based upon the Winter Garden Atrium in New York, this spectacular glass structure features an Italian marble floor and an 88-foot-tall arched roof made of clear glass, which offers amazing views of the downtown skyline. So with the venue, theme, and event schedule established, it was time to get this laundry party started.
Let's do Launch
Dealers and press members were lured to East Wintergarden via an elusive email. Text read: "Miele invites you to join us at the launch of the W1, the world's most advanced washing machine." An email link then led recipients to a 23-second video titled "The Miele Experience."
Filled with energizing background music, the video featured text touting the association with Gavin along with dramatic moving images of silk aerialists, acrobats, and contortionists. At its close, the video revealed photos of the W1 and T1, along with the date of the event. (The message was customized so dealers saw one date and press members saw another.) In addition, InVNT hired a PR firm to contact key press members to ensure their attendance at the event. All told, Miele hoped to draw 300 people each night.
Shortly after 6 p.m. on Feb. 11 (and again on Feb. 12) attendees began arriving at East Wintergarden. Staff greeted guests, provided each of them with a set of noise-canceling headphones, and directed them to the reception area – a rather minimalist, low-ceilinged space whose parameters were defined by black draping. Here, guests sipped champagne, nibbled on canapés, and tried to suss out just what was behind the pipe and drape.
At 6:30 p.m., a mime dressed in white emerged from the drapes with a flourish. Popping open the portable step stool she carried, she climbed to the top step and mimed for attendees to put on their headphones.
With ambient noise removed – a tactic one judge hailed as "a brilliant move to create a totally immersive experience" – attendees heard nothing but a soothing woman's voice, which offered a few housekeeping details, such as reminders to turn off their phones, avoid flash photography, etc. Meanwhile, the mime's movements and facial expressions accompanied her words: "We want you to totally immerse yourself in the Miele experience. We hope you enjoy your journey."
The mime then slipped behind the curtains as staffers partially peeled them back to form a roughly 10-foot-wide opening; however, semitransparent scrim still veiled the entrance. As the headphones filled with curious sounds, such as children laughing, birds chirping, etc., guests caught glimpses of the activities behind the scrim, where a purple haze filled the room and special-effects fog rolled across the floor like ethereal tumbleweeds. Ballet dancers glided into and out of view, and the silhouette of a cyr-wheel acrobat creeped into attendees' line of vision as laser lights sprang to life and music played in the headphones.
Next, staff pulled back the scrim, signaling to guests to enter the inner space. Here, within the venue's glass-enclosed main gallery, attendees discovered a circular sanctum filled with otherworldly fog and a theatrical light show. Dancers dressed in white flitted about and mimed for attendees to position themselves around three stages.
Atop the central stage, a man dressed in white fiddled with a chemistry set of sorts. As the music slowed, a male voice started a soothing narrative about how the products save consumers time. "Time lost is never found again. Saving time is what's important." Meanwhile, the man on stage acted as if he was speaking the narrator's words.
Then, the man flipped a switch on stage, plunging the space into darkness. "You are now inside the drum of a Miele washing machine," the voice said. A honeycomb-like light pattern, representative of Miele's honeycomb technology that covers the inside of its wash drums, was then projected onto the scrim surrounding the room. This set the scene for the rest of the narration and performances, as each represented the product features in action.
Throughout the 27-minute experience, hosted by the white-clad laundry "scientist," narratives about specific product features were paired with one-of-a-kind performances. For example, at one point the narration talked about the W1's Power Wash feature, and how it blasts out stains with water shot from above and below. As this information was relayed, a man climbed on stage and removed a square piece of its flooring. Meanwhile, two fabric bands descended from the ceiling, and a Plexiglas cube of water weighing almost 13,000 pounds emerged from the stage floor. The man, a ribbon/rope aerialist, then performed over and in the water – twisting his body up into the fabric to ascend high over the cube, and then spiraling downward to dip his body into the liquid. All the while, laser lights blasted down on him from the ceiling, symbolizing the W1's water bursts.
Another crowd pleaser promoted the T1 dryer. As the narration explained its fragrance-application options, a dancer climbed into a sort of elastic sling attached to overhead rigging. Cabling then hoisted her high above the crowd, where she swayed back and forth, dispensing everything from ethereal, lavender-scented mist to rose petals onto the guests below.
All told the presentation included five feature performances with shorter supporting-role acts (such as brief appearances from ballet dancers and rhythmic gymnasts) interspersed throughout. While many performances comprised high-flying feats over attendees' heads, a few remained grounded, such as a tap dancer who stomped on a metal floor and some of the wash drums and dryer panels – all to demonstrate the products' durability.
According to judges, the experience was the equivalent of "Cirque du Soleil for laundry." "Creating an immersive and well-executed experience to launch laundry machines – of all things – was simply brilliant," judges said. "It was memorable, impressive, and yes, even a smidgen sexy."
At the presentation's end, the music and lighting effects reached their climax as a washer and dryer pair encased in a metal cage descended from the ceiling to the stage, almost like the messiah's second coming. And with that, the artistic spectacle was complete, and the technical part of the program had begun.
Attendees then removed their headphones to listen to a relatively conventional presentation from Miele's owners, Markus Miele and Reinhard Zinkann (great-grandsons of the company's founders). "They relayed some serious information about the company and its line of products, but kept it short and sweet so as not to ruin the sense of wonder and excitement that had descended over the room," Green says.
Next, staff ushered attendees out of the "wash drum" theater, and into a technical-presentation area. Here, attendees discovered four information vignettes, which InVNT and Miele designed more like contemporary museum displays than dry tech-talk stations. Plus, with lights from some of London's most famous skyscrapers as a backdrop, the space felt more like an artistic performance hall than the site of a product launch.
Miele bypassed stuffy engineers to extol the scientific virtues of the W1 and T1, and instead hired enthusiastic and entertaining hosts for each vignette, which featured displays of everything from an exploded view of the W1 to a demonstration of the company's Twin Dos feature.
To ensure that the brand seemed fresh, on-trend, and anything but bland, Miele enlisted Gemma Shephard to staff one of the vignettes. "Gemma is a celebrity fashion stylist in London, and she hosted a display we called The Fabric of Fashion," Green says. "She talked about how to use the machines to ensure the best treatment of your wardrobe. For example, she gave tips about how the machines could be used to launder a variety of fabrics and talked about how to properly load and care for the machines."
Still floating on air from the aerialist experience, guests glided through the presentation area, soaking up product details and noshing on more champagne and canapés. While they were free to leave at any time, most stayed for upwards of 90 minutes. During this time, members of the press photographed the products and interviewed the product specialists. But on day two, dealers didn't just taste the nibbles and talk shop; they opened their wallets.
"Not only did Miele hit its attendance figures spot on – as the event attracted 600 people total over two nights – but it sold enough display units during the two-day launch to completely pay for the cost of the event," Green says. "Plus, the event generated more press mentions and articles than any launch event in the company's history, including front-page coverage in 'The Telegraph,' a national U.K. newspaper." Additional press coverage appeared in C&IT (a conference and incentive-travel magazine), 'The Sunday Times,' and 'The Guardian,' among others.
But what of Miele's aims to change brand perception and sex up its big white box? Dealers' post-event tweets and social-media missives tell the tale. "Just arrived home from the jaw-dropping launch of the W1 pod-taking washing machine from @miele_gb. Prepare to be amazed!" one attendee tweeted. Others described the evening using adjectives such as "extraordinary," "brilliant," and "surreal but beautiful."
What's more, Miele stakeholders were pleased, too. "The launch event was much more than we hoped for in terms of both publicity and sales," Worlsey says. "After all, how many product launches actually pay for themselves in sales? Astounding."
It just goes to show, with the right event, you can overcome a laundry list of challenges. If you pretreat your audience with artistry before you douse them with the granular info, you'll be awash with success – and likely end up with some nice clean bills in your freshly starched pocket. E