A 111-Year-Old Furniture Manufacturer Does Customer-Centricity Better Than Most Manufacturers

A 111-Year-Old Furniture Manufacturer Does Customer-Centricity Better Than Most Manufacturers

As I was rolling around ideas for this piece, I considered writing a highly conceptual blog about customer-centricity in manufacturing. You know, provide evidence for the rapidly expanding expectations of customers due to companies like Amazon. And I wanted to do that. Almost to a fault, I love writing about conceptual models really smart marketers can use to frame their worlds and ultimately chart their own paths. As evidence, here are a few recent posts that do just that: Make your Marketing Budgeting Process More Purposeful and Less Painful Part 1 and Part 2 and The Secret Straightforward Methodology for Hacking Marketing Management and KPI Selection. In the end, though, it’s easier to understand what customer-centricity really looks and feels like – and the impact this has on an audience – by experiencing it firsthand. So, here I break down two “about us” videos from Knoll and Herman Miller to give you the customer-centricity play-by-play.

Side note: I am a midcentury modern fanatic and care more than is healthy about MCM design. I own a mid-century modern home, built in 1954. Among several midcentury furniture pieces reside five Eames Shell Chairs by Herman Miller, one of which I converted to an Eames rocker.

I love and respect the iconic work both Knoll and Herman Miller has done to advance good design. Both firms must possess a customer-centric culture to produce furniture that is still desirable half a century after being built. How they approach describing that centricity in these two videos, and the impact their content has, is quite different, though.



Throughout this video, Knoll misses opportunity after opportunity to forge a deep connection with its audience. Right from the start, it’s clear this video is centered on Knoll. Twenty-four seconds of black and white, wordless video centered on machines and manufacturing is promptly followed with the company-standard of trotting out long-tenured employees to brag about their time with the firm. From there, we get into the list of manufacturing facilities and how large an operation Knoll has. Knoll is clearly proud of what it is.

1m24s: The first mention of the customer, the user comes in the form of a single, generic sentence about the product being “incredibly focused on the individual user.”

1m29s: Right back into back-patting about the quality of the manufacturing process. This goes on in various forms for almost 90 seconds.

1m50s: A great opportunity to position their testing procedures as a mechanism for delivering customer satisfaction, Knoll instead chooses to let their testing cycle numbers stand alone and standing a little bit too proud at that.

2m56s: Even when discussing the Customer Resources department, arguably the place where the customer should be front and center, it becomes a statistical ego trip about how many orders the team is processing. And you think there’s a light in the darkness when you hear “We get very intimate with those” only to find the next word to be “orders”. That’s right, it’s intimate about the order specs.

3m22s: The lead in by Carl Hohmann, SVP, Customer Resources shows promise – “We really try to work with design firms, architectural firms, to get exactly what that firm wants”. Unfortunately, this statement is immediately followed by a product plug for the Rep Profiles product.


Herman Miller

Really, this is three little vignettes rolled into a single video. And admittedly, the title “About Herman Miller” signals you’re about to go on a company-centric joyride. So, when you first push play, it’s not surprising that it feels like a standard corporate awards video. Quickly, though, Herman Miller humbles itself with the self-deflating graphic depicting it as the smallest company to be honored with all three awards. In fact, they make their logo so small that most brand standard bearers would never have allowed it. Their logo acts almost as a period to the five other firms. And it’s at this point that you know the video isn’t really about Herman Miller, but instead what Herman Miller does for those it cares about.

The following narrative is all about Herman Miller, but not its manufacturing or its size. The narrative is about the culture and is posed as a question from the third-person perspective. This approach distances Herman Miller from the self-serving “we” language so prevalent in these corporate propaganda videos. And it makes the audience open to discovery, eager to explore what’s coming next.

1m29s: Though it takes Herman Miller a minute and a half to mention the customer – a full five seconds longer than Knoll – it never feels like that. The footage leading up to that customer reference is filled with people and products in use, with narrative about solving real problems (interpreted as, your problems).

From here on out, the video is laced with specific references to “you” and how that impacts Herman Miller’s approach to its work. There are self-deprecating references to making mistakes and being told they’re wrong by their designers. Heck, at around 2:10, they even show a customer map that places the customer dead in the center while a voiceover says “we do them for a better world around you”.

That first vignette closes just before 2:30 and the video immediately launches into a unique story in which the company introduces honey bees to eradicate paper wasps from their new production facility. As a result, these bees pollinated fields of beautiful flowers and produced enough honey that Herman Miller bottles it and gives the honey to guests. While this has nothing to do with furniture, so presumably isn’t really customer-centric, it’s in fact a beautiful sleight of hand. This kind of innovative, empathetic thinking is exactly why customers seek out a company like Herman Miller. It’s a clear demonstration of walking the talk.

The unlikely bee and honey story follows with a segment on Herman Miller’s production system. Contrasted to Knoll’s, this segment frames all of Herman Miller’s manufacturing process in terms of the customer. Namely, that their work with Toyota gives customers greater flexibility and agility with their orders without sacrificing on-time delivery. Ken Goodson, EVP of Operations, states with conviction, that “ we modify our work plans to fit you.”

This 6m16s video concludes with a quick recap that Herman Miller exists to “ build and design a better world around you.” They even replace the Herman Miller logo in the iconic red circle with the word “you.” Again, I’m sure the brand watchdogs weren’t quite as thrilled about that, but I’m sure customers are.


A Tale of Two Icons

Considering the enduring products both have firms created, Knoll and Herman Miller are manufacturers that both have customer-centricity within their organizations. But these videos do not tell that story. The Knoll piece is a company-centric video that has, unfortunately, become the standard in manufacturing, with way too much emphasis on production. Herman Miller’s illustrates a firm that takes on the perspective of their customers and cares so much about that perspective that they made a video with that perspective in mind. Ultimately, though, when it comes down to it, the biggest difference is that the Knoll video screams at the customer “LOOK AT ME” while the Herman Miller story confidently states “We see YOU.”

About Justin Yopp
Justin Yopp is a Marketing Strategist at The Pedowitz Group. He has spent the last ten years crafting business and marketing strategies for local and global businesses, with an emphasis on demand generation. Justin helps organizations accelerate beyond best practices to quicker positive ROI, increase internal buy-in and adoption, and capture more market mindshare.

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  • Posted by Justin Yopp
  • On 03/09/2017

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