How brands can make
people feel differently
about themselves

An interview with William O’Brien,
Managing Director, Sven Christiansen plc

This founder says he hasn’t given much thought to his brand, yet knows how it makes people feel.

Key points
  • Repositioning this company from being safe, reliable and conservative to far more innovative and design-led, based on the extraordinary skills to design and manufacture furniture that competitors simply can not make. 
  • William O’Brien says that the specific values of ‘service’, ‘value’ and ‘integrity’ manifest themselves in everyday actions and decisions, helping the company survive difficult times. 
  • Their popular Clerkenwell design studio presents an office concept to appeal to the way that customers feel about themselves rather than displaying products in a traditional showroom.
  • Colleagues on the shop-floor often have the best ideas on how to improve things. Just ask them. The more they are given a say, the more engaged they feel.

When a new business is starting out, its brand begins with a clean sheet of paper, as it were. The brand, particularly for a design-led business, is likely to be at the front of mind as the owners create a personality, mission statement and values and then set about implementing and communicating them.

It’s different for a long-established business, as William O’Brien points out. “We have never given much conscious thought to branding. What we now think of as our brand values have developed over time and naturally become part of the DNA of the business without us having to cast about to decide what they should be.”

The MD of classic and contemporary office furniture designer and manufacturer Sven Christiansen, has been in business since 1974, adds:

“Our brand values simply manifest themselves in everyday actions and decisions. It’s almost as though you turn around at a particular point in your history and realise what they are.”

O’Brien thinks that this low-key approach to values is not untypical of B2B companies – Sven Christiansen supplies furniture dealers or resellers who sell to businesses – it’s the B2C companies that really need to trumpet their values as part of their brand identity.

Nevertheless, he has been thinking of reiterating the values in the business’ catalogue to make public, so to speak, something that is instinctively understood internally. O’Brien perceives the Sven Christiansen values of ‘service, value and integrity’ as forming a Penrose Triangle - the iconic ‘impossible’ triangle popularised by artist M.C. Escher.

‘Value’ comes from our history. “We started with literally fifty pounds so we had to sell value,” says O’Brien. “Unless you can develop a very high-end design brand where you can charge a significant premium, for the general market you have to provide good value for money.”

‘Integrity’ is somewhat more esoteric. “In simple form,” O’Brien says, “it’s do as you would be done by. Don’t do just what’s written down in the product guarantee; if you make decisions in any given circumstance based on what’s fair then your customers will trust you and you can sleep well at night.”

Integrity also applies to the products themselves. O’Brien prefers that description to the word ‘quality’ since the latter has become clichéd and is hard to define. “Everybody says they offer quality. But what quality means at the lower end of our price banding and what is means at the upper end are clearly different. At the top it’s something that has been made by hand by skilled craftsmen and at the lower end it’s a massed-produced product, still made to high standards but clearly not comparable. So integrity means a product delivers value at the level people have the right to expect within a given price band.”

Abiding consistently by its values has helped the business to survive through difficult times, says O’Brien.

“When the economy is difficult, companies expand less and move less, and consequently they buy less office furniture. We had a 30%-plus drop in revenue in 2008 and the economic situation we have now is clearly very uncertain. Part of the reason we have survived and bounced back is by sticking by our values consistently.

For example, it would have been easy to get extra margin by selling direct and bypassing our dealers, but we’ve never done that. The dealers appreciate that and they feel we will be fair to them and be a good business partner over the long term.

“That flows through into ‘service’, which is not just about responding in a helpful manner but also about really supporting the product and fixing any issues which might crop up, not just sticking to the letter of the contract.”

Do such brand values need to be resolute? “Really core values are pretty fixed,” O’Brien replies. “But companies and society evolve over time so you have to keep them under review. Our values are pretty timeless but there’s always the chance that what matters to us or clients might start to change and that could cause us to revisit them.”

He goes on: “Sometimes as a company you change the direction of travel and that changes how you see yourself, which then becomes integrated into your DNA and how you communicate to the client base. For example, we have evolved over recent years from a supplier viewed as safe and reliable, but perhaps too conservative and a bit boring, to being much more innovative and design led. We had grown into a big version of a cottage industry, and we realised we needed to streamline and integrate all our processes better, to enable us to efficiently supply all our new designs without tripping over our own feet.”

With that in mind, the business has been introducing lean manufacturing techniques and investing more heavily in leading-edge machinery which in turn, says O’Brien, as supported the evolution of the brand. ‘Disruptive’ is a word often applied in such cases but O’Brien dislikes the expression. “It’s certainly an exciting journey but we get people to buy into what we are doing. We try to lead rather than push.”

“We used to have a traditional showroom in what used to be the furniture centre of London, where we tried to show everything. I think it lacked soul. We moved to the industry’s new location of Clerkenwell and opened a small design studio, displaying a more limited selection of products, in much more intimate setting designed to communicate who we are as a company as much as the products we make.”

This kind of evolution might change surface perceptions of the business but it doesn’t change the core values, says O’Brien.

Crucially, the design studio enables customers to see how the furniture looks in a real office setting. “Our old showroom was about what our products looked like: our design studio is more about how people feel about them,” says O’Brien. “You would be amazed at the number of times we sell people exactly what we have on display. Clients will come and start touching and feeling and saying ‘that’s what I want my office to look like’ and they end up buying exactly what is on show: the same configurations, the same finishes; they buy into the whole concept.”

It’s important for a business like Sven Christiansen to keep abreast of trends; meeting booths and height adjustable desks are current examples. “People think office furniture design is driven by practical needs,” says O’Brien. “But it’s just as often driven by perceptions of what contemporary offices should look like. We’re not big enough to set the agenda for office design, but we respond to it.”

He thinks furniture design could soon be influenced by a possible move away from open plan offices.

“There is a big issue with open plan in terms of distractions and the inability to have private conversations. That’s the reason for the growth in breakout areas. I think there will be a realisation that people need more privacy.”

O’Brien ponders the idea that it’s easier to create a strong brand if you are making a product that is both visually attractive and inherently desirable. “If you are selling something like McLaren cars, you can leverage buckets of emotional appeal,” he says. “It’s got to be much harder if you are producing a component of something else. For example, my brother designs power supplies for a major internet equipment manufacturer. In their case, the key brand value is 100% reliability, which is a much more challenging attribute to communicate than style or status.” 

He adds: “Furniture is a mixed bag in that respect. Some of it is workaday and lacking emotional appeal but some takes real skill to make and can stop you in your tracks and make people go ‘wow!’ When I see a particular table at the factory, which I know is the result of extraordinary skill and passion on the part of our veneer stitchers, I always think ‘I hope whoever gets that piece of furniture understands what went into it’.”

Indeed, one of the things that sets the business apart is its “extraordinary” design and manufacturing skills. “That enables us to create things that most of our competitors simply cannot make,” says O’Brien.

By keeping most of the elements of production in house – the majority of the 140 staff are based in the factory in the West Midlands - the company is able to take on bespoke work and about 20% of what it makes is non-standard in some way.

“We have state of the art CNC machining centres alongside craftsmen with traditional cabinet-making skills who hand-craft solid timber components,” says O’Brien with understandable pride. “We stitch our own upholstery, cut and weld our own metal frames, and we lay our own veneers. It means we combine the best of custom and high-volume production. We can make almost anything.”

Whether they should make anything is a moot point. As O’Brien says:“Making ‘specials’ is a key part of our appeal but also one of our biggest challenges. Specials take up the time of our most skilled colleagues, and in the time it takes to make even a relatively simple special we could have made ten standard items. And every special is effectively a prototype that we have to get right first time.”

He likes to encourage creative thinking beyond the obvious areas of design and manufacture. “Colleagues on the shop-floor constantly surprise me with their ability to think creatively and come up with the most remarkable solutions that management hadn’t thought of,” says O’Brien. “The people actually doing the work often have the best ideas about how to improve things - if you encourage them to speak up. For example, production staff have come up with innovative ideas for transporting panels to the loading bay, for processing waste and improving the layout of their working environment. The more we give people a say, the more engaged they feel.”

He admits pragmatically to being no creative himself but sees his role as encouraging those who are, as he leads “the overriding vision of where we want to be and how to get there”. In pursuit of that, he likes to spend time on the shop floor.

Business books will exhort you to work on the business and not in the business. That’s good advice - you have to make time for the big picture and there are only so many hours in the day - but I feel strongly that it’s necessary to stay engaged with the day-to-day operations as well. The time I spend in the factory is absolutely invaluable. It’s the chance conversations you have there, that ensure you really have your finger on the pulse of the business.”

Digital technologies are naturally changing the way brands are communicated; for example, Sven Christiansen is doing more social media and most of its product pictures are computer-generated in house rather than photography. Although the price list is still offered in print format, because some customers prefer it that way, increasingly Sven Christiansen are moving over to the on-screen PDF version.

“Our customers are realising that the electronic version, with embedded hyperlinks throughout, is now much faster to navigate than flipping through paper pages,” says O’Brien. “And more people now have two monitors, so they can have a tender on one screen and our price list on the other.” There are other benefits of going digital: “We can continually update,” O’Brien explains, “it’s more environmentally friendly and there is no print cost.”

As for internal communication of the brand, O’Brien thinks that brand values are better disseminated organically, than through training. “Trying to train people in a meeting room about what a brand can provide a superficial understanding, but if you can make it more of an instinctive reaction that comes from living it through every-day interactions, that would be much more meaningful. And you can’t do that in a half hour before lunch.

“When my graphic designer left at short notice, his replacement very quickly absorbed the team’s commitment to getting an urgent project put to bed. There was obviously a willingness on everyone’s part to get it done, and that was communicated in a way you could never do in a classroom instruction. I feel a brand’s values and ethos go much deeper when they are lived rather than taught.”

Researched and written by Decision Magazine as part of a special report commissioned by Greenfisher, called ‘Business As Unusual - Secure the Future of your Brand’.

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