Viking Range: Building The Brand That Became An Icon

Viking Range: Building The Brand That Became An Icon

oysterDon’t Sell a Product. Offer a Brand Experience.

When long-time Ramey client, Viking Range, was acquired by the Middleby Corporation earlier this year, the purchase price of $380 million represented one of the highest multiples in the category. That price came as no surprise to those who followed Viking’s meteoric rise to become one of America’s top premium brands.

In the weeks since the acquisition, many people have asked us, “What was the secret to their success?”

Our answer is simple: Viking knew that its brand was about more than a 25,000-btu range. What the company sold instead was the “Viking Experience.”

This report attempts to demonstrate how Viking built its experience branding strategy with the goal of offering you ideas and inspiration for integrating an experience into your own brand.

“Going from zero to icon in 20 years was no accident,” said Time magazine in a 2007 profile of Viking Range Corporation’s experience branding strategy. As the magazine pointed out, Viking’s meteoric rise as an iconic American brand was largely based on “finding ways to make Viking an experience rather than just a product.”

It’s a strategy that Viking founder, Fred Carl, envisioned from the beginning. “I regularly reminded our people that we were a culinary company, not just a manufacturing company, and that was going to make Viking different,” he said. And by building a multi-layered “experience” brand, Viking proved over and over that it could create a win-win formula for both the company and its customers.

One of the most tangible examples of Viking’s experience strategy was the Viking Cooking School, located in selected markets around the country. This resource quickly became America’s largest culinary arts educator, providing instruction to more than 77,000 consumers, the vast majority of who were also aspirational consumers – with only around 15% owning a Viking major appliance. Viking’s research showed that the brand was highly relevant to these consumers’ lives, so the unique cooking school touchpoint was an important mechanism to funnel new major appliance customers to Viking.

Viking also offered a range of culinary products, such as cookware and cutlery, which allowed core customers to own an expanded lineup of products above and beyond major appliances. Equally important, this brand extension allowed aspirational customers who did not yet own major appliances access to the world of Viking – thereby giving the company a pipeline of future customers.

Viking regularly offered experiential travel opportunities, often accompanied by a chef, to locations as far-reaching as India, Vietnam and Italy. Its “Worlds of Flavor” travel program, held in conjunction with the Culinary Institute of America, consistently attracted not only culinary enthusiasts, but also practicing chefs from around North America.

A few years ago, the New York Times wrote an article about the “stove groupies” who make a pilgrimage to Viking’s headquarters in Greenwood, Mississippi. So Viking built a “Greenwood Experience” that included a world-class hotel, spa, restaurant and other tourism-related amenities.

When it came to event marketing, the company made sure that its efforts were as robust as possible at every local, regional and national event – including live culinary demonstrations, hands-on events and opportunities for consumers to get up close and interact with Viking product. “Viking is a living brand,” said Bill Andrews, Viking’s marketing director at the time, “and whenever possible, we want people to touch the product and smell the aromas in the air.”

As an example, when the company sponsored the Viking Classic PGA golf tournament, the most popular venue by far was the Viking Culinary Tent, where attendees participated in culinary demonstrations by renowned chefs such as Emeril Lagasse, Guy Fieri and Cat Cora – which in turn attracted thousands of new participants to attend their first-ever PGA event. This experience-based strategy led the PGA to recognize Viking as the “best integrated sponsor” among all 44 of their national tournaments.

This relentless drive to build an experience-based brand delivered a consistently rich and exciting experience deep and wide across the culinary landscape. The resulting cascade of benefits was clear:

Helped differentiate the brand against the competitive set. The “professional” category of super premium appliances that Viking created in 1987 had become crowded. Competition was inevitable, making it a necessity to create ways to differentiate the Viking brand from all others. Viking created the broadest product line in the category and kept its product line fresh. But as more and more competitors copied the look and features of Viking’s product line, differentiation beyond the product itself became a key ingredient to the allure of the brand. An experience-based strategy allowed the brand to remain distinctive and differentiated in the hearts and minds of consumers. At one point during the past few years, there were 13 manufacturers offering professional-style appliances, while only one offered a fully integrated culinary experience: Viking.

Provided greater opportunities to bind customers closer to the company. At a recent American Express Luxury Summit, Food & Wine Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief remarked about Viking’s unique ability to build relationships with consumers. “Viking is no longer a badge for consumers,” said Dana Cowin, “Viking is a part of their identity.”

Increased revenue potential. The advent of initiatives, such as cooking schools and culinary products, exposed the Viking brand to new audiences, new markets and new geographies, helping Viking grow – which was critical during the global recession.

In fact, when Fortune Magazine named Viking as one of its Breakaway Brands in 2006 (Viking was the number-two brand behind Apple’s iPod), the researchers specifically pointed to Viking’s experience-based strategy as a key financial driver to its success.

Granted, the Fortune “Breakaway Brands” study was published pre-recession. It’s a fair question to ask how Viking’s experience-based brand strategy held up during the economic crisis and recession of the past few years.

As the economic crisis exploded in the second half of 2008, Bain & Co. published a report titled “Luxury Goods: Worldwide Marketing Study.” In it, the authors stressed a growing importance for brands to adopt an experience-based strategy. “Luxury is evolving into exclusivity of experience; it is not only a product, it is a lifestyle,” said Claudia D’Arpizio, a Bain & Co. partner in Milan.

This forecast played out in another study published in March 2009 by the consulting firm Tom Julian and the Brand Asset Consulting division of Y&R – when Viking was one of a small handful of brands that were recognized for increasing brand strength during the recession. “The well-heeled are seeking a sense of connection between the world in which they live and the premium brands they consume, marking a departure from the longtime sensibility of detachment and superiority to which many luxury brands have played,” noted the researchers.

Brands that gained in strength and stature, based on the Tom Julian/Y&R sample of 16,000 Americans (whose annual income ranges between about $100,000 and $500,000) included Viking, TagHeuer, Bulgari and Four Seasons Hotels. The potential of the goods and services of such brands to bring people together or enable a sense of escape figured into consumers’ view of them as “relevant” and worthy of “esteem,” according to the luxury study.

Likewise, the consulting firm L2 Think Tank recognized Viking’s experience-based brand strategy in its first “Digital IQ” Study in 2009 – which illustrated the ability of brands to engage with consumers and the resulting positive effect on financial performance. In addition to noting Viking’s “unrivaled” online experience in the home category, L2 also recognized the company’s experiential, lifestyle content: “The Viking Life section reads more like a blog than a site, providing food, wine, and travel content for lovers of the Viking lifestyle.”

Finally, according to “The New Face of Affluence,” an in-depth study conducted in 2010 by Dwell Strategy and Research, San Francisco, Viking’s experience-based brand strategy was once again recognized for being among a very select number of luxury brands that remained relevant to consumers during the recession. As Tim Arnold of Advertising Age noted in a piece about Dwell’s research study: “These wealthy and would-be elites are actually looking for brand interaction – a dialogue – based on integrity, authenticity and performance. And not only are they equipped for interaction, they’re demanding it.”

So what brands do New Affluents find meaningful, authentic and relevant? According to the study, the best brands are Apple, Sony, BMW and Ralph Lauren, unsurprisingly. Crate & Barrel, Ikea, Whole Foods and Levi’s, too. Porsche, Lexus, Chanel and Viking, along with Target, North Face, Volkswagen and The Gap. Ironically, the majority of the study’s respondents told the researchers, “Great brands create experiences, not products.”

Which is what led the study’s authors to provide their final advice: “Don’t sell them a product. Offer them a brand. Better yet, a brand experience – just like astute marketers have been doing for years.”

What Viking demonstrated – in good times and in bad – is that its experience-based branding strategy was a critical driver to the company’s success. Equally important, this strategy helped Viking maintain its leadership position in the minds of consumers.

For companies like Viking, navigating their way through the recession, the temptation was to shed any “non-core” businesses and products. But Viking knew that this was exactly the wrong strategy for a brand built on experience. After all, consumers clearly see Viking as offering a special experience, as research study after study has demonstrated.

To that end, the company continued to seek cost-effective ways, in the words of Time magazine, “…to make Viking an experience rather than just a product.”

Of course, Viking’s product line was a critical component for delivering the Viking experience. The company’s R&D department worked constantly to introduce a broad range of new products and better features. And the company continued to seek out the best, most cost-efficient ways to deploy capital and expand a product line that dealers and consumers would find exciting and appealing.

But equally important, Viking also had a very strong, valuable group of experience-based assets that already existed and that helped it maintain the brand’s leadership position. These business units were as important in maintaining the Viking brand as the core product line itself. Viking invested heavily in these assets – and clearly benefited from its experience-based brand strategy. And while maintaining these business units was not an inexpensive proposition, the company worked hard to maximize each unit’s financial performance and the effectiveness of all of the units working together to the overall benefit of the brand.

As one chapter closed with the acquisition of Viking, another chapter began under the ownership of Middleby. Many people are keenly watching to see what happens.

Now that the professional category has matured and attracted so much competition, differentiating the product alone isn’t good enough. Brand differentiation will be equally important as product differentiation is, and we have hope that Viking will remain ahead of the pack in setting apart its brand from others.

In the meantime, as you evaluate how an experience based brand strategy might help your brand, ask yourself: How can we leverage our unique collection of assets to better differentiate us from the pack? Are there ways that we can deliver a unique experience that goes beyond just selling our product? Is there anything we can do that none of our competitors can rival – that will strongly contribute to us becoming a special, unique brand in the eyes of our consumers?

If you can answer those questions and execute well, then we believe that you, too, have the potential to go from zero to icon.

bio_cray_tn Chris Ray, CEO at The Ramey Agency

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *