Lenox’s New CEO Is Plotting To Get The Dinnerware Brand Out Of Its Time Warp—And Woo Millennial Shoppers
CEO Mads Ryder says the tabletop brand is ‘living in the past'—Here, the former LEGO executive discusses the cultural makeover he’s spearheading to usher the brand into the 21st century
Mads Ryder, the new CEO of Lenox, is unapologetic about the 130-year old brand. It’s out of touch, “uncool” and anachronistically chasing a china-cabinet owning consumer base that’s been fading for decades.
A cultural makeover is now afoot at the dinnerware brand spearheaded by Ryder, who joined Lenox in November 2018 following executive posts at firms ranging from Lego to Weight Watchers and Royal Copenhagen. He is enmeshed in a corporate soul-searching mission that starts with unearthing a nuanced, psychographic feel for the wants and needs of today’s modern—and younger—consumer, insight that has long eluded the company.
Ryder spoke with PSFK on Lenox’s revival strategy thus far, a central piece of which is signing on consulting firms with very 21st-century clients like Google and Facebook for strategic guidance, and on how the company can leverage its own legacy and stable of brands like Lenox, Dansk and Kate Spade, to become newly relevant to how Americans eat, entertain and live today.
What appealed to you about the Lenox brand?
The legacy of the brand, the history. What also appeals to me is that the traditional big players in the fine dinnerware section of the retail/online industry are still living in the past, and are not understanding how consumers [today] behave and why they behave the way they do.
We are still [catering mostly] to consumers that are not going to be here several years ahead.
Who is the consumer that Lenox does not understand?
If I could answer your question, then I would be a billionaire right now. I think we all are trying to find our new consumers. It’s the casual young people who simply eat and dine differently. They entertain people differently, and they live differently.
They still like nice products and they still want to pay for quality. They have a much more relaxed lifestyle, different taste, and they want to have something that works both for the casual lifestyle but also some dinnerware that can be slightly upgraded to be more formal, but more individual, when they have guests coming over.
Twenty years ago, I was having the same conversation with the tabletop industry. It was about the casualization of America, the death of the china cabinet. What are you doing to understand who that consumer is today?
If you look around our industry, those people you talked to 20 years ago are probably still working in the companies. Consumers today are totally different. We don't understand them [in part] because we don't have some of those consumers as our employees, or not enough of them.
We are spending quite some money and a lot of resources to find those consumers. We're investing in research with some of the best research companies in the world to actively spend time with consumers. They do research for Facebook, Google, Ford, Chanel, Samsung, because that's where the new consumers are with these brands. Also, to map out how they behave online, we are putting a lot of resources into our digital efforts.
Is this a first for Lenox? Does it mark a cultural shift?
Yes. Big time. We do not expect to get all consumers in the world. All of them sit around the table and eat their food at a point in time. No one is eating from the floor. It is getting that subset of consumers that will be the Lenox consumer in the future.
Who are your current consumers?
First of all, we love our current consumers. We would love to stay with them. Our current consumer is the more traditional fine dinnerware, or seasonal dinnerware, consumer that has been loyal to our brand for years. They can be between 35 and 85. They also might be the daughters and the sons who come from the homes of Lenox customers.
We’re just saying that there are a lot of new consumers out there with new behavior that we haven't been grasping, and none of our competitors have been grasping, for years.
What are you discovering so far?
We know that with the young consumers, it can be quality, but it needs to be multifunctional. It needs to be functional for daily use and for occasions as well. We know that it needs to be microwave safe, dishwasher safe, that's a must.
We also know that collectability is [appealing to twentysomethings.] When you are marrying some years later, then you continue to collect and you might upgrade what you have in your collection because you have more spending power.
There needs to be a reason to buy into our dinnerware.
I would like us to be able to develop products where young people would go home to their grandma and say, ‘Can I have those pieces from your old dinnerware set? I don't need all of it, but I need a few pieces because they would fit so great with what I just bought yesterday at Macy's.’
If we could do that, if we could reactivate everything we have done for the last 130 years by introducing something new that fits into the millions and millions and millions of dinner plates we have produced, I would be so happy.
You’ve identified an opportunity to address the way Americans eat, entertain and celebrate at home. How does that translate into how Lenox will merchandise to consumers at retail?
It needs to be something that can be casual, though nice, if necessary. You can buy a plain white Tshirt, and you can wear it together with a pair of jogging pants. But if you buy some nice jeans, highheeled shoes, put the white Tshirt on and a very nice scarf, that Tshirt suddenly looks like a million bucks. It's really enhancing the whole look.
That's the way we want to do dinnerware. It has to be something that can stand alone, like your bowl of yogurt in the morning, but that can also go on the table when you invite neighbors over and be quite a nice component in a nicely set table.
We need to inspire consumers on how you can prepare a table or prepare a table for neighbors coming over. I don't want to talk down to consumers by saying, ‘educate them.’ I would like to say, ‘inform them,' because what we know from consumers nowadays is that they look for and they seek information like crazy.
I don't think consumers care about whether it's porcelain bone china, fine bone china, or whatever we design it to be. I think they care about, ‘how do I use it?’ The jacket that you have on right now, do you know exactly whether it's wool, whether it's silk? I don't know if you do, but you know whether you need to dry clean it, you know what it goes together with.
We haven’t equipped our consumers with the same kind of knowledge about the dos and don’ts when preparing a table, and [asking them], ‘what is your style?’
What will Lenox’s digital repositioning entail?
We don’t see the digital consumer who's spent time online, who buys and shops and informs themselves in the digital world. They don't see us, because we don't get to them. What we are doing other than research, is that we are going to have a digital mindset be the pivotal point of the repositioning of Lenox.
What are the product designs and retail-merchandising tacks that are missing in Lenox’s strategy?
We present and promote our products in a very artificial way. You never do a table with six plates, a salad plate, several spoons and several forks. It looks like a dressed-up setup, instead of just showing how a table looks in a normal home.
What are the social, food and entertaining trend opportunities for the brand?
The need to be yourself, the need to be an individual. The same goes for a dinner table or the way to decorate your house. You want to have your own identity. This is our family. This is our house. This is the way we live. I think one of the trends is, I want to be Barbara, and I want to be Mads. This is the way I live, take it or leave it.
You might even have something you wear that's your signature thing. It can be a scarf, a piece of jewelry; it can be that you always wear green. It's the same in my house. This is the house where we have the most comfy chairs and the most comfy furniture, or we are the house of millions of candlelights. In my house, this is the way we prepare the table. It's finding that identity.
There’s a trend of allowing people and equipping them to be individuals, [while giving them] the dos and the don'ts. [In beauty], you learn it when you're a 16 year old girl and you go to a makeup artist in Macy's. You get to know the colors for you, and how you put the makeup on based on input and advice, they you get [sophisticated] over time.
Shoppers of home products and tabletop are knowledgeable like never before via the endless aisle of choice online and by getting their décor inspiration from sites like Pinterest to Houzz. How will this inform your brand mix and designer partnerships?
Once we get the results of our research, we will [devise] ways to execute this. We have been working together with a lot of designers and had success.
What we want to do in the future is collaborations that will enhance the storytelling of 130 years in the industry, and understanding the craft of dinnerware. Consumers like stories. They want to pay full price if there's a reason for that. If you can tell the story behind the Louis Vuitton bag and the hours and hours it takes to make it, people want to pay for that.
What imprint from your work with leading brands like Lego, Weight Watchers and Royal Copenhagen will make its mark at Lenox?
What we would like to do is something like we did at Royal Copenhagen, which started before I joined. We were successful in creating products that were mixed and matched with old products. We activated a 240-year-old collection, so you could literally take something that was produced in 1790, and mix it with [something new.]
How is Lenox’s retail distribution changing, and what are growth opportunities channel-wise?
We see a big shift right now, obviously, from brick and mortar to online. We have some big customers, the Macy's, the Bed Bath & Beyonds, the Amazons of the world, where we mostly have to follow [their growth online.] Online is a bigger portion of Lenox’s business than [brick-and-mortar] retail right now. Online is growing like crazy, but there will be a balance that we can get to at some point in time.
What is the sales picture for Lenox? What are the performance goals that you're looking to reach?
We are doing OK, but where we are struggling is on the discounts. There's a discount war going on out there—the promotions online, the discounting, which a lot of our retail customers do, then you also give coupons in stores. It's a race towards the bottom. Then, unfortunately, our retail customers are suffering big time because of that race. Our customers are discounting to get to consumers. I don't think it is in anyone's interest, because I think we're diluting what we're doing.
What do you see as a way to counter that for Lenox?
We have an interest in our [retail] customers being profitable. We can do that by developing fantastic products where we can justify a premium price. The way we justify that premium price is actually what we talked about before, add value, add storytelling, add quality and add reasons for choosing our products and not a commodity product.
What's your niche in the U.S. tabletop market and how is it distinct from your competitors'?
This year we’ll be 130 years old. Not a lot of American companies can claim that they have 130-year history. Not a lot of American companies can say that they came out of a founder [Walter Scott Lenox] who actually believed in being able to mix sand and water and put it into an oven and then work with glazing, a guy who was, over and over again, turned down by everyone then finally had a breakthrough, and ended up being successful.
Not a lot of companies started that way in the U.S. and are still here. We have something that appeals to the American life, American history and also, to the way Americans look at themselves. There’s a good story in that.
Something that will never, never die is quality. If we can spin the Lenox story around how what we do now [aligns] with what we have done for 130 years, I think we have something that very few of our competitors, if any, have.
How might we be surprised by how Lenox tells a story at retail a year from now? Take us into a retail store.
It is a good question because when you look at a retail [tabletop] floor, there's not a lot of staff anymore; there's not a lot of opportunity to tell the story. I think the story would be told online. That goes back to why we are investing now in a strengthened digital setup and a digital mindset. Because I think, unfortunately, we need to tell our story ourselves on Lenox.com. It means curating our website to that new consumer, and making it exciting based on what we learn from our research studies of the new consumer.
Go to any other consumer-focused brands' website and see how they do it. It's done with stories, by videos, by testimonials and by a lot of other components.
How do you envision Lenox five years from now versus today?
It’s a brand a young consumer would want to buy, and if you ask them about it, they would say, ‘Wow, a lot of cool things are going on at Lenox.’ They will say that without scaring away our loyal consumers and without being scared away by our loyal consumers.