Sunbrella marks 50 years of innovation
Cinde Ingram -- Casual Living, February 9, 2011
Sunbrella performance fabrics are finding placements indoors as well as outdoors.
Commitment to innovation for a product that performs for its customers and the end consumer remains a constant, woven through the Sunbrella story.
"It's a partnership between us and our customers to make all of us successful to the consumer and deliver what they're looking for," said David Swers, vice president and assistant general manager. "We want to continue to work with our customers. We want to be the first choice for them to come to us also when they have ideas."
The 50th anniversary celebration kicked off in the fall with design events for the decorative jobber, interior design and media audiences in New York, followed by special events at marine, furniture and industrial trade shows. In addition, consumer and trade advertising campaigns will run throughout 2011 along with publication of a Sunbrella brand history book and video.
Sunbrella fabrics originated from a fortuitous confluence of business interests in the late 1950s. Glen Raven, which had been making cotton awning fabrics since the early 1890s, needed a way to improve its product and differentiate itself in a commodity market. Roger Gant Jr., who was the manager of Glen Raven awning fabric business in the late 1950s, recognized opportunity when he talked with Monsanto, which had created a high-performance synthetic fiber and was eager to find a commercial application.
"It's a quirk of history that another mill turned down the opportunity to work with Monsanto's new acrylic fibers," Gant said in an interview shortly before his death in July. "It was a good fit for us. We had the spinning frames, we had the people to run them, and we were looking for a way to improve our awning fabrics. We had run out of things to do to improve, so we said, ‘Yes, we'll give it a try.' "
Not only did Glen Raven give the new fiber a try, Gant made sure that the new product would gain adoption by awning fabricators and consumers. The new fabric would come with a five-year warranty, which was the first ever for awning fabrics. In addition, Sunbrella fabrics would be promoted directly to consumers through advertising designed to create an "ask-for-by-name" status for the brand.
From its start, Sunbrella promoted directly to consumers to create an ask-for-by-name status.
Over the past half century, a combination of reliable performance and brand promotion pushed the Sunbrella brand into lead positions in multiple market segments - marine, casual and outdoor furniture, residential interiors, commercial contract and convertible car tops. While each iteration of the Sunbrella brand resulted in new fabric constructions and finishes, the underlying technology, unquestioned performance, warranty protection and brand promotion remained constants.
"The Sunbrella brand story began with a product innovation that the marketplace clearly needed," said Allen E. Gant Jr., president of Glen Raven, Inc. "We are able to celebrate the 50th anniversary for the Sunbrella brand because we have continued to improve on that innovation, and we have incredibly strong partners in all of the markets we serve today."
After Sunbrella awing fabrics were out for a few years, the first new application was for boat and canvas tops, said Hal Hunnicutt, Sunbrella vice president of marketing. "That really didn't require anything more than making it in a solid color that boaters would want to put on their boats," he said. "But when it came time to take that technology to furniture, people found it very stiff." One of the first challenges to overcome was making the performance fabric softer.
Swers recalled casual furniture was dominated by PVC coated fabrics and strap products when his father partnered with Glen Raven as an independent sales organization in 1981. After 29 years in the upholstery and drapery fabric industry, Allen Swers saw opportunity in developing awning fabrics for use on outdoor furniture. At the time, the half-hour meeting he arranged with the general manager of Glen Raven's custom fabrics division turned into a three-day summit.
"The innovation challenge between Glen Raven and my Dad was: How do you make it more like an interior furniture fabric? In order to do that, they had to completely change the construction and the finishes on the fabric," Swers said.
Changing the stiff awning material into a soft, yet durable furniture fabric required different processes, from fiber production to yarn to weaving. "Raw materials coming in the door were color already rather than coming in the door white and then dyeing it at the end," the younger Swers said. "That was the first key innovation."
Gaining acceptance was a larger challenge than the technical points needed for changes in the fabric construction and finish.
Swers' parents designed new striped fabrics to correlate with the solids in Glen Raven's existing inventory. At the 1982 Casual Market, Allen and his son Arthur dressed in suits made of the same Sunbrella fabric as the chairs shown in Glen Raven's booth. They would smear mustard, ketchup and butter on their suits to show the trade that the fabric could easily be cleaned. Allen also stapled a multicolored piece of Sunbrella to a wood tongue depressor and put it in a jar of Clorox. The colors did not fade; that began to convince many market attendees of the product's merit.
Jim Ennis, president and CEO of Vision Fabrics, said his J. Ennis Fabrics division was probably the first distributor to carry Sunbrella furniture fabric in Canada. "When we first started with Glen Raven, we would sell their awning and marine fabric," Ennis said. "We're a hybrid for Glen Raven because we actually sell products from all of their divisions. We sell three different types of customers: We sell the home décor customer, the contract customer and we also sell specialty fabric."
Having an outdoor fabric that would perform for both UV stability and cleanability, when it looked and felt as good as it did, was a very big perception change for the industry, Swers said. Acceptance was slow at first, but by the mid-1990s, the outdoor fabric business had taken off in North America. Allen Swers helped develop jacquards and dobbies, then prints, and, more recently, rib fabrics, linen weaves, dupiones and velvets.
"Our challenge, starting with furniture, was to make an outdoor product that looks like your interior product - and that's what we continue to strive for today," said Suzie Roberts, vice president and business manager, furniture fabrics. "We still have some of the same challenges in getting people to accept that and to know that it is going to last outside."
Today's challenges include continuing to give its customers more choice in color, design and construction to provide what they feel they need to get the consumer to buy more performance fabric. Making Sunbrella in an environmentally safe manner is also an ongoing challenge and commitment.
"It's always good business to make sure you minimize your waste and you recycle where you can," Swers said. "That's an advantage of a family-owned company; they've always (worked) to minimize waste, and recycling is just part of it. Nothing goes to dumpsters, to the landfill; it's always recycled one way or another. We were green before being green was cool.
Innovative marketing continues to be a hallmark of Sunbrella.
Roberts noted that product was introduced in the fall at IFAI, the industrial show. "We're out showing all the casual manufacturers the product now, and it will launch for us next spring," she said. "We're taking some of our internal trim length off the loom (where it's never had any outdoor exposure) and we're recycling it into yarn, combining it with virgin fiber to make upholstery fabrics in the Renaissance Collection."
Another effort being made to help customers is a Sunbrella fabric book that has evolved from a reference tool into a sales and idea book, where customers can see different color families. The fabrics are arranged in collections to make it easier to pair complementary colors.
"We're using that book as a way to make it easier for consumers to shop for Sunbrella," Hunnicutt said. "And we've taken that to another level with the kiosks program, going into patio furniture stores and setting up COM programs so people have a chance to explore what the possibilities are with the different fabrics that we offer versus what's available on the set that happens to be on the floor."
Demonstrated at the Casual Market in September, the Sunbrella kiosk showcases 400 fabrics. Hunnicutt said these tools help to "generate business for one and all."
When asked to describe the company outlook for the 2011 season, Swers said he thinks it's still cautiously optimistic. "Everybody came from the show very positive, still not committed to product and inventory," he said. "They sold out last year. People feel as long as the economy is stable we have a very viable business. Consumers want our product for the outdoor room. A lot of things are driving toward that. The expense and the difficulty of traveling are making outdoor settings just that much more livable and fun. We're positioned very well, it's just a matter of consumers feeling comfortable enough to come out and buy our product."
Allen Gant also shared an upbeat perspective. "Our outlook for the Sunbrella brand is as optimistic and positive today as it was the first day that Roger Gant Jr. and his team wove the first yard," he said. "We are proud and humbled by the success of this brand, and we know that continual innovation and strong partnerships have gotten us to where we are today. These are important lessons learned over 50 years that will guide us for our next 50 years."
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