Working to raise perceptions of Sunbrella
Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, August 1, 2008
In just five years as Sunbrella's design director, Gina Wicker has been at the forefront of the brand's evolution from outdoor staple to fabric innovator. But her job is far from over, which is why the company recently expanded her responsibilities and named her design and creative director.
Wicker now oversees an expanded design department that encompasses marketing and advertising. She manages eight fabric designers, a new graphic designer and five support personnel who help with graphics and design initiatives.
Wicker is also the creative point person for Sunbrella's agency of record, Charlotte-based Wray Ward, and its manufacturing team in Anderson, S.C.
The move is all part of an effort to streamline communications and operations within the company. Sunbrella parent Glen Raven has long had an open, team-oriented corporate culture that has fostered creativity in its workforce. This move will reinforce that team mentality and at the same time streamline the creative flow.
Take product photography, for instance. Wicker said the marketing and merchandising areas weren't always aware of what was coming through the design area. They would typically see new fabrics when line was complete and ready to show to customers, giving them little time to consider what they should shoot. Now, designers offer their input on photography as they're developing the product so the shots can be taken earlier and more thoughtfully.
“The creative process starts with product innovation and design, flows through samples and straight on to photography,” Wicker said. “We carry the process all the way through to printed ads, marketing materials, Web site content and consumer presentation.”
But Wicker doesn't stop there. She wants anyone with a stake in a release to be aware of the product lines before retailers and consumers are.
“One of the biggest challenges for me is bringing our communications full circle,” she said. “I want to make sure our customers and customer service reps know the full breadth of a new offering and where it will show up in trade and consumer publications so they can be prepared and excited about it.”
Wicker will need that sort of internal cohesion as she attempts to steer Sunbrella's image away from that of an iconic outdoor brand to a lifestyle brand without destroying its solid reputation in the market.
“We want our customers to trust us because we have a long history, but we also want them to think of our fabrics as performance fabrics, not just outdoor fabrics,” said Wicker. “From a brand standpoint, we want to build on our heritage but also create more of a lifestyle attitude. We want Sunbrella to mean security. We want people to understand our high ethics.”
To get there, Wicker will continue to push herself and her creative team to keep innovating and developing fabrics that increase the perceived value of Sunbrella and move the brand to the upper echelon of the market.
“I remember when I first joined Glen Raven there was some sensitivity to producing more expensive constructions. The thought was that our customer base would not accept a more expensive fabric,” Wicker said. “We learned that wasn't true. Now we're selling fabric that's upwards of $20/yard and no one's complaining. The truth is if you invest in a beautiful outdoor furniture group from a specialty manufacturer, paying more for what you want isn't as much of an issue.”
Wicker and her creative team also have benefited from interior design trends that focus on the outdoor environments around the home. She said she remembers when interior designers rarely considered performance fabrics for their projects.
“Now they go into a home to redo a dining room or family room and scope out the outdoor area so they can propose a continuous look from the inside to the patio,” Wicker said. “They don't have to settle for green-and-white-striped vinyl on the patio and beautiful velvets inside. They can have that velvet look outside, too.”
Sunbrella's velvets, sheers and jacquards, all of which look and feel like the real thing but perform like outdoor fabrics, have done exactly what Wicker had hoped — raised the perception of the Sunbrella brand. With a more integrated approach to marketing and branding, she thinks she can take that perception even higher.