The best corporate communications program I’ve run into so far in a lifetime of journalism is Hafele, the German architectural fittings manufacturer. They do hinges, latches, etc. for people-in-the-know who want their kitchen and home to have that Germanic, Mercedes-Benz feel. You can buy Chinese knock-offs for a fraction of the cost of Hafele, but then the moving parts of your home won’t snap-to like Prussian sentries. The feel of Hafele fittings is amazing, and it’s worth a trip to one of their showrooms to experience it. Your kitchen cabinets become military in their crispness. If General Patton were designing a kitchen these are the hinges he’d use, no question about it.
But what really distinguishes Hafele is their corporate communications program. Trust the Germans to get it right.
You have to be a reporter to appreciate how similar most corporate communications programs are. They’re trying to tell the world about their products but they’re also trying to do it on a budget. They could tell their story readily enough by taking out full-page ads in the Sunday New York Times week after week, but of course that would cost more than the gross national product of a mid-sized nation, not to mention subsidizing runaway liberalism. Fortunately there’s a much cheaper way, the cocktails-and-munchies method. You see, while it may cost a king’s ransom to buy full-page ads in the newspapers, it costs only a few cocktails and some lollipop lamb chops to buy the attention of any reporters or editors who can spare the time, not to mention all the dealers, distributors, etc. who decide if they’re going to stock that manufacturer's product or the competition’s.
So a reporter is forever going to these look-alike product presentations, always full of beautiful, almost-model hostesses in slinky dresses pouring on the charm, always The Product displayed under halogen lamps, always booze and munchies aplenty. If the product’s interesting, the presentation stands a good chance of being interesting. If not, well, there’s still the cocktails and lamb chops.
Hafele doesn’t do it that way. Hafele forgets the product completely and instead holds charming seminars which have a grad school feel to them. Busy, harried professionals have a chance to be young again and back in grad school, once again examing the cutting edge topics in architecture and design over a cold beer, exactly the way they so much enjoyed doing back in their student days but never have a chance to anymore since becoming overworked professionals.
The result is some of the loftiest, most incisive professional discussions going on today in the field of architecture and design. During one seminar a participant asked why Modernism has hung on so long. In architecture, as in anything else, fashions come and go. But Modernism, the clean, unadorned style that first appeared in Paris in the 1950’s, has now lasted more than half a century! This school of fashion didn’t fade! Why has Modernism hung on such an unprecedently-long time? What’s the secret of it’s popularity?
Because it’s cheap! Can you believe it? That turned out to be the answer!
It can be one of life’s great pleasures to watch a room full of front-line professionals struggle to answer such a question. As the wine flows, so do the insights. Finally they figure out the answer but can barely believe it! Because it’s cheap, that’s why! It saves money to eliminate all those moldings and trim! The seminar participants are simultaneously dismayed and elated, and go home feeling like college kids again.
At another memorable Hafele seminar someone asked why the homemakers of America have to stoop and bend to get at their kitchen’s undercounter storage, why don’t the lower cabinets open and close on rollers like giant drawers? Once again, the best minds in the field struggled to figure it out, and once again they arrived at a realization they could barely believe: EVERY KITCHEN IN AMERICA IS DESIGNED WRONG! The undercounter storage should all be opening and closing on rollers like giant drawers!
The following year, for the first time ever, a manufacturer offered kitchens with undercounter storage that opened and closed on rollers like giant drawers. The year after, a whole bunch of manufacterers did. Today, every kitchen manufacturer offers undercounter storage that opens and closes like giant drawers.
Did this breakthrough realization occur at that very Hafele seminar that evening? Were the participants that night witnesses to a pivotal moment in the history of kitchen design? How much of a high is this? Is it any wonder the Hafele seminars do such a good job of reaching the pros? And the amazing thing is, they never peddle Hafele products at all. They’re on display in the showroom for anyone who wants to fiddle with them, but the seminars themselves are just food, drink and a chance for the reigning masters of architecture and design to be young again, to be grad students again, and to get together and talk ideas like they did back in their student days.
Does it work? Have Hafele sales increased as a result of their seminars? They won’t say. It’s a family-owned company, and everything’s private. But even if the seminars don’t increase sales, they still serve to make Hafele’s a memorable corporate communications program.