Smeg’s John Davies on the firm’s design-led approach to brand collaborations

We spoke with John Davies, Smeg’s UK Head of Marketing, about the firm’s approach to design, partnerships and future opportunities.

Italian domestic appliances brand Smeg has a reputation for creating distinctive products that combine technology and style.

In recent years, the company has embarked on several striking brand collaborations with the likes of Dolce & Gabbana, Disney and FIAT500.

We spoke with John Davies, Smeg’s UK Head of Marketing, about the firm’s approach to design, partnerships and future opportunities.

John Davies, Smeg

Hi John; great to catch up. Before we dive into Smeg’s approach to brand collaboration, you’ve been with the company for 10 years. What brought you to the firm?
My role prior to joining Smeg was in the construction sector – and I think having gained a broad skillset and experience across the entire marketing mix offered a fresh new perspective on the role. I’m a true believer that, when it comes to marketing, the one thing you can’t learn is passion and I’m very passionate about the company and our products. We’re a small team but the brand speaks for itself, and we have lots of fun with the range – it’s so rewarding when you can truly make a difference.

Has the changed much in the past decade?
Back when I joined Smeg in 2010, the company was focused on making excellent products and the emphasis was very much on manufacturing. Still family owned to this day, the company remains passionate about design, production and product, but with an even more established retailer network and a newfound relationship with the consumer. With the advent of so many new touchpoints, we’ve evolved so much over the last decade to be consumer centric than ever before.

How do you define Smeg’s core brand values – and what people perceive the brand to stand for?
The product that most people gravitate to is the iconic Smeg fridge or our small appliance collection. Classic design becomes timeless and transcends generations, so you would be safe to think that Smeg’s Fifties-style range has been around for many decades, wouldn’t you?

“I would say there has to be a level of premium-ness which defines the potential fit of tie-ups.”

Well, the Smeg fridge collection actually launched in 1997 and was joined by small appliances in 2014. Aside from this, the company’s heritage stems back to its early production of cooking appliances in the Fifties and Sixties and is intrinsically linked to and influenced by its surroundings in Italy’s breadbasket – a foodie region in northern Italy inspired by cooking excellence, from the best ingredients to rigorous kitchen appliances designed to meet the needs at the heart of your home. After all, to Smeg, it’s about great technology combined with the Italian flair for design. Hence, ‘Smeg, Technology with Style’.

1997 is a surprise… So Smeg attained iconic status quite quickly?
Well, we built the business with sustained growth over five decades and then, as mentioned, in the late Nineties we launched the now iconic hero FAB fridge. With courage in our convictions to challenge convention, the popularity of the range steadily took off soon after that, an iconic design transcending generations.

It was amazing to see this design take off; chunky, curvy and colourful, the exact opposite to its peers of the era, which were most commonly brown, green and white… The whitegoods industry namesake, after all!

With a range spanning over a thousand products, we work hard to develop and communicate our core values and breath of product categories to ensure we’re not reliant on the success of the Fifties-style collection.

John Davies, Smeg

How important is the brand’s Italian heritage when it comes to product development and your approach to collaborations?
The company was founded in 1948 and originally specialised in a metal enameller. That’s actually what the Smeg acronym refers to: Smalterie Metallurgiche Emiliane Guastalla. Emilia is the region and Guastalla is the local town.

As mentioned previously, the region is dubbed the breadbasket of Italy because surrounding Smeg’s Italian HQ you have Parma – parmesan cheese and ham, Modena – balsamic vinegar, and Bologna – pasta dishes. Smeg also owns its very own parmesan cheese farm, Montecoppe, which helps us bring that ‘farm to fork’ Italian message through.

The area is also home to fashion icons like Max Mara and motorsport heavyweights Ferrari, Maserati and Ducati. It links us back to our ‘Made in Italy’ heritage and that comes through in some brand collaborations we’ve done and other connections we’ve made with the Sicilian heartland, with Dolce & Gabbana and Fiat500 in Turin in Italy’s industrial North.

John Davies, Smeg

Smeg has a great reputation for quality and design; what steers the firm’s approach to product development?
The cornerstone of the brand is a wide collection of large appliances and that’s evolved from the company’s Classic and Victoria ranges with a nod to tradition, through to ultra-contemporary Wi-Fi connected appliances from Smeg’s artistic Dolce Stil Novo collection. This symbolises the two worlds of Smeg: the retro Fifties-style and the slick, clean look of our contemporary ranges.

What makes Smeg different to other companies – and it’s an area of pride for us – is that focus on design. It underpins everything we do. We work with product designers, but also fashion designers and architects.

“If you look at our collaborations, there’s one thing in common. You can see that it’s not about putting someone’s logo on our product.”

One of Smeg’s designers is Renzo Piano; he was the architect behind London’s Shard building. We also work with Guido Canali, a very famous Italian architect. He designed Prada’s head office and also designed our award-winning Italian HQ too.

Why collaborate with these different types of creatives from outside of your core industry?
They influence the design-thinking company in different ways. They challenge convention and give us a point of a difference. Smeg stands for something and communicates very unique messaging. We want to design products that stand out and make people feel special – designers help us do that best.

Let’s look at your brand collaborations. What were some of Smeg’s first partnerships in this area?
In 2012 we collaborated with the Italian fashion label Italia Independent on a world first – a denim covered fridge!

John Davies, Smeg

The same design team, with links to the FIAT group, then took on a completely unique challenge to celebrate the mutual history of the organisations working together in the Fifties. The result of this was the Smeg500 – a fridge based on the design of the bonnet of the original Fiat500. This drinks chiller has been a great talking point which has stood the test of time and tells the ‘Made in Italy’ heritage story of the companies.

It is a very unique product. The headlights turn on and off, the bonnet opens up and down and it continues to be one of our most popular window displays at our Regent Street Flagship store, with many people stopping to take pictures and enquire about availability.

John Davies, Smeg

I can see why; it looks fantastic. You also have an eye-catching collaboration with Dolce & Gabbana; why did that partnership make sense?
It all started with our Refrigerator of Art campaign centred around 100 one-off hand-painted fridges. We teamed up with Dolce & Gabbana and commissioned Sicilian painters to turn refrigerators into unique interpretations of Sicilian folklore. That range was launched in Milan and got huge press. The true creativeness of Dolce & Gabbana pattern combined with the form and function of Smeg worked very nicely.

John Davies, Smeg

Since then, we collaborated with Dolce & Gabbana on a range of small and large appliance collections under ‘Sicily Is My Love’ and ‘Divina Cucina’ campaigns. We’re excited what the future will bring!

John Davies, Smeg

If you look at our collaborations, there’s one thing in common. You can see that it’s not about putting someone’s logo on our product. It’s about a family connection, a longstanding partnership, an outstanding creative idea or a truly excellent brand fit. It has to tell a story and help communicate our brand, values and heritage.

Another collaboration, with a very different aesthetic, was your tie-up with Disney. That didn’t have the Italian connect, so what made that partnership tick?
Disney were looking for partners to support its mammoth 90th anniversary celebrations for Mickey Mouse – the mouse that started it all. At the heart of both brands is family. We all grew up with Mickey and the character resonates with children and adults alike.

From a design perspective, we went in a playful direction, with Mickey reaching up to the handle of the Smeg fridge like he’s going to open it. We used Walt Disney’s original sketches and we worked hard to bring the design to life, initially producing 90 limited edition models, aimed at collectors, each with a numbered plaque. The range has been successful, and we’re excited to see how the collaboration can develop in the future!

John Davies, Smeg

Last year we also returned to the world of animated characters with a Snoopy drinks fridge celebrating 70 years of Peanuts. It was fun, playful and another good example of how we engage with iconic characters, colour and retro design.

John Davies, Smeg

Is that where you see great opportunities for collaborations, around anniversaries?
An anniversary helps to build layers of storytelling and heightened exposure to collections but it’s certainly not the only approach we look at.

We’ve carried out many partnerships over the years, such as a MINI fridge inspired by the MINI Cooper S, a fun Veuve Clicquot fridge finished in bright orange, and recently the British racing green MG fridge, celebrating the heritage of our UK HQ which stands on the former brownfield site of the British, sports car manufacturer.

John Davies, Smeg

We’ve also collaborated with retailer John Lewis on limited edition patterned product, England Rugby Union, and experimented with finishes including Mondrian design, candy stripe and even a chalk/blackboard model.

We do licensing in two ways. We can take a commission and supply that into our customer – our recent tie up with upmarket streetwear fashion house Supreme is a prime example – or work with a brand on a traditional brand licencing agreement with Smeg producing and distributing the finished product.

You’ve partnered with car brands, fashion brands, character brands. Where else do you see potential for great collaborations?
I would say there has to be a level of premium-ness which defines the potential fit of tie-ups, but because we’re grounded in style and design and appeal to a plethora of audiences, we can be versatile. There’s no hard and fast rule to how we approach collaborations. Like any family organisation, it comes down to heart and how we feel about the opportunity.

There are many brands we’d love to work with, but we haven’t got the resource capacity to do it all. We don’t have an extensive licensing team, which helps us remain very selective to embark on key projects, like with Dolce & Gabbana.

As we’ve mentioned, Smeg is a brand is its own right. Could you see Smeg being licensed into other industries? Would a Smeg apparel collection ever be of interest?
Last year, we worked with Lavazza on a dual branded POD coffee machine, carrying Smeg’s hallmark design and signature branding. Although Lavazza produce it, it slots in with our small appliances collection perfectly. Other projects with Lavazza continue to emerge turning it into a real long-lasting partnership.

John Davies, Smeg

We would be open to opportunities in the future, it just has to feel right. And we don’t always know what ‘right’ is until we see it!

John, this has been fun. A huge thanks for taking the time and I look forward to seeing more Smeg collaborations in the future.

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