Thursday, November 17, 2011

Marimekko - Mika Ihamuotila

As the New York Marimekko store launched about a month ago, I was lucky enough to attend an event by the Finnish American Chamber of Commerce celebrating the launch, where Mika Ihamuotila, Marimekko's CEO, gave a presentation and spoke about the Marimekko culture. He is a very inspirational speaker, and his love for Marimekko really came through in his presentation. Marimekko cultivates a very Finnish identity, where the most important thing is to be authentic, sincere and be yourself. Pretension is very un-Marimekko.

I found an interview of Mika Ihamuotila online, where he discusses many of the same things he brought up in his presentation. I attach the interview here because I think he's clearly thought these things through very carefully, believes deeply in Marimekko's mission and culture, and because I really like what he has to say.

Retail contradictions: interview with Mika Ihamuotila, president & CEO, Marimekko

Mika Ihamuotila became President and CEO of Marimekko Corporation on 1st February 2008, having joined the company in 2007. Mika holds 1 percent of Marimekko Corporation's shares and voting rights, via Muotitila Ltd. Previously, Mika worked in the banking sector and was President and CEO of Sampo Bank, and before that was President and CEO of Mandatum Bank. He has held Board memberships, including at Elisa Corporation, the telecommunications company, where he was Deputy Chairman of the Board in 2006-2007. Mika was a visiting scholar of Yale University (USA) in 1992-199 . 

Marimekko's vision is to be the most highly acclaimed print designer in the world and one of the most appealing design-based consumer brands. The company's objective is to grow and succeed in the international arena as a Finnish design company that has a strong identity. Business development primarily focuses on controlled organic growth in Finland and selected export markets. In 2008, sales exceeded EUR81 million with profits exceeding EUR10 million. 


"The heart and soul of Marimekko is in design. We have our talent in creating colours and patterns. That's where we aim to be the best in the world. We aim to be the one that shows the way in colourful patterns. We then endeavour to merchandise these designs into different product categories. Today, our product mix includes fashion, interior decoration, fabrics and home accessories, bags and other accessories. The number of product categories could increase in the future but for the moment we want to focus on these product categories. 

"We want a clear focus on retail because we feel that we are not only selling products, we are also selling a philosophy, a lifestyle, an attitude to life, which is reflected in our designs and especially the colours and patterns that our products carry. This is an area where we want to compete. It is one of the issues with which we want to differentiate ourselves from other design or fashion brands. 

"We have a philosophy, a way of thinking about the world. It's very important for us to have direct contact with as many consumers as possible. That is one of the key reasons why we have chosen a retail strategy where our internationalisation is based on concept stores, and where Marimekko products are presented in single-branded stores with our personnel. 

"Within the stores, we have the opportunity to tell the story behind Marimekko, and to tell the stories behind the inspiration of the designers. It's a vehicle to directly communicate with our customers: to tell the stories and explain the philosophy. That's why we have put a lot of emphasis on Marimekko branded concept stores. 

"We are extremely selective when we go in to department stores, boutiques, and other retailers. We have to be sure that they have the motivation and willingness to represent a brand like ours in a very special manner. That means not only selling products, but also communicating to the customer something about the background of the company and our philosophy. 

"We find ourselves different from many design and fashion companies. Some people simply don't like Marimekko. They find it too colourful. It just doesn't appeal. We are quite comfortable with this. We are so strong in our philosophy that we want to approach customers and distribution channels that really understand and love us. In Finland, Scandinavia, Japan, the US and the UK, the customers who come back to our stores have a very deep affection for our brand. They follow our designers, they know our history and our core values, and they know that the values and the philosophy drive the designs. This is something that cannot be forgotten when defining Marimekko and explains why we have chosen the way that we want to grow in retail." 


"Marimekko is a design brand that every young fashion, textile and print designer is aware of from when he or she studies in art school or elsewhere. It's a brand that is taught by teachers and professors in design. We are approached by a large number of young designers from throughout the world who want to work with us. We are a colourful company--we want to be brave and we want to be different. The designers who approach us are not the ones that want to express themselves as ultra-luxury for consumers who want to use design as a way of showing that they are wealthy. Marimekko acts a magnet for a certain kind of young designers, who are good in colour and good in print, and also who want to express true feelings that are based on honesty. Our brand awareness amongst designers helps us recruit the right people. 
"Having been around for many decades, the experience of the company means that we can see the potential of new designers. It is very much based on intuition. We know when someone will be good for Marimekko, but it is very difficult to say why. We have a feeling about a new designer. They express the same values as Marimekko, irrespective of the details of their designs. We work with people who have a philosophy similar to own. 

"The philosophy starts from the basic nature of Finnish people. We are extremely honest people, often to the point of appearing naive. We want to be honest with ourselves. We feel that the joy of life will be found if you are honest with yourself, then you will have the courage to express yourself and that is the way to find happiness. 

"The whole philosophy of Marimekko is the very much the same. We want to radiate honesty and to radiate values that encourage people in different parts of the world to be honest with themselves and to find their own values. If you have good self-esteem, then you can express yourself, and then you are willing to wear colours and patterns. Marimekko's designs are expressed in very bright colours with very brave designs. We are never understated but we are also never overstated. We don't try to be something other than what we are. We don't pretend to be a super luxury brand. We give our designers the freedom to express themselves and that is where they get the courage. I know it sounds 'soft', but it is what we believe. We choose designers who have a genuine personality. They love the freedom. Be yourself! Don't follow other designers! Don't follow trends! If you are open to your own sensitivity then you are creative. 

"Personality is very important throughout our company. If you go to our stores, they are staffed with people who like the values of Marimekko. That's why the whole brand, the whole design house works well. It attracts a certain kind of personnel. I love to work at our headquarters because I amsurrounded by colleagues who share my values. The genuine feeling is something that I have not felt anywhere else. It's a very special place. I am so proud of all these people, especially in this world where people are so often greedy and ambitious. I want to encourage these people to remain like this, even when we are internationalising. We should be proud of what we are." 


"Marimekko has been a domestic Finnish company in which the internationalisation was often based on somebody in the US or Japan contacting us and saying "I would like to open a store, is that ok?". now, we are more proactive and more professional in supporting our retail development. It's not very important that Marimekko is from Finland, but clients are interested in where the design expressions come from. The values are universal. We want to compete with our different values. If you are Japanese, you can feel that you are from Japan but also feel that our designs radiate values that are important to you. 

"There are now 18 Marimekko concept stores in Japan. We have chosen a partner who appreciates our values, and who chooses store personnel who also have these values. The store managers from different parts of the world come and spend a week with us in Finland. They meet the designers. They live the brand. Then they are in a position to take the message to the people in the stores, and those employees in the stores can communicate it to the customers. So, the customers really feel that there is something more than products behind the brand. We very much believe that. 

"We need clever and enthusiastic entrepreneurs to run our concept stores in different parts of the world. All of the entrepreneurs come to Finland twice a year. We want them to come here. They get energised. They meet the other store owners and meet the designers. It's very much more than selling products. It's a very special atmosphere." 


"We appreciate people working closely with us. It's very agreeable, very Finnish. But also, as a businessman, I understand that we are selling more than just products, so it becomes an imperative. It's a strategic decision to keep everyone close. We want to gain pricing power for our retailers in comparison to competitors. We want to attract customers who love the brand, who don't think that there are any peers or competitors. We want to differentiate, where the customers don't actually feel that there are any alternatives. Even though we are not greedy, we are a company that tries to make profit in order to grow. Our pricing policy is based on unique designs and a unique philosophy. That's why we have chosen to work with our retailers in this way. 

"We believe that the consumer of the future will appreciate brands that have values. It is our vision that today and tomorrow's consumer will appreciate lifestyle brands, where they can understand the values behind that lifestyle and we want to express that." 


"We believe that tomorrow's consumer will give more emphasis to production and manufacturing that they have given over the last 20 or 0 years. A big trend over the last few decades has been the democratisation of fashion, the democratisation of design, like H&M, IKEA and so on. This has been a fantastic phenomenon because through low prices an average consumer has had the opportunity to buy something he or she hasn't had the opportunity to do before. But the consumer has lost the feeling of how products are manufactured, where they are manufactured, what ethical standards are in place, what environmental issues there are, and the role of the human being. 

"Our designers can walk 50 metres and go to our factory. For example, a bag designer can meet with a print designer and they can go to the factory together and talk to the printer and say "that red can be more pinkish" or "we don't like that fabric". The people in the factory know the designers. They can call the designers and say "this doesn't seem right, come and see how this works". We feel that this way of working provides a very special difference. We don't want to be a mass production company. We don't want to be a company that has a design studio in New York or London and then outsources all the production elsewhere. We want the designers working with the production. This is a strategic competitive edge for us. Great designers want to work closely with the manufacturing process. 

"I personally very much believe, rightly or wrongly, that the consumer of today and the future wants to know the story behind the brand, and appreciates the retailer who can tell them. I believe the consumer will appreciate these aspects more and more, especially the younger consumers. I see a big business opportunity here." 


"We don't feel that this is a brand that will just explode in a new market. If you meet a person who is an extrovert then you can understand them in about 20 seconds. But if you meet a Finn (who is usually an introvert) for the first time, you will not feel you know who they are. It takes time to get to know them. It takes repeated meetings to understand that a person is honest and I can trust him or her. It takes time, and Marimekko needs time. 

"Before joining Marimekko, I built up a company that was then sold for a high price. I wanted a career change to a situation where I had such a significant ownership in a company that nobody could take it away from me, from us. I want to encourage my people to have a ten year horizon. We don't have to have results after 12 months, or the next quarter. This is a different kind of a journey. It takes time. Things don't always happen immediately." 


"We have a lot of potential to improve our marketing, especially in telling our story. We are placing emphasis on our marketing and PR. Our retail personnel are being coached to understand the values and philosophy, where our designs come from, where they are manufactured. We are producing different materials that can be given to customers who come to the stores, creating more vehicles to deliver the message. 

"I'm in love with this company. I'm in love with these people. I want to make our retail stores something that the world has never seen before. When you come to our concept stores in a few years time, I want you to feel something that you haven't felt from visiting any other store in the world. I know this is a very difficult task. I understand that we need vehicles that help to tell our story. We are working on these, so that we can speed up the process of explaining the complete Marimekko story." 


"One of the big challenges is to find professional and committed retail partners, who are willing to commit themselves in the long term to Marimekko. Our design and philosophy is going in the right direction, and I feel comfortable with that but we need to attract professional retail partners who understand the brand. It's easier to market a simple message that we are cheap or technical. But it takes time to explain Marimekko. 

"In Japan, we have a retail partner who operates the Marimekko concept stores. It has been a fantastic cooperation. They are committed and we are committed. We have a mutual goal, and it is in ten years time, not next year. They come to Helsinki all the time, and we go there. We support each other. We would like to have more retail partners like this. We are known by the fashion press, by the design press, and the experts in that area but we are not really well-known in retail yet. This is a big challenge for us--to make us an interesting partner. 

"We have to make the company scalable. We have to be able to deliver to our retail partners. Our current partners always say that they can trust us to deliver. As sales through new distribution channels grow, we have to deliver the same high quality every time. It's an important question for us. This is not just about production, but also about being able to scale the values. 

"Maybe Marimekko should never be a huge company. It's an iconic company, a cult company. If it tries to please everybody, then it will lose its character. However, the truth is that we are so small that we could easily be ten or 20 times bigger." 


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