Home by Eleven

A 54 Case Study

Last year, some of us were waxing nostalgic about a furniture industry that no longer exists … and bemoaning the one that does.

Actually, we were just short of self-pity, feeling sorry for ourselves because (a) we weren’t working in a big way with anyone and (b) after almost 30 years in and around the business, we hadn’t changed the industry, much less saved it.

Which led to a lively debate around the question: If she could have it, what would today’s consumer want when shopping for home furnishings?

And so began a countdown for the moonshot we called “Home by Eleven.”

Changing an Industry

Furniture Buying is Broken.

Of course we aren’t the first to point out the industry’s woes. Just how woeful depends on where you reside in the product continuum — manufacturer, retailer or consumer.

Truth is, the business isn’t gangbusters for anyone, but right along with the displaced manufacturing jobs and workers, the consumer is also truly suffering.

With decades of experience working with North Carolina’s biggest and best-known industry names, we have built a body of knowledge few others possess.

If you’ve bought furniture in the last decade, you probably have your own horror story. As consumers we demand and receive exceptional buying experiences in other environments. Why can’t we do the same when shopping for home furnishings?

Fixing the furniture-buying experience launched our quest. Beyond the challenge of it, we admit to a bit of ego as well.

The remains of a former Levitz store in Claymont, DE that once successfully sold brand-name furniture from a warehouse-style store.

Who better than the citizens of 54 to take on this challenge? With decades of experience working with North Carolina’s biggest and best-known industry names, we have built a body of knowledge few others possess.

Also, we have no dog in the fight, as they say. Aside from a project here and there, 54 is all but out of the industry. Which is liberating. Which means we can explore ideas without fear of offending a client.

Let’s see where this leads, we said.

A Mock Company?

Sometimes fiction can unveil the truth.

At the outset, Home by Eleven was a ruse. Maybe not as elaborate as making the entire sports world believe Superman is real, capable of delivering 160-mph fastballs. But a grand fiction nonetheless.

Why invest time and energy to manufacture a pretend company? Simple. To discipline our thinking and get at the truth of what a better furniture-buying experience could be. Who knows, maybe we could sell the idea later. Maybe we could use it to interest a new client. Hell, maybe we seek some investors and make it real on our very own.

Along the way the process could even point us toward a different kind of business. Regardless of the outcome, we believed the return on our investment of time and gray matter made Home by Eleven worth the effort.

We formalized a process — scheduling weekly discussions, sharing research and experience, recording, refining and iterating, iterating our ideas. For us the process helped give shape and legitimacy to the idea we were creating for Home by Eleven. And the whole thing began to evolve into something bigger.

There’s method to this Moleskine® madness. Copious note-taking leads to refined thinking.

As our iterative approach mined all the potential consumer touch points — branding, staffing, the in-store environment, merchandising, real estate, global footprint from Day 1 — we recognized this exercise could also reflect our own business development and brand-building chops, showcasing our ability to punch above our weight class, so to speak.

Furniture stores present product in one or two—or both—ways: as a sea of bedrooms, then dining rooms, then living rooms, and so on; or in room scenes, settings that may feel as though they should be roped off.

Early on we eschewed room scenes for what we came to call “environments,” and those environments were built around a story, a theme and an idea.

Every environment begins with a story — an evocation of home — around which we build an environment. Here design director Anne Cassity builds an idea board around the story “A Week’s Sanctuary.”

We went so far as to build idea boards for each environment, each having a narrative where the idea was expressed in text, a main image for inspiration, and call-out photos meant to suggest some of the details present in the setting.

Along the way the process could even point us toward a different kind of business. Regardless of the outcome, we believed the return on our investment of time and gray matter made Home by Eleven worth the effort.

Sidd Finch was a fictional baseball player, the subject of the notorious article and April Fools’ Day hoax “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch” written by George Plimpton and first published in the April 1, 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated. Wikipedia

“Home by Eleven” wasn’t the first name we came up with. In fact, our working name was “Inspirato,” which was great for what it suggested: inspiration, spirit, even a little continental flair. Alas, we found “Inspirato” is an American Express trademark.

We have long been inspired by IDEO, which proclaims to be a global design company that creates impact through design. Not advertising, not even marketing, but “design” that impacts the human experience.

He’d always dreamed that when he finally stopped working and after the kids grew up, he’d spend the day in their sitting room amidst at least a few shelves of the library of books — real books —and just pick up and read one after another. First this one and then that one, one thing leading to another.

“Why wait ’til I ‘retire’?” he asked his wife of 31 years. “A good staycation will do.”

So for a solid week, fueled by coffee in the morning, then a soup lunch, an afternoon oatmeal raisin cookie and right on through to the nightcap, it was Eudora Welty and Reynolds Price; Big Bill Shakespeare and Death of a Salesman; Hillary Mantel’s version of Thomas Cromwell, then Capote’s In Cold Blood. And more.

From the comfy, overstuffed chair to the napping sofa. At some point each day stretched out on that new rug she bought with a big ass pillow to prop up his head, then dangle his feet … then both, probably looking like a U-shaped human imitating a sagging high-wire. “Just stretching the old back,” he said to himself.

From morning’s light to starlight, what a week. Page turners and mental footnotes.

But, wait … a slammed door. The youngest is home for Fall Break. Week’s done.

Well, it was nice while it lasted.

The Process — Branding

Inspire, Motivate, Cajole …
Always in Service of the Moonshot.

Fictitious or not, Home by Eleven’s brand identity needed to be well-designed, simple to execute, memorable and tasteful. A home furnishings brand lives (or dies) by its cool factor, and nothing is so ephemeral as style.

Too many second-, third- and fourth-generation retailers cling to their original branding. Valuable, perhaps, if they have kept the same customers for all those years. Suicidal, however, when new customers fail to value that brand’s relevance in today’s homes.

And so we envision. Then we iterate. When the branding captures the product’s authentic spirit — the ethos, we marketers are fond of saying — that’s when you know you’re close. But you never stop iterating. Because the customer never stops evolving. Kids grow up and move out. Rooms change. Decorating trends come and go.

The Deliverables

A Total Surround Experience.

It’s more than logos, fonts and colors, this branding business. Wherever and however customers encounter your brand, that encounter should reinforce its ethos, ideally elevate it, and never undermine it.

No matter how good a logo looks on a hat, vehicle or business card, it can’t overcome a bad buying experience.

We knew the feelings we wanted to evoke when a consumer enters Home by Eleven stores: Welcoming, from the moment she opens the door; warm, as she’s greeted by the host; comfortable as she views any or all of the eleven curated environments; and secure in her judgment up until and long after her purchase arrives, with white-glove treatment, in her home.

The Conclusion

Will Home by Eleven happen?

In its entirety, perhaps not. But some of its parts may find life elsewhere, for a visionary brand, perhaps, led by those who dare to dream of doing things better. And therein lies the beauty of the moonshot, of setting a bodacious goal and then working like hell to figure out how to get there. The journey itself can yield spectacular possibilities.

Of course there is the real possibility that you actually achieve the dream. Many of our clients have. Like a plastic golf cleat maker who believed he could create better agronomic results for golf course superintendents and flawless putting surfaces for golfers.