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From Home Furnishing Business

Take 5—Neil MacKenzie, Universal Furniture

How does a brand known for being "good" become known as one that's "great"? That has been Universal Furniture's task as they've evolved over the past decade. Significant changes have included becoming a whole-home manufacturer (making upholstery as well as casegoods), opening a new showroom, debuting licensing partnerships with popular and diverse brands, transforming their marketing strategy, partnering with designers and bloggers, and ramping up the resources and educational initiatives they offer to retailers.

As a result, when Neil MacKenzie, vice president of marketing, arrived at Universal four years ago, it was a company that was already very much in transition. His role since coming on board has been to help define the emerging Universal reputation and experience.

"They had already done a lot under Jeff Scheffer direction to really up their game from a product standpoint, but there were just a couple more dots that needed to be connected," he said. "I think now, we're pushing the envelope in redefining the experience for everyone—designers, retailers and the end consumer. We want to be the brand that inspires."

MacKenzie recently sat down with Home Furnishings Business to discuss the transformation of Universal Furniture. Read further as he share's his thoughts on Universal's key marketing strategies and partnerships—including the debut of the Nina Magon collection.

Q: How is Universal Furniture using marketing as a competitive advantage in the marketplace?

A: We're obviously promoting and supporting our brand in the marketplace to a number of different customers, whether that be the end consumers, designers or our No. 1 customer—the retailer. So there are a number of different audiences, and my belief is that if you treat everybody like the end user, I think that's a better way of getting your message across. Because at the end of the day, I think everybody is a consumer of things. But then there are little components of that messaging that would be more tailored to who we're talking to. They can have very different needs, even though they're similar at the end of the day.

Email marketing and social media are probably the two strongest tools we have right now. And we have a defined content strategy. We're planning six to eight months out, as if we were running a magazine. This way we can lead into the Market launch and the marketplace launch.

We're also heavily invested in photography. Of course everyone in the industry relies on photography, but we've refocused to be more on brand with who we are. And, ultimately, we revamped our approach to who Universal is. It was previously very B-to-B centric. When I was getting started here, the concept was "good, affordable, smart design;" my wife said to me, "Why is it just good?" I thought that was smart. And while that slogan is still at the ethos of what we do as a manufacturer, we've also surpassed that.

We have gone from just offering casegoods to now offering upholstery—so now it's more of a whole-home approach. So we kind of rebranded and under this mantra of "explore home." We were making a lot of changes on the back end, so for us it was how do we change the front-end story. It was through marketing that that facelift occurred.

Q: What kinds of marketing tools are you currently providing dealers, and which are they finding most successful?

A: We do a lot of educational forums during market. So we have probably six or seven talks, and we'll bring in and partner with different designers, bloggers—you know, media people, if you will. We also put together toolkits for retailers to tap into and leverage our imagery and video footage. We want to make it super easy for them, and we've been trying to get more involved at the store level to make it easier for them.

The other thing that has been helpful is designing the spots more for social media and relying less on TV spots. So we have these 15-, 30- and 60-second spots where they can just drop their logo in at the end and have something they can use as easily on Instagram as in the store.

Q: What is your vision for your licensed collection initiatives? And how would you say licensed collections are helping you extend your brand?

A: I think it's a fine line when you're doing these. You don't want to erode your brand equity in the process, which we've done a lot of work to build up. These partnerships need to support our brand, not take over what we're doing. Our goal isn't to become the house of brands, were it's like we're renting all these partnerships. But there's certainly some more room for these initiatives, and really each one is unique and presents different opportunities. Certain things pop up that make sense and create a niche for us and our retailers. So really, it's how they fit into our overall vision.

Q: What is your process for selecting licensing partners? For example, what made you choose to partner with Coastal Living and Nina Magon?

A: When considering a partnership, the first thing we always ask ourselves is, "will it bring with it a lifestyle that somebody wants to live?" If it's just name, that's not necessarily bad, but that's not what we want. We think the lifestyle approach is an easier way for us to go because it fits in with who we are as an approachable, livable brand. But we do address a spectrum of lifestyles, as you can see with our Costal Living and Nina Magon collections.

With these two collections, we have two very different entities. Costal Living is a magazine entity that has millions of followers and consumers at many different levels. So being able to partner with a company like Meredith with a brand like Costal Living is a very unique opportunity for us, and we've tried to leverage that a number of different ways, on behalf of the retailer, to drive people into stores.

With the Nina Magon project, we think of it as more of a design collaboration, and the scale of it is much different. She has a very strong point of view, and it's very fashion-forward, aspirational living. Plus, she has an expanding audience, which is exciting. I think with both partners, we have approaches that are authentic to who the partner is, and each brings us a much different look.

Jeff [Schaeffer?], our president, always says, "We'll listen to everyone, because you just never know." And we've met with some people where first we were like, "oh, that will never happen," but then we started talking with them and thought, "hey, this could actually be a very big deal."

Q: In recent years you've developed a number of programs at Market and throughout the year to cultivate your business with interior designers. Can you tell us more about your vision for this segment and how these marketing initiatives are going?

A: I think for us, our first big initiative was moving this showroom downtown. That was our way of literally being on the map for designers to know that we're here to do business. We also launched a program for interior designers. That's when they began to see this very wide spectrum of options, whether it be for, you know, the different rooms of the home or, frankly, just the different style categories we execute. And then supporting that is that when they work with us, they can get it all pretty quickly from one resource.

We also have no order minimum, so it's very easy for them to get started with us and not feel like it has to be a massive, upfront investment. Our goal is to be the easiest company they can transact with.

Then, at Market, we have a learning center initiative to engage designers. They can come over here and listen to a particular speaker or take a CE course. We also have a designer-only lounge for them. We're partnering with Krypton and Moore & Giles to design a space that includes WiFi, a bar, food and smoothies, an "unplugged" area, a beauty lounge for touchups, pop-up stores, and probably much more. We hope they'll see it as a hub for them during Market, so we're letting them know they can use us as their basecamp throughout the week. We certainly understand that they'll be shopping other places as well, but our hope is that they will want to start and end their days here with us.

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