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case study

rade show booths are often designed to meet specific objectives. If you need to collect leads, your company's booth should be open and inviting, drawing a crowd of badge-swiping attendees. If you are meeting with clients, your booth should have a few private conference rooms, giving you and your VIPs a place to chat.

But when New York-based Kikkerland Design Inc. needed to find new product designers to add to its creative team, the design of the booth wasn't about traffic flow or meeting spaces - the exhibit needed to attract and impress potential employees.

"Designers are our lifeblood," says Laura Kellner, marketing and public relations manager at Kikkerland. After all, the company is constantly designing and launching new products to add to its already monstrous inventory of more than 700 consumer goods. That line includes everything from wacky wire windup toys to unique timepieces like the swatter-shaped Fly Wall Clock. The company's goal is to provide the latest, coolest consumer goods on the market, and Kikkerland is always on the lookout for new designers with fresh takes on conventional items. "Great designers are absolutely essential to our success," Kellner says.

However, great designers don't grow on trees. So Kikkerland went in search of a place where it could recruit some serious design talent - a place where designers congregate. That place, it decided, was the International Contemporary Furniture Fair.

But Kikkerland's previous exhibit-marketing efforts revolved around selling its consumer products, not promoting itself as the perfect employer for avant-garde designers. If the company showed up with its display-case-filled exhibit used to attract retail buyers at shows such as the National Stationery Show (NSS), it would be a huge design faux pas. Kellner knew that if Kikkerland was going to play in the design-centric world of the ICFF, it needed an eye-catching exhibit that would appeal to designers, stand out on the show floor, and brand the company as a funky business for which any designer would love to work.

Design Debut

At the 2008 ICFF show, the company took its first steps at recruiting designers from the show floor, a necessary goal that yielded tepid results. Kikkerland went to ICFF in 2008 because the show is known as a haunt for product designers, and is one of the few times foreign designers can easily be found at a U.S. event. To attract those designers, Kikkerland's plan was to show them how cool it is to be a product designer for the company.

Needing a unique exhibit that would make a statement with its aesthetic, the company turned to Jan Habraken, a product designer with which the company has worked in the past. Playing off the company's red and white colors, Habraken's exhibit featured red carpeting and a red back wall. And since most attendees come to the show to see furniture, Kikkerland positioned an oversized dining table in the center of its space, with some of the company's newest and best-selling products placed atop.

Kikkerland also had a microscopic replica of the large table, and pre-show press releases and signage in the booth claimed that the company's exhibit featured the biggest and smallest tables in the world.

Since the company had never exhibited with the goal of finding new designers, the results didn't come with a benchmark against which it could measure its success. Kellner says the 2008 show netted about 10 designers who merited further discussion of projects. The 2008 exhibit also generated a handful of blog articles, including one on www.Core77.com, an influential blog that covers the design world.

Try, Try Again

Kellner says the 2008 experience had been deemed a success, but the results weren't enough to put ICFF on Kikkerland's list of must-attend shows. In fact, the initial plan was to try again in 2010, using the year in between to devise a better strategy for the show.

Also weighing against the idea of showing at ICFF in 2009 was the fact that Kikkerland planned on using one of its more traditional exhibits at the NSS at the same time. Since this was one of the company's key shows, concentrating on NSS was important from a sales and leads point of view.

But as winter turned to spring in 2009, several factors caused Kikkerland to warm up to the idea of exhibiting at ICFF, held annually at New York's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. First, the company had a program going with the University of Philadelphia, where the school's design students were working on six products to add to the company's line. And those students - along with product-design students from three other universities - would be attending ICFF. Second, Kikkerland was involved in some of the festivities surrounding New York's celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Dutch founding of the city, once called New Amsterdam. Since the company's owner, Jan van der Lande, happens to be Dutch, Kikkerland was getting some bonus press from the event.

Those factors, coupled with the fact that ICFF and NSS were both being held simultaneously at Javits, made the prospect of exhibiting again at the 2009 furniture fair as intriguing as a Frank Gehry sketch. So with about a month to go before the show, Kikkerland called ICFF show management and asked what space might be left.

Soup Kitsch-en

Designer Genes
With more than 700 offerings, Kikkerland Design Inc. is constantly seeking creative designers with new ideas to keep its product line fresh. Here's a sample of both: Kikkerland's clever consumer products, and the daringly different designers behind them.
Product: Critter Windups
Designer: Chico Bicalho
This line of whimsical windup toys helped put Kikkerland on the map. The Oahaca, above, is wound with a pull-string that doubles a leash to control the critter
Product: Solar Queen
Designer: Chris Collicott
The genius sculptor
behind the so-called
Buddha Bookends, Collicott also designed Kikkerland's Solar Queen statue, which resembles the Queen of England and periodically waves her little hand to her subjects.

Product: Invisible Playing Cards
Designer: Pieter Woudt
These plastic cards keep their poker face thanks to strategically placed graphics that hide the suit and value of each card.
Product: Rainbow Maker
Designer: David Dear
Made of a large crystal suspended from the gears of a solar-powered machine, the Rainbow Maker casts refracted light around a room.
With a 10-by-20-foot space reserved, Kikkerland set out to create a booth that would appeal to designers. The exhibit needed to highlight the company as an attractive, forward-thinking place to work. It also needed to be designed and built in about a month.

Happy with Habraken's work in 2008, Kikkerland again turned to the designer. "Since we're trying to project that Kikkerland is a fun and cool place for designers to work, we wanted someone who would enjoy the challenge and design something that his or her fellow designers would find interesting and original," Kellner says.

Again, Habraken took his cue from the company's trademark colors of red and white. Only this time, he left the furniture out of his inspiration and focused exclusively on those striking corporate hues. He also drew inspiration from Kikkerland's reputation as a good corporate citizen. (The company regularly donates to charities such as Greenmarket and the Center for Biological Diversity.) With those general ideas in his head, Habraken hatched a plan for an eye-catching exhibit made from thousands of cans of mmm, mmm, good soups. And, in a genius, philanthropic twist, Habraken suggested that once the show was over and the exhibit was deconstructed, the cans of soup could be donated to a local food bank.

"The cans have the same red and white colors on their labels as Kikkerland's corporate colors," Habraken says. "And since Kikkerland often helps people in Harlem with charitable giving, the aspect of donating the cans of soup to a local charity seemed like a perfect fit."

As for the design aesthetic, Habraken aimed for a booth that would stand out like a Fritz Hansen Egg chair at a VFW. The back wall would be made of label-less silver cans with a handful of red cans inset to spell "Kikkerland." In front of the wall would sit three tables made of cans with Campbell's labels. Those tables would serve as display areas where the company could highlight some recent and popular product designs.

Once the general concept was agreed upon, Kellner says, it became a rush to work out the final details, such as how to get thousands of cans of soup to the show and make sure the media was aware of the soup-centric booth. So while Habraken worked on finalizing the specifics of his design, Kellner went to work finding a food bank and getting the word out about the company's upcoming exhibit.

During her conversations with representatives at Javits, Kellner discovered that well-known local food bank City Harvest had an agreement with the convention center to pass along leftover food from trade shows and events to those in need. So Kellner contacted the charity and asked if it would be willing to accept a couple thousand cans of Campbell's Soup. City Harvest gratefully agreed to accept Kikkerland's donation, and since the company made regular pickups at Javits anyway, Kellner wouldn't have to pay to get the cans from the show floor to the food bank, which saved the company at least $700.

An e-mail detailing the company's exhibit and its philanthropic aspect was sent to Kikkerland's customers and designers. The company also spread the word about the booth and donation among its contacts at the University of Philadelphia. And finally, Habraken chipped in by sending out a notice promoting the exhibit to his own list of industry professionals and designers.

As the show opened for exhibit setup, Kikkerland had about 2,500 cans of soup sent to its booth space via a local Fairway grocery store. But while the labor crew was busy constructing the booth, Kellner and Habraken realized they had underestimated the number of cans the design required. So the crew made a quick trip to Fairway to purchase another 300 cans and finish the job before the show opened the next day.

Soup's On

Front and center in Kikkerland's space sat three tables - each made from a different Campbell's Soup flavor - decked out with about 30 different products from the company's huge portfolio. The Samurai Umbrella and Endangered Species Erasers (erasers formed in the shape of polar bears, gorillas, rhinoceroses, and other endangered critters) topped tables alongside candleholders shaped like little green Army men.

A sign in the booth provided information about Habraken, mentioning some of the products he'd designed in the past for Kikkerland, along with his comments on how much he enjoyed working for the company. "It was a subtle way to reinforce that we value our designers, and that our designers enjoy working with us," Kellner says.

The effect of the booth, the products, and the shout-out to Habraken all helped generate buzz at the show. Kellner says the exhibit saw a steady stream of students and established designers stopping by to talk about Kikkerland, its corporate culture, the kinds of products it's looking for, and the kinds of designers it hoped to recruit.

"Lots of designers came in and talked to us," Kellner says. "And we hooked quite a few. The design of the booth and the donation aspect made it look romantic to be a designer."

And the Kikkerland hubbub wasn't just confined to the company's 200-square-foot booth space. "Everyone at the show was talking about us," Kellner says. "They'd ask each other, 'Did you see the soup cans?'"

Once the show was over, Kikkerland had the names of 25 new product designers it planned to follow up with afterward. "That's a good pool from one show, and more than twice the number of designers we recruited in 2008," Kellner says.

Meanwhile, the blogs that cover the product-design industry lit up over Kikkerland. The amount of positive coverage nearly doubled from 2008, and Kellner points to two pieces on the Core77 blog as real feathers in the company's cap. One post was a glowing review of Kikkerland's booth at the show. Another was an interview with Habraken, in which he talked about his experience working as a designer for the company.

Kellner says compared to 2008, the results from the 2009 ICFF were a smashing success. Kikkerland's name practically saturated the product-design community with its soupy strategy, and designers flocked to the company to discuss future partnerships. "We wanted to send a message to designers - especially the kinds of innovative, forward-thinking designers at ICFF - that Kikkerland is out there," Kellner says. "We're one to watch, we're growing, and we want them to be a part of that growth."

With a soup-to-nuts budget of only $10,000, Kikkerland's Campbell's Soup booth not only put the company on the design map at ICFF, it helped Kellner and her team recruit more design talent than it knows what to do with. And as far as Kikkerland's concerned, that's a soup-er design quandary to have.

Brian Todd, staff writer; btodd@exhibitormagazine.com

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