Qompendium is an evolving and ever-changing platform for philosophy, art, culture and science, represented by a series of print publications: magazines, books and monographs. Furthermore, it is enriched by a gallery concept, a work shop and a fast-moving online portal.
The Victorinox oversized cross and shield emblem has undoubtedly left an indelible mark in the history of industrialization. As a scion of unrivalled Swiss savoir-faire, the national logotype has over the years ventured beyond the original Swiss Army Knife to encompass a sizeable product range including fashion, signature timepieces, travel gear, kitchen cutlery and fragrances. As a company with high sales turnover and continuous market expansion, the core business model is as traditional as it gets, maintaining an employee-centric, family-oriented philosophy.
With flagship stores trickling out since 2008 in London, Geneva, Düsseldorf and Basel and the recent Wenger takeover, we speak with Mr. Alain Hospenthal to find out how in fast-paced times they still manage to adapt to the demands without forgoing their core values of high quality, high precision and high workforce retention.
Qompendium: In Victorinox’s early days, the focus was concentrated on the product and much less so on marketing and branding, when do you feel was the decisive moment to break away from this approach?
Alain Hospenthal: Actually we have always been a company driven by our markets; this since the very beginnings in the late 19th century when succeeding was not a certainty. In the early days we would understand marketing primarily as a way of doing things in order to satisfy our customers by exceeding their demand; with superior quality, extended functionality, ongoing innovation and iconic design. These are still the very corners of our brand and represent the basement of our success. Since Victorinox stands for an extraordinary ability to transform needs into really good products, it might look as if we have only been focusing on the product and not that much on marketing communication. You see we feel that we might not have said a lot in the past, but for sure we said what’s right and true and that inspired our customers. It is impossible to remain on the market for more than 125 years without a highly professionalized marketing approach; as simple or complex as it may be understood from outside. When it comes to unified and coherent branding, especially among the different product divisions, we have only in recent years increased our efforts to create a strong family brand; this by opening our own flagship and brand stores as well as by gradually adopting the very same corporate identity on all touch points.
With your partnership with Switzerland Design for Life and Joachim Beer’s plans to revamp Victorinox through strategic design collaborations scheduled for FW 2011, would you say you’re gearing towards a more design-centric positioning?
Absolutely. The knife division has come up with quite a few design and special editions in the last few years. Only last year we had launched the Classic Limited Edition which came with 10 fashionable designs and has recently been replaced with this year’s edition. They are a great success, with quantities exceeding half a million units so far. Also the Victorinox Tomo is a design reinterpretation of a Classic addressing today’s “Fashionistas” from around the world.
In your own words, who is your ultimate target group?
From men from 8 to 108 (smile). We are of course making products which meet the needs of a variety of people from professional kitchen to do-it-yourself, from outdoor to elite army units, from corporate gift to father’s day present. So you could say that our range goes from field to fashion. Ultimately we want to succeed by winning our customers hearts; an aim we work for every day.
The cross and shield emblem was first created to set you apart from the rest and avoid potential for copies, with the idea of using Swissness and “Swiss-made” as advantage points, how do you handle your licensing deals?
We have a clear strategy for all products which carry our Victorinox cross-and-shield. They are inspired by the ingenuity and values of the Swiss Army Knife. Which again are High Quality, Functionality, Innovation and Iconic Design. We cultivate a very close and frequent partnership with our licensee partners. We always felt that they share the very same values as we do. Thanks to this trust we have been able to succeed with our line of TravelGear products. Victorinox TravelGear is today the no. 1 department store luggage brand in the US and in various other markets in Latin America as well as Asia.
You’ve stayed true to not letting employees go or downsizing even in tight financial conditions through implementing less extreme approaches as freezing hiring, cancelling overtime and reducing shifts by 15 minutes. With the Wenger takeover, how will you handle all that comes with a much larger workforce?
The philosophy remains the same only on a larger scale. In good times we build up reserves which we then consume during harder times. This is a very strong recipe for sustainable success.
As far as anti-capitalists are concerned, corporate culture is thought to only cannibalise society, would you say your ‘qualitative projects’, as you call them, are the answer to this discussion?
Our aim was always to serve people with great products and services rather than increasing benefits. We feel that everybody should be approached with respect and understanding. It is thanks to the Christian values exemplified by the Elsener family that Victorinox has succeeded not only as a brand but also as a host for happier employees.
Most recently you’ve developed a USB flash drive which allows users to encrypt their data with a password and biometric fingerprint sensor, what other technological innovations do you see on the horizon?
All we can say about that is… more surprises to come.
Your travel and clothing ranges are outsourced due to economical constraints in Switzerland, is this something that can be overcome in the future?
That is very hard to predict and depends hugely on further industrial developments in Europe and Asia. We feel that reallocating our travel and clothing ranges to Europe or even Switzerland would not result in greater benefit to our consumers. This may of course change over time. It has always been our philosophy to produce in-house whenever possible; this is true for tooling, molds and even production machines. Also we would favor local suppliers from those who are far away. All our watches and more than 95 % of our knives are made in Switzerland.
What other plans are there for your fashion line?
Our fashion division is still a young division. Our aim is to gradually increase our efforts to transform the Swiss Army Knife values into appealing collections. Meanwhile the fashion division has become an increasingly important part within our own retail business and it clearly represents a key pillar for the future development of our brand.
With new product developments and entrepreneurial initiatives launched in Switzerland, what limitations do you think currently exist on a state level?
Switzerland has proven to be the ideal country to orchestrate our growth in the years to come. As a typically Swiss company with profound Swiss heritage and international customer base we feel that Switzerland has always been a great promoter for our success. We hope that the economic situation will remain healthy in the years to come allowing us to continuously invest into our core business in Switzerland; the knife and watch manufacturing.
With over 100.000 knives produced per day and a lifetime guarantee to back it up, how do you maintain a consistent quality control framework?
We take every reply or complaint very seriously and follow it up to the last detail. Thanks to a continuous reflection we have perfected our products over time by making them better and better. Mr. Elsener would say every little detail is important.