Gary Kiedaisch is charged with leading one of the strongest consumer product brands in the country. The chairman and CEO of No. 1 cooler manufacturer Igloo Products Corp. understands that achieving the top spot didn’t happen overnight or by accident. It took Igloo’s industry awareness, brand building and unmatched innovation to keep the manufacturer atop the cooler industry.
The $250 million, 1,200-employee company originated the cooler category in 1947 and for more than 60 years it has held the No. 1 market share. Kiedaisch has helped excel Igloo’s brand and its products and has the ongoing challenge of keeping the company relevant and continuing its reputation as the top cooler manufacturer.
“We have, in my humble opinion, the best products in the category,” Kiedaisch says. “I don’t think anybody has a lineup of coolers like Igloo does. We live, eat, sleep and breathe coolers.”
While Kiedaisch can enjoy the comfort of leading a No. 1 market share company, he hasn’t been resting on his laurels. Here’s how Kiedaisch combines a strong brand with industry leading innovation to help grow Igloo Products Corp.
Build and advance your brand
Research shows that three in every four U.S. households own at least one Igloo cooler. Igloo has achieved this level of market penetration by being the best at what they do.
“We specialize in coolers,” Kiedaisch says. “Our two main competitors, Coleman and Rubbermaid, are generalists. The cooler business for them is a fraction of their whole. Coolers are our shirt, and with them, they are a sleeve on their jacket.”
Igloo’s ability to continually produce high-quality, durable cooler products is what helps drive the company’s reputation and relationships.
“We are delivering to our customers a truly great product that they need and we have good relationships with them,” he says. “What that shows is our branding and they’re going to then put our brand on the shelf front and center because retailers want to know what they’re buying and that consumers have confidence in it. That’s the first stamp in the marketplace.”
There’s a reason you don’t see a lot of marketing dollars for coolers and that is because the cooler itself is a billboard.
“Once you sell a cooler, it’s not going to get used only by one person one time and put away in a closet,” Kiedaisch says. “The first time it gets used it’s probably going to get used by at least three, maybe four, maybe five people. It’s going to be taken out repeated times and when it is taken out it is going to be the center of the party. You use it when you go to the beach or going to camp. I’ve got some contractors restoring a property in New Hampshire and at lunch time they’re all sitting around their Igloo coolers and its part of their daily life. They live with those products.”
The many uses of a cooler along with the quality and durability of each one of them have helped Igloo sell more than 20 million coolers a year, which exponentially builds the brand.
“You’ve got 20 million impressions going to the marketplace multiplied by two, three, four or five, utilized four or five times a year with a life cycle of how ever many years coolers go on and you just have a huge penetration in American households,” Kiedaisch says. “That’s why the brand is so well-known and recognized.”
To make your brand well-known and recognized you have to not only have a product that people want to use, but you have to associate your brand with things that your products are regularly used for.
“In sporting goods products there are many, many likes; for example skis,” Kiedaisch says. “You watch the Olympics and you see the skiers coming down and at the end of the race they pick up their skis and there’s a big billboard with the name of their ski right beside their head and that’s what’s commonly called sports marketing. I call it opinion-reader marketing and hundreds of thousands of consumer products companies use that strategy.
“It’s the same with car racing. I think it’s great that Chevrolet is on a NASCAR because that’s a Chevrolet engine and that’s a pretty tough piece of equipment. When you get a company’s brand on a NASCAR vehicle that has nothing to do with automotive or mechanical or engineering or doesn’t have a part in the vehicle, that’s just trying to get your name in front of the consumer demographic, but there is very little correlation between the two. It’s a very expensive and very indirect way to build a brand.”
Igloo tries to team up with events or activities that directly correlate with the use of its products.
“We sponsor the FLW Tournament, which is the biggest bass fishing tournament in the country,” he says. “We’re on television with bass fisherman and … they have to bring these fish in for weighing and they have to keep them alive, so they put them in an Igloo cooler. That’s similar to the NASCAR race where our equipment and gear is being used by the celebrity. That is direct cause and effect and the person choosing a cooler at the moment of decision is going to recall, ‘This is the one that’s used by all those FLW guys, I see on TV all the time.’”
Discover avenues to grow
In order to lead a consumer category for more than 60 years, you need more than a good product to continue that dominance. You need to have strong employees that can recognize the right business strategies.
“Anybody will say that the toughest leadership challenges are always getting the right people focused around the right business strategies and having them executed and implemented with precision,” Kiedaisch says. “The most important thing is to really surround yourself with experts in fields of the discipline that you do business in. If you’re in the consumer products business and you sell products through whatever it is that’s your specialty, you need people that understand the habits and behaviors of not only the end user but the retailer that you’re dealing with and how they interface with their consumers.”
Kiedaisch has been able to surround himself with people who are experts in the cooler industry and that expertise has led to growth for Igloo.
“Since 2008 we’ve grown this company significantly,” he says. “We’ve grown more than 20 percent and in the specialty channels outside of Walmart, we’ve grown close to 30 percent. It’s come from recognizing what we do and doing what we do better.”
Igloo’s strong brand and market dominance has led to penetration in 70 percent of American households in a category that has penetration in 90 percent of American households.
“You could argue the market is saturated and there’s no room for growth or you could argue that it’s a staple of life that the product that you make, almost every household needs one or two or three,” Kiedaisch says. “All you really need to do is bring them new reasons to buy one — compelling new reasons to buy a replacement or take new consumers. It’s a combination of sustaining what worked before and also bringing new innovation into the category to improve it.”
To continue to grow your company, your products and your brand you have to be in the right mind set. You can’t be turned away at the first sign of adversity.
“You have to make sure that you know your business and never, never, never give up,” he says. “If what you try today or this morning didn’t work quite as you wanted it to, take a look at it and see what went wrong or what assumption was incorrect and keep going until you get the result you think you want. That’s not to say you go until death. Sometimes certain strategies are wrong and you need to course correct. You only course correct when there is clear evidence that the direction that the group felt the company should be going is unquestionably proven to be wrong.”
When you are trying to be new and different and make a stand in an industry there are always people who will disagree.
“There are a lot of naysayers, especially when you’re trying to do something new and you’re trying to be great, that are going to want to slow down or dumb it down or maybe not chase that ring and then you settle,” Kiedaisch says. “The worst thing that I’ve ever seen other executives do is settle. That’s when you get companies that don’t have great performance in their products, great performance in their innovation, great performance in their financials, and they don’t have, in my opinion, motivated and happy executives and employees.”
Innovate the industry
Kiedaisch and the employees at Igloo refuse to settle for anything less than their best. The company is always looking for the next innovation to keep its products relevant.
“It’s all about the quality and efficiency of the product,” Kiedaisch says. “It’s got to outperform anything else that’s out there in the marketplace and that’s what we’re constantly working on. If you’re not constantly reinventing your product there’s no reason to replace it, there’s no reason for somebody to be motivated to buy it, and you’re not going to have very good sales.”
Reinvention is what Igloo is great at. The company explores numerous avenues to make a good product even better.
“Take for example our soft-sided coolers,” he says. “The original soft-sided coolers are just square sewn together boxes with insulation in them and they were lunch boxes and they looked like that. What we’ve done is we’ve developed a series of bags, totes and across-shoulder messenger bags that are insulated and have fashion and design to them that women will carry to the office or men will carry to a boat that doesn’t look like it’s your lunch pail, yet it is.”
Igloo looks to other industries and product functions to get inspiration for its innovations.
“What we did was we studied the women’s handbag business and how women carry their daily accessory needs,” he says. “We look towards the luggage industry and we look toward the refrigeration industry to see what they’re doing. I don’t know who came out with wheels first, but I would bet that the luggage industry came out with wheels first and you can’t buy a piece of luggage today without a wheel on it.
“We’re in the food transportation and storage business. If you’re in that business you look at what other companies make products that move personal items by an individual and you can learn things from those people as to what you can do with your company.”
Igloo did something similar when designing its new rickshaw-inspired glide cooler. It took a page out of the Chinese lifestyle.
“We looked at the Chinese rickshaw and saw these frail people carting around two heavy people in a two-wheel wagon,” Kiedaisch says. “The art to it was the balance of the rickshaw and that the handle is set away from the wheels and acts as a lever. So we created a cooler that has a handle that extends out much like a rickshaw and you reduce the weight of lifting it by 50 percent and you also move yourself further away from the cooler so if you’re pulling it the cooler is far enough behind so it’s not bumping into your Achilles tendon.”
Kiedaisch doesn’t just look to similar industries or functions that could contribute to a cooler. He also watches how consumers utilize the products.
“We wander around a lot,” he says. “I’m often accused of being a chief product manager myself. We respect the fact of how the product plays. We watch how people use products. We look to related industries and how they manufacture products and what you can bring to the consumer in ways of better performance or better value and then we will incorporate it into the product. I probably on any given day of the week will see four or five innovative new things that the team will check and see if there is something we can do to incorporate that technology into our products.”
Innovation doesn’t stop at finding new ways for a product to be used it also applies to the ways you make a product.
“I’d challenge what technology ends up being used in the manufacturing or materials that are used in your products,” Kiedaisch says. “If Igloo didn’t do that we’d still be making metal fabricated coolers and they’d be horribly expensive.”
HOW TO REACH: Igloo Products Corp., (713) 584-6800 or www.igloocoolers.com
- Build your brand and align it with uses that directly correlate
- Use your brand and turn it into growth for your products
- Take what you do best and innovate to make it better
The Kiedaisch File
Born: Cambridge, Mass.
Education: Attended college for two years and was studying pre-law before joining the military.
Do you have a favorite Igloo product?
My 28-quart personal cooler that I use to travel to and from my boat with.
Who is somebody that you admire in business?
I admire Jack Welch and Steve Jobs. I say Jack Welch because when he ran General Electric, he had his hands on the ball. He had constant meetings with his employees and he was always motivating his employees and sharing where the company was and where it was going. I say Steve Jobs because he not only [ran the company] but he was the chief product development guy and he understood that the wellness of Apple Computers is as good as the last innovation you came up with and he drove that.
If you weren’t a CEO what job would you have?
If I were not running a company, I would be a lawyer of some sort because it is very similar to what I do. It’s getting the facts, preparation, presentation, cause and consequences, and it’s high stakes, winner takes all.
Cool facts about Igloo:
- Igloo is the No. 1 cooler brand in the world
- No. 1 market share in the U.S.
- No. 1 cooler brand used in the marine channel
- No. 1 cooler brand used on commercial worksites
- No. 1 brand recognized by consumers in the cooler category
- Igloo adds more new coolers to its line each year than any other cooler brand
- Playmate is the most recognized cooler product in the U.S.
- Almost three in every four U.S. households owns an Igloo cooler
- Igloo offers more than 500 different products
- Igloo coolers are sold through more than 15,000 outlets in the U.S. and around the world.