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From the cover of Sports Illustrated to the pages of Kmart's circular, Kathy Ireland leveraged her star status in 1993 to launch a lifestyle brand that has grown into a diversified business and one of the largest licensors in the world.
As Ireland's company, kathy ireland Worldwide (kiWW) approaches its 20th anniversary next year, it exemplifies not only her driving entrepreneurial spirit and the creativity of her designs, but also the fundamental characteristics of how to build a powerful brand with panache and staying power.
According to the exclusive Top 125 Global Licensors report, published annually by License! Global, kiWW ranked No. 25 with $2 billion in retail sales of licensed products in 2011, putting the company among some very well-known and respected brands.
In one respect, Ireland's initiatives and vision helped to define celebrity licensing during a decade when it was still in its early stages of development and not the more sophisticated and powerful driving business force it is in today's brand licensing and retail marketplace. Ireland has set the standard for what a celebrity brand should be and for what it takes to be successful. Ireland knows first hand that it's not about slapping your name on a product and hoping for the best. She learned early on that building a brand was more about connecting with customers, understanding their needs and delivering solutions.
"Brand building is hard work," admits Ireland, chief executive officer and chief designer, kiWW, who explains that her relationship to customers has never been like that of typical celebrities. "When a customer stops me on the street, she doesn't want my autograph, she wants to know what lamp goes with the rug she just purchased.
"If design is not your passion, don't just give away your name and wait for a royalty fee, instead hire great designers. A brand must have a distinct point of view," she adds.
And that's exactly what Ireland did.
In terms of design and creativity, Ireland always knew what she wanted to do, from the time she was little girl painting rocks and selling them, through her years as a model. In 1993, after almost a decade from the time she first appeared in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition and launched a line of socks at Kmart, her dream became a reality when she started her own design and marketing business.
The company has evolved into a marketing and design empire with more than 15,000 products across dozens of categories with exclusive licensees and retail partnerships.
Ireland's strategy is fundamentally simple on the surface: "finding solutions for families, especially busy moms." Yet it requires an extremely complex combination of research, design, marketing and attention to detail to understand exactly what products "mom" really wants and to find the appropriate partner that shares the same philosophy to produce those products according to the right color, value and lifestyle attributes.
"We could not conduct our business without licensing," says Ireland. "Licensing provides a complete solution."
Much of Ireland's design and creative input comes from her own personal experiences, whether she is in her "mom" role at home, talking to a friend or business acquaintance or travelling the world like a fledgling artist looking for inspiration.
"I am never going to be a great chef," she points out. "I'm a mom that can make a few dishes, but if I am looking for something beyond that, I go to the experts."
For example, celebrity Chef Andre Carthen is one of those experts who provides the consultation and direction she aspires to.
"If the company is going to design a piña colada scented candle, it's better that this product be driven by his expertise."
Ireland says she loves the outdoors she grew up in, but admits she is not an outdoor expert.
"Any products that are in the outdoor category, in order to have the integrity we need, I defer to landscape designer Nicholas Walker," she says.
This willingness to partner with other design experts has become a major part of the company's brand expertise as well as its goal to provide solutions. Ireland and Carthen, who was recently named to the Nutrisystem Celebrity Chef Culinary Council, created ACafe Society by Celebrity Chef Andre, which not only offers a wide range of products ranging from knives to cookware to tabletop, but also offers practical advice on recipes, entertaining and food safety, consistent with the kiWW mission statement to provide solutions for busy moms.
Ireland and Walker collaborated on Jardin du Jour, or the J du J brand, which serves as the seed for kiWW's outdoor living and garden business. Both Carthen and Walker have also developed candle collections inspired by their respective design expertise, produced by Hanna's Candle Company.
The Walt Disney Company, which is the world's largest brand licensor, not surprisingly has been a strong inspiration and influence to Ireland.
"When my daughters were at an age to get lunch boxes, they just didn't want any princess lunch box, it had to be a Disney princess," she recalls.
This is yet another real life example of why Ireland emphasizes the importance of brand perception and what it means to kiWW.
Ireland says she still uses the same branded mascara she used as a teenager, another telltale sign of her deep understanding about the value of brand loyalty.
An important mentor to Ireland and a life-changing influence was Elizabeth Taylor.
"She taught me to look at design in a whole new way and to focus on every detail," says Ireland. "Powerful brands begin with authenticity of design, and that's what I learned from Taylor."
According to Ireland, kiWW has strived to "communicate to customers with the right brand and the right prices for the right product, and that's why licensing is so powerful. There is no way we could manufacture all those products and do it well. So we go to experts to manufacture specific products and work with the best suppliers."
Ireland says: "We began with finding solutions for families and busy moms and expanded to finding solutions for people in love and finding solutions for people in business."
kiWW now has more than 30 merchandise categories, each driven by one licensee. The company maintains eight style guides that focus on various themes–Aloha, Americana, Architectural, European Country, Far East Dreams, Ivory Coast, In Russian and La Vida Buena. The kiWW in-house design team creates the styles, colors and art that reflect Ireland's tastes and preferences.
A sampling of categories and licensees include indoor and outdoor accessories and lighting by Pacific Coast, area rugs by Shaw, baby furniture by Lajobi, bedrooms by Vaughan Furniture, wedding dresses by Mon Cheri, ceiling fans by minkaAaire, mattresses by Therapedic, windows by Window World, and, of course, socks by Goldtoe Moretz.
Another key aspect of kiWW strategy is the mantra of "fashion, quality, value and safety." When all these factors are executed properly, Ireland believes a branded product will outperform a generic one of lesser or comparable price, even during difficult times and economic uncertainty, because women shop for what they know and trust.
"The quickest way to destroy a brand is with poor quality merchandise or with a poor price-to-value ratio," she says.
For the future, Ireland maintains that kiWW will continue to stay close to the principles that have helped the company grow for nearly 20 years, which means providing solutions for mothers in categories not currently offered, such as apparel and accessories. Who knows what might be possible with Ireland and the kiWW designers thinking out of the box.
Exploring options in entertainment and television is possible as well. However, Ireland admits: "I have never been in a hurry to be in front of the camera. I enjoy being behind it."
Another part of Ireland's overall business is her many philanthropic endeavors which include the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Anti Defamation League, Alliance for Global Education, St. Jude, Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and Athletes and Entertainers for Kids/911 for Kids.
Ireland is also an author, with several titles to her credit ranging in topic from advice for mothers, to inspirational passages, to children's books.
Ireland has defined what it means to be a supermodel, super mom, super entrepreneur and super brand licensor. She remains very fond of those hectic Sports Illustrated and Kmart days as they are what encouraged her to pursue her dreams. Ireland also remembers her childhood paper route and the advice her father gave her.
"He told me that you should give 110 percent. If a customer expects the paper on the driveway, you put it on the front porch," she says. "That's been the foundation of my business: to under promise and over deliver."