35th Anniversary Redesign Pumps New Life into Classic Coffeemaker

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Mechanical and Electronic Design

New design targets user preferences for greater functionality, easier use, and a more contemporary look.

Since being introduced in 1972 as the first automatic drip coffeemaker, the Mr. Coffee® brand has weathered economic storms, survived at least one coffee shortage, and become an enduring symbol of American consumer culture with a little marketing help from another famous icon, the late baseball great Joe DiMaggio. The brand was the brainchild of North American Systems, Inc.'s founders, Vincent G. Marotta, Sr., and Samuel Glazer, high school friends who began the business as a coffee delivery service. Thanks in large part to its close association with DiMaggio, the popular ex-Yankee Hall of Famer who became a television spokesperson for the brand in the mid-1970s, Mr. Coffee quickly outdistanced its competitors in the coffeemaker space. Sales of the machine reportedly topped $150 million in 1979, winning more than half of the automatic drip coffeemaker market.

Through the years, Mr. Coffee has evolved in response to the changing preferences and concerns of consumers, periodically introducing user-friendly features such as the coffee saver (1977), programmable timers (1980), Pause N' Serve (1986), water filters (1992), and the single-serve coffeemaker (2004). The brand became the property of Jarden Consumer Solutions, a Boca Raton, Fla., subsidiary of the consumer products company Jarden Corporation (Rye, N.Y.), after Jarden Corp. acquired Sunbeam Products, Inc., in 2005. And as the year 2007 approached, Jarden Consumer Solutions believed that Mr. Coffee's 35th Anniversary would be a good time to celebrate the coffeemaker's history. So Jarden commissioned Altitude, Inc., a design firm based in Somerville, Massachusetts, to design the Mr. Coffee MRX35 Classic Edition Automatic Drip Coffeemaker.

This new 12-cup coffeemaker was designed to maintain the heritage of the original 1970s models, but with better functionality, improved ergonomics, and updated finishes. "The reason why I think that the new coffeemaker is so successful is because it is a new version of a classic icon," affirmed Brian Matt, CEO of Altitude Inc. "For many years Mr. Coffee was so popular that it became a generic term for any automatic drip coffeemaker. So it was exciting and challenging for us to refresh such a famous icon. There's probably not an adult in this country that has not heard of Mr. Coffee, so everybody had an opinion about how it should look and work."

Following a 15-year stretch in which market share had become flat, the brand needed some reinvigoration. The parent company that manages design and distribution for Mr. Coffee—Jarden Consumer Solutions—decided that a coffeemaker with more flair was needed to venture into contemporary, upscale markets. "Jarden wanted some connection to the vintage coffeemaker of the '70s, but it had to be refreshed and updated for a younger, more tech-savvy marketplace," said Matt. "They wanted it to have enough classic attributes so people recognized it, including the classic, square unibody look with the 'C' shape. We kept that, but rotated it 90 degrees and filled in the back."

On this breakthrough program, consumer research played a vital role. Altitude handled the research upfront with a process called rapid ethnography. Just about every decision they made for Mr. Coffee has some basis in its discussions with consumers. "The product came out in stores at the beginning of June 2007 and it is already selling very well, so our research paid off," Matt maintained. "We interviewed hard-core coffee drinkers, and we interviewed the potential customers that Jarden wanted to target, especially the Gen-X and Gen-Y consumers. For example, we'd ask them when they typically brewed coffee. This is how we came up with the programmable clock and the night light."

Jarden Consumer Solutions' 35th Anniversary Mr. Coffee design was an effort to reflect their proud heritage with what's happening in today's marketplace. "When we showed it at this year's Housewares Show, in January, people gravitated toward it very quickly," said Augusto Picozza, global director of industrial design at Jarden Consumer Solutions. "Quite often, people treat design as a very pragmatic, functional activity, but we also try to capture the emotional triggers that resonate with people. I think that our renewed success with Mr. Coffee has done just that. Our new design has brought back boxy shapes from the '70s, while tying into people's definition of what is modern and contemporary today. It still has a sense of tradition and relevance to the Mr. Coffee archetype."

For consumer products in general, Picozza says, the large corporate brand owners have become planning centers rather than manufacturers. "I have six industrial designers that work as a team to manage and guide our contract design firms," he explains. "Due to the large amount of new products and models that we initiate, we don't have a large enough staff, so we go out to innovative design firms for help. The outside world is full of creativity and innovative thinking with different perspectives, so we want to tap into it."

Altitude calls itself a product innovation firm—a company that will take on any design challenge, no matter how extraordinary. Brian Matt founded the company in 1992, and oversaw its growth from three employees to 30. Altitude's clients are many and diverse, including large OEMs like Black & Decker, DeWalt, Delphi, Tyco, Andersen Windows, and Timex, among others. Its staff comprises industrial designers, mechanical engineers, communication designers, and research specialists.

"Many of our people wear multiple hats when it comes to strategy," Matt explains. "We have a dedicated research team that does the bulk of the strategy, and then we put together the various disciplines needed to support the execution of the project."

These days, coffeemakers have evolved into more upright, expressive shapes with digital components for more automatic operation. At $69 to $79 retail, the new coffeemaker has moved from a low-end price range to a medium-range product. The "Gen-X Java" catchphrase has cemented appeal to the younger set.

"It needs to perform and look like an amazing product, but at a medium price point," Matt insisted. "One thing we did to achieve this was put on a wraparound stainless steel trim, but we couldn't put on too much because it would raise the cost. And we put a little bit of wood inlay in the logo instead of the old wood grain paper decal on the classic model."

Many distinct details were added to pull in new demographic groups. The coffeemaker includes a sophisticated, digitized mother board for the main control unit to control the programmable and regular functions, whereas the old units just had an on/off switch. Altitude also incorporated the perforated backsplash, textured silicone mats, and ambient backlighting, as well as controls for brew strength, cleaning cycle, and water temperature, according to Matt.

To create an exciting product that would outsell all the competition in its price range, Altitude first performed a research study with consumers to find out which attributes they cared about most and what they valued and liked about coffeemakers and other products. After the research was completed, the design firm performed visual and feature mapping. The designers came up with a visual design matrix in a number of different areas; first, by using a 2 x 2 (four-part) grid with two different continuums perpendicular to each other. One side of a particular spectrum might be highly expressive, for example, and the other side might be minimalist design. The top and bottom of the spectrum would go from high-price point to low-price point.

"What we do for this study is plot all of the competitors' coffeemakers, and then all of the relevant features," Matt continues. "It's called a gap analysis, but we do it in a visual way. After our initial research, we found that consumers wanted a clock, so we added one. But we had price constraints, so we couldn't add an analog clock, but we put in an LCD clock with an analog face for the best of both worlds."

Also included in the design matrix were greater functionality and ergonomics, and it had to have the "wow factor" to pull consumers to the product. For example, a bigger touch pad on the side of the brewer was created so that all of the buttons and knobs would be very accessible. The firm's CEO said that they also did a little tweaking on the balancing of the handle so that the coffee pot would be easier to pour, and worked on the glass spout to keep it from dripping. In addition, a silicone pad was designed for the top section of the unit to hold a user's coffee cups.

"We decided to rotate the design 90 degrees and put in a back panel, and then give all of the finishes a tighter and cleaner look, without too many flash lines," said Matt. "And we gave it a satin finish that is soft to the touch with a coffee color. We thought a coffee color would be unique, since most coffeemakers are white or black or chrome. The ½-inch-wide, stainless steel wrap-around trim lends a nice touch of sparkle that blends in with stovetops and refrigerators and other kitchen appliances. And the perforated backsplash is basically a plastic back panel that closes in the unit to give it a unibody look."

Materials also played a large part in the new design for fit, finish, and function. The sprayed-on suede finish is a thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) that is unique to Mr. Coffee's new model. The heating pad is silicone plastic, the wrap-around band is stainless steel, and all the buttons are high-end, hard plastic with stronger switches for a better tactile feel.

The substructure is injection molded with a combination of polypropylene resins, and a metal stamping process is used to produce the trim band and handle inlays. The injection-molded handle is held on to the air-blown glass pot with stainless steel bands. The biggest challenge, according to Matt, was spraying on the suede coating, since it had to be very even and the right thickness to look good over the brown plastic enclosure.

Matt says that because the processes for manufacturing coffeemakers aren't difficult, it wasn't necessary to make a functional prototype for such a simple piece of technology. High-fidelity appearance models were created, however. "Before the manufacturing process started, high-density foam models were made using 3D computer models from our design work," he recalled. "It's hard to tell the real coffeemaker from the models, they are so accurate."

Now that the product has hit the marketplace, both in retail stores and online, Altitude is proud of its efforts with the noteworthy coffeemaker. "The measure of our success as a design firm is the fact that the product has already been selling very well," says Matt. "It will probably hit tens of thousands of units the first quarter."

To learn more about the design services of Altitude, Inc., visit www.altitudeinc.com

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