Volume 15 | Issue 2 | Year 2012

Innovation is in our DNA,” declares Mônica Mueller, marketing manager of Mueller Eletrodomésticos, one of Brazil’s leading manufacturers of washing machines and stoves. “We don’t want to be seen as a conventional manufacturer that makes run-of-the-mill products. When we make something it’s with the aim of grabbing consumers’ attention.”
Consumers in search of domestic appliances will certainly take heed of Mueller Eletrodomésticos this year as it launches innovative new items that promise to have major impacts for both Mueller and the Brazilian “white goods” sector. It will hardly be the first time, however, that the 63-year-old company launches a pioneering product.

Innovation wasn’t immediately apparent in 1949, when Walter Mueller opened a small blacksmith’s shop in his hometown of Timbó, Santa Catarina, and began producing farm implements such as hoes, horseshoes, and machetes. Due to the fact that there were 18 other blacksmiths in the region, the start-up stalled. Serendipitously, during this tough time, Mueller happened upon a German magazine featuring a photograph of a new model of washing machine. On an inventive whim, Mueller decided to produce a prototype himself out of wood – and thus was born the first-ever, semi-automatic washing machine made in Brazil as well as the company known as Mueller Lavadoras.

It was auspicious that the washing machine produced by Mueller was baptized Pioneira (Pioneer). The washer was the first in a series of models that not only launched Mueller as a recognized brand, but also jumpstarted the industry in South America. Over the following six decades, Mueller consolidated its place in the market and proved its innovative tendencies repeatedly.

Important milestones included the launch of the Diva, Mueller’s first automatic washing machine; the SuperPop, a lightweight, low-cost machine whose packaging was 40 percent smaller than that of regular models; and the SuperPop Glass, Brazil’s first transparent washing machine. Along the way, the company racked up a host of prestigious awards, ranging from the Casa Brasileira Museum Design Prize in Brazil to a silver IDEA award from the Industrial Designers Society of America. It also become the leading manufacturer of semi-automatic washing machines in Brazil.

The year 2012 is poised to be yet another milestone for Mueller due to the launch of yet another auspiciously named product: the Special. Released in May, this automatic washer/dryer lives up to its name in several ways. First of all, it is a front load washing machine in a country with a top load culture – but it is also a front load machine with a few (cutting) edges.

“In Europe most washing machines are front loaders, but in Brazil, they are only just beginning to catch on with consumers,” explains Mônica Mueller. “Multinationals such as LG and Samsung are already bringing front load machines – and culture – to Brazil. However, we wanted to introduce a machine that really addresses, as well as overcomes, Brazilians’ problems with these models.”

“For instance, with a top load machine, if you forget to put a stray sock in the machine, all you do is lift up the lid,” points out Mônica Mueller. “Yet, up until now, there was no way of adding the sock to a front load machine without stopping the cycle and draining the water out of the machine, an option that is both time-consuming and a waste of resources.” Mueller’s solution was to create a rapid access hatch door – “similar to that of a submarine” – that, when opened, automatically causes the cycle to stop. When closed again, it allows the sock to join the rest of the wash.

Another special feature of the Special is the machine’s ergonomic design. A drawback of traditional front loaders is that one has to do a lot of bending to load and remove laundry. However, the Special not only sports a drum whose inclination eliminates the need to bend, but is also removable, allowing users to collect laundry and transfer it to a clothesline with ease. Moreover, a removable drum makes cleaning inevitable buildups of soap and other residues a cinch. As a result, there is no need to waste energy by running empty wash cycles or money by calling a technical assistant; the machine ends up staying “newer” longer.

Longevity is also assured by the fact that the Special, like many of Mueller’s washers and dryers, is made out of rust-resistant, heat-resistant, lightweight, recyclable plastic – at the company’s own factory. In contrast to many of its competitors, Mueller possesses its own plastic injection molding equipment, which allows it to produce its own parts.

Supplying its own plastic is only one instance of the company’s commitment to be as vertically integrated as possible. In recent years, the company invested in two new divisions: Hercules Motores, which supplies motors for all of Mueller’s machines as well as to other industrial clients, and Thor Condutores Elétricos, which produces all the company’s wires and cables. Having both at Mueller’s 6.3 million-square-foot site has allowed the company to reduce prices while increasing efficiency and quality control. It has also spurred the company to achieve steady annual growth rates of at least 10 percent over the last five years and revenues that approached R$264.5 million (roughly US$101 million) in 2011.

Meanwhile, the company’s most successful expansion to date has been the creation, in 2002, of Mueller Fogões, a division that produces stoves, ovens, and cook tops and that has allowed Mueller to further consolidate its presence in Brazil’s domestic appliance segment. “Washing machines continue to be our main focus,” says Mônica Mueller. “But the stove segment has been growing well. In only 11 years, the division’s revenues are already approaching those of washing machines.” Last year, Mueller produced 600,000 stove units and 1 million washing machines and dryers.

“The fact is that, in Brazil, the market for stoves is much larger than the washing machine market,” continues Mueller. “In terms of domestic necessities, stoves are No. 1, while washers are only third; 60 percent of Brazilians still don’t have washing machines. However, it is a big dream of most consumers, not to mention an increasing need now that more women are working outside the home.”

The escalating number of women in the workforce is also driving major changes in terms of Mueller’s newest lines of stoves and ovens. “The housewife that stays at home and cooks every day for her family is becoming less frequent,” says Mariana Francesco, marketing manager for Mueller Fogões. “There is a major trend towards cooking for pleasure instead of necessity. It used to be that the kitchen was a service area. Today, however, it is increasingly a reception area where friends and family gather to cook more elaborate meals, over the weekend, for example. For this reason, our new stoves are much more diverse in terms of design, with an emphasis on curves, colors and attractive materials such as reflective glass and chrome that customers can identify with on a personal level. They’re also much more diverse in terms of features that offer more variety and control in terms of performance.”

A case in point is Mueller’s just launched Maggiore stove. It possesses five burners: a large central triple flame burner, two large double flame burners, and two medium burners. Mueller developed the burners in-house – most stove manufacturers in Brazil outsource their burners – and, as a result, the double flame burners are stronger and distribute heat better than conventional ones while the triple flame burners are the most potent available on the market. Because of all these features, the Maggiore is not only the most powerful stove of its kind in Brazil, but it also offers the most control – allowing consumers to cook fast at high temperatures or slowly over low heat – and the most energy efficiency. “The upshot is that consumers spend less and cook more,” says Francesco.

Regardless of the segment in question, developing products that wed high functionality and good looks with low cost has always been an underlying mission of Mueller’s. This is because, traditionally, the company’s target market consisted largely of working-class consumers from Brazil’s C and D classes. In recent times, however, the company has sought to extend its reach by appealing to the nation’s upper middle and wealthy B and A classes. Both the Special and the Maggiore were dreamed up to appeal specifically to this growing market segment.

“Our strategy for the next five to 10 years is to expand in all markets,” confesses Mônica Mueller. “The launch of the Special, in particular, represents an important first step in this new direction that’s going to take us to a whole new level in the history of our company. The plan is to introduce new products subtly so that we don’t initially go head-to-head with Eletrolux, Brastemp, and Consul, all of which are major multinational players in the A and B class segments. This way we’ll grow gradually.”

“Without a doubt, 2012 is an important year for us,” chimes in Francesco. “In terms of the number of new launches, and the quality level of these products, we’re really experiencing a watershed moment. What’s essential to underline, however, is that it’s not just the new technology that’s important, but the way we present the new technology. Independently of the class of consumer to which we’re catering, what drives Mueller is identifying the problems that our customers encounter in their day-to-day lives and finding innovative ways of resolving them.”

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