Counter-Intelligence: Lessons from Whirlpool’s WLabs

By Steven Melendez |  November 20, 2019

Brett Dibkey knows what he shouldn’t be doing at Whirlpool’s WLabs: delivering incremental improvements to the refrigerator.

Instead, his 4-year-old incubator, located in Benton Harbor, Mich., is tasked with something a whole lot harder: creating new kinds of appliances in categories that aren’t yet well-established. Like making beer at home, or “refreshing” clothes that have been worn once or twice.

Not everything they’ve launched has worked out perfectly. But Dibkey, a VP of Brand Marketing and Strategy at Whirlpool, opened up to share what they’ve learned so far.

Can you tell us about WLabs and some of the products you’ve developed? 

We’re still relatively early in the journey. The organization is about 4 years old, so it’s a relatively emergent group within the company. 

One of our notable products is just shipping now, and the way we’re going to market—through a presale on Indiegogo—is very different compared to most other products at Whirlpool. It’s a food recycler called Zera. Basically, it’s a product that recycles food and turns it into a soil amendment, kind of the equivalent of compost, within 24 hours. …Managing food waste is a huge issue, particularly for major municipalities around the world. As food waste decomposes and sits in landfills, it creates methane gas, and methane has really high atmospheric warming potential. And generally speaking, consumers just feel guilty about wasting food that comes into their home.

Composting obviously is a way to address that need, but it’s not well-adopted by many people, because it’s messy. …This product is intended to bring the habit of recycling food or composting food into the home in an ick-free, odorless way. We developed it in the labs a couple of years ago, went to the Consumer Electronics Show [in 2017], and introduced the product. 

As we were preparing to launch, we discovered an engineering issue that needed to be addressed. We basically redesigned the product from the ground up and are now shipping, starting in late Q1. The folks that we sold to on Indiegogo all hung with us, so we sold out within a week the full allotment of the product. We think it’s going to solve and address a real, meaningful consumer and societal problem.

Those are the types of products that I think are indicative of WLabs. We’re really not trying to incrementally improve a refrigerator… We’ve got lots of people in…the organization focused on that every day. This group is really more oriented toward addressing bigger consumer problems, or delivering really compelling consumer solutions in spaces that have been unaddressed.

How does WLabs fit into the larger Whirlpool organization?

WLabs is a fairly small but dedicated group within Whirlpool. [Whirlpool doesn’t publicly disclose the size of the WLabs team.] The resources are dedicated to WLabs, and don’t generally work outside the group.

WLabs reports into the brand marketing organization, but has high visibility throughout the organization. The team will occasionally host “open houses” for other employees within Whirlpool to share projects they’re working on. They also host a number of events to cultivate new ideas from the broader Whirlpool employee population.    

In addition to hosting the WLabs team, The Garage also serves as an innovation center for the broader organization. So, innovation-focused meetings are often held in this space by teams from across the organization.  

You mentioned using Indiegogo, which as you said is a bit of an unusual approach for a big consumer appliance company. How in general do you launch and promote Labs products, and how do you decide what’s best for which product?

Honestly, like a lot of innovation and invention, it was born out of a failure. …Several years ago, in conjunction with Procter & Gamble, we launched a fabric care product called Swash.

It was intended to be a fabric refresher. There was a habit within the US that consumers were re-wearing clothes more often. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t find anyone that would be willing to admit that they re-wore clothes [without washing]. Today, it’s a commonly-accepted practice and viewed as just a smart thing to do. There wasn’t really a solution for refreshing clothes that had been worn before.

We, in conjunction with P&G, developed Swash, took it to market and honestly just didn’t get the level of consumer adoption that we both expected. But we ramped up production considerably—Whirlpool likes making lots of things with low variation. …We went to traditional retail to sell the product, and when we found that the consumer solution didn’t reach critical mass from a market-adoption perspective, we had a lot of inventory… It was an experience that didn’t go as we had anticipated.

As a result of that, we began to rethink the way we went to market with new-to-the-world products. I think the Zera example is a good one. Based on the Swash experience, we built micro-manufacturing capabilities, so rather than build products in the tens or even hundreds of thousands, we developed a capability to build product in the hundreds. The objective is to go to market with an early adopter community like [the one that] exists on Indiegogo, and really enroll that community in co-development of the products over time.

We’re going to make a couple of thousand Zeras, get them in the hands of passionate early-adopter consumers…and ultimately work with them to improve the product as it evolves. 

What do you think led to the Swash not being as successful as you anticipated?

It’s a fairly big product—it’s an upright product that you put a single garment into, so it has to accommodate an extra-large men’s shirt. It’s probably close to five feet tall, so it consumes a fair amount of space. We heard feedback from consumers that they just thought it was too big, and in some cases didn’t fit into their lives.

As we were developing the product, we talked about this notion of “clothing purgatory” that a lot of people have in their closet. They wore a shirt—it’s not quite clean, it’s not quite dirty. It [just] goes on a hook in the closet… Swash was intended to help get the product out of purgatory. It would de-wrinkle [and] remove odors. It would get a non-stained garment that had been worn ready to wear again.

So, I think the consumer insight was good. I think our approach—in terms of believing that we absolutely had the right solution, and scaling production and our go-to-market activities accordingly—was probably a bit off the mark. In retrospect, we probably would have taken more of a Zera approach, where we would have invested in building a smaller number of these products and putting them in front of consumers, getting feedback and then, based on that, evolving the solution to meet the needs of the mass market. 

That’s what we’re doing with Zera. 

Have there been other products that have passed through the Indiegogo pipeline? 

The other product that we had on the Indiegogo pipeline was a beer fermenter called Vessi. The origin of the product was an internal employee “Shark Tank”-type competition. A group of employees banded together and saw a gap in the home brewing process, particularly in the fermenting and dispensing step. Things tend to fall apart in fermenting home brews. There’s a lot of friction and a lot that can go wrong, so we developed a solution to address that.

We went to market on Indiegogo. It did exceptionally well. It’s actually a business that we recently sold—we no longer own Vessi, which we still see as a tremendous hit. It’s just not a product with the kind of market potential that we thought ultimately Whirlpool would be the best owner for, so we decided to sell the business earlier this year.

Are there any that have evolved to become typical Whirlpool products?

To be honest, we haven’t gotten there yet. …The WLabs organization is almost 4 years old. Our development cycle for hardware that goes in consumer homes is two to three years, so we’re still in the early stages of the journey. 

We see a lot of promise in Zera. We think that is going to be a platform for further innovation and a mass-market opportunity. …We’re also in the process now of launching a Wi-Fi connected countertop oven that can detect food based on image recognition. It detects what you put in the oven and…can download the right algorithm to prepare, if it’s a steak, the steak perfectly. We see a mass-market adoption opportunity for that, but we’re still a couple of months away from even launching the minimum viable product under the WLabs brand.

Swash, launched in 2014 and priced at $500, was designed to remove wrinkles and refresh clothes. It was later discontinued.

How do you incorporate the feedback from Indiegogo as the products develop?

That’s been an area that we’ve been very pleasantly surprised about. Even though we had a fairly notable delay in the launch of Zera, the early backers stuck with us.

More than 90 percent of the people that invested two years ago…waited for the product. We found that it’s really important to provide updates and engagement. The folks that are backing our products tend to be very passionate and are not shy about sharing feedback about how to make the product or experience better. All of the comments that we receive from that community are read and responded to by people on the team, so it’s not someone sitting in a call center somewhere—it’s the engineers and the marketers actually working on the project. …

After the fact, do you have a process for evaluating what went wrong and what went right and deciding how that’s going to shape future projects?

We have a post-launch review process at given intervals, and [we] take a very structured approach in understanding what is consistent with our expectations and what is varying from our expectations. We define what our learning objectives are in a very structured way. Those can span everything from go-to-market, messaging, and what’s moving the needle, to the in-home consumer experience. We…measure what we see, and whether our learning objectives are being met.

Now that Zera is getting in the hands of consumers, what’s the next step?

The next step is really to engage…the folks that have [Zera] in the home, learn from their experiences, and incorporate that learning into the next generation of the product. That’s our acute focus at the moment.