The Innovator Interview: Karen Schnelwar from OXO

Design Engineering Director
New York

Since the initial launch of OXO in 1990, Smart Design has helped design hundreds of products through a long and collaborative partnership. Starting with a simple vegetable peeler, its founder, Sam Farber with an infamous 2am phone call to the founder of Smart, Davin Stowell, helped bring their shared passion of universal design to the masses. Almost 30 years later, the OXO brand and Smart partnership has continued to expand and evolve while remaining true to one simple but powerful idea: create products that make everyday life easier for everyone. We’re proud to have been there from the beginning to help Sam’s vision grow from a one-man startup to a household name.

Smart recently sat down with Karen Schnelwar, VP Global Brand Strategy and Marketing at OXO to talk about inclusive design, company culture and the value of brand. 

Tell us about your role managing brand and marketing for OXO globally?

My role was created about three years ago to lead OXO branding and marketing, which includes all written and visual communications—I have a great, cross-functional team of experts in Brand Communications, Brand Design and Public Relations that help bring the consumer journey to life. OXO was founded on the principle of universal design, so there is an inherent relatability to the brand across audiences and across cultures. Interestingly, people tend not to know where OXO is based. We’re in nearly 90 countries globally; the US is our most established market.

What’s the biggest trend or change you’re seeing in your business?

We live in fascinating times because nearly every category and every industry is being upended and reinvented. Iconic brands are no longer able to just do what they’ve always done, and smaller upstart brands are born every day—especially DTC (Direct to Consumer) brands. We’re in an age of disruption, which is a bit scary but also quite thrilling, because there is so much fresh thinking.

OXO is interesting because, nearly 30 years ago, we were born a challenger brand—OXO completely disrupted the housewares space. When OXO tools first hit the shelves, our products looked like nothing else, like they came from Mars (in a good way). Our ergonomic handles telegraphed “hold me” and many consumers took hold and never let go or looked back. Thirty years later, in many ways, we’ve become paradigm so it’s incumbent on OXO to embrace what makes us different and special, but also move forward and shape the future. It’s in our DNA to evolve and invent, all toward making everyday tools that make everyday life better. It’s an interesting balance to strike—we are the leaders in so many categories, but to do that, we can never lose our scrappiness.

How do you manage that tension between keeping what makes it an iconic brand and reinvention?

The most distinctive aesthetic element of an OXO product is our ergonomic grip. We’re always looking for ways to evolve, but we also need to own and embrace that iconic, telegraphic design language across the portfolio. So it’s a combination of understanding and doubling down on who you are as a brand—your positioning and your identity—while viewing the world through our unique lens to see where-else we can apply that ethos, where we can make everyday life better.

How do you maintain that strong sense of identity and culture over time?

OXO is the kind of place where people spend large swaths of their career. Our president has been here for nearly 25 years, our prior president spent that many years here as well, our head of product development is here nearly 20 years—they grew up here, and they made OXO what it is today. That longevity speaks to the strength of the culture and the brand’s clarion call: creating tools that make everyday life better.  Culturally, there’s a kindness here, as well as a humbleness and a lack of pretension; we say the brand is “heroic, but humble” but it’s the products that have heroic moments, while the brand doesn’t need or seek praise. I’m constantly amazed at how many people here have a deep understanding of the OXO brand, having lived it for years—decades—and yet are genuinely open to new ideas on all fronts. The people and the culture are OXO’s secret ingredients. Through a certain lens, OXO runs on love.

How does that translate into the marketplace?

People who know OXO love OXO, but our portfolio is so wide and deep, even our loyal consumers don’t know everything we make—so we want those people to get to know us better. Of course we also want to reach new audiences and build long relationships. Given our portfolio, we want to focus on what our product ladders up to—making every day better.

What’s new for OXO?

We launch over one hundred products a year, and that’s actually rounding down. Last year, we launched OXO Brew, a new line of coffee and tea products. We’ve long made manual tea and coffee brewing products, and a few years ago, Smart Design helped us launch a line of electric coffee products. We took the learnings and the success of that effort and focused our commitment to this space by creating a line of products that help people savor the coffee brewing process, the ritual, and end result. It’s an honor to be a part of that special moment in a person’s day.

How do you approach innovation with all these products? What’s the genesis?

One of OXO’s most defining brand characteristics is the combination of curiosity and optimism, and it’s the combination that’s unique and special. OXO is relentless with research: looking at how consumers live their lives, how they interact with the tools, ideating on how OXO can make tools that make everyday activities better. Sometimes people are subconsciously compensating for tools that aren’t elegant—not broken, just not as thoughtfully designed as they could be. For example, with OXO’s angled measuring cup, you can pour and measure from above, standing upright—this is in contrast to every other measuring cup that requires you to bend down to see measurement markings. You don’t realize you were compensating for a design flaw until you no longer have to and that’s the moment you fall in love with a measuring cup, that’s the moment you fall in love with OXO.

“Having a concise articulation of what the brand stands for helps everyone at OXO live the brand, impact the business and get the message out — even without a Super Bowl sized marketing budget.”

Karen Schnelwar
VP Global Brand Strategy and Marketing at OXO