The curved, aluminum-skin Airstream travel trailer has been described as an American icon, which means the company needs to achieve a delicate balance of authenticity with innovation, Airstream President and CEO Dicky Riegel recently told the Harvard Business Review.
“Authenticity is the sum of a lot of attributes,” said Riegel, 37, the head of Airstream since May 2002. “As we challenge authenticity, we determine the constraints on innovation at Airstream.
“The fact is, our brand mystique can breed an insular and sometimes narrow-minded view of what makes an Airstream an Airstream,” said Riegel, who earned an MBA degree from Columbia University before joining Thor Industries Inc., Airstream’s parent, in 1998. “Our ability to innovate certainly requires us to balance the expectations of faithful, longtime customers with the desires of new customers.
“To attract new buyers, we have to test boundaries, and sometimes, we’ve pushed the boundaries too far,” he said.
An example of pushing the boundaries too far was the introduction of an Airstream travel trailer with a more industry-standard rectangular shape, which critics dubbed “Squarestream,” said Riegel, who also is the son-in-law of Thor Chairman Wade F.B. Thompson.
The so-called Squarestream was “an absolutely beautiful trailer, but it wasn’t aluminum and it was boxy,” Riegel said. “Consumers rejected it.”
Now, Riegal said, “We’ve just launched a new Airstream product that isn’t even an RV. It’s a bar – a basement or patio entertainment center. It’s the rear end of a trailer, with taillights and a bumper – chopped-off at stomach level.
“It has a countertop, shelves and a refrigerator,” he said. “But is it an authentic Airstream product? We think so, but the customers will ultimately tell us.”