How Sharpie Is Staying Loyal to Print While Getting Into Social Media

Five Questions for Sally Grimes, VP-Global Marketing, Office Products

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Talk to Sally Grimes and you'll quickly realize that to her, the Sharpie is more than just another marker. "It's about self-expression," she says, it's about art, creativity. And she is hoping the brand's new campaign gets that point across.

Sally Grimes
Sally Grimes
For the past two years, as VP-global marketing of office products at Newell Rubbermaid, Ms. Grimes has overseen the Sharpie brand, in addition to the Expo dry erase and Prismacolor product lines. After hiring DraftFCB Chicago as its advertising agency in January, the company unveiled a campaign earlier this month called "Uncap What's Inside." It's designed to inspire consumers to "uncap" their creativity and express their individuality, from Sharpie-decorated sneakers to surfboards -- apropos at a time when consumers are looking for inexpensive ways to accessorize their lives.

A key component of the playful campaign brings together all things Sharpie via social media, from Flickr to Facebook, on a community website, sharpieuncapped.com, that showcases users and user-generated Sharpie creations.

Advertising Age chatted with Ms. Grimes about the campaign and the beloved Sharpie, which celebrates its 45th birthday this year.

Ad Age: After 45 years of being known for labeling cardboard boxes, children's clothing and the like, this new campaign shows a different side of Sharpie. Tell me more about the emphasis on self-expression.

Ms. Grimes: We started talking about going in this direction a year ago. We know that Sharpie has 97% brand awareness. So we stepped back and said, with this brand we have more brand than business. We have this opportunity to take the brand into new places.

Sharpie is about being an advocate for self-expression. When the brand was redefined in this way, it opened up a lot of opportunities from a marketing perspective and new-product perspective.

Ad Age: At a time when extravagances like letterpress stationery and monogrammed beach bags might fall by the wayside, how might the recession actually be a good time for Sharpie to go big and bold with a new marketing campaign?

Sharpie ads
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Sharpie 'Uncap What's Inside' ads

Ms. Grimes: The tough economy means people are looking for ways to save. One of the great things about Sharpie's new campaign is that it lets people still feel a little indulged but without spending a lot of money. So you don't have to give up custom stationery or designer jeans, you just have to take matters into your own hands and get creative, and all for the cost of a few Sharpies. Even better, you get something that is truly custom, a one-of-a-kind "designer" treat you can't buy in the store.

Ad Age: Last year Newell Rubbermaid spent about $9.5 million on measured media, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Most of that spending went to cable TV and magazines. What investment are you making this year, and how does its allocation compare to last year?

Ms. Grimes: We're supporting the brand at consistent levels this year. They say these days that flat is the new growth. The campaign includes TV and print and a really exciting and engaging social-media community site. That's brand new for us. It's about celebrating Sharpie's many passionate users by showcasing all the creative ways that people use Sharpie. We're probably heavier in terms of spending on television and print advertising, without a doubt.

Traditionally we have had a really strong return from our print buys. That is why print continues to be a critical piece of our plan. But I would say we absolutely acknowledge it's a new world out there in how brands interact and engage with their consumers. And that's a reason why social media has become part of our plan with our community site. We're not putting a lot of dollars there, but that's where our consumers are doing all of the work and getting the word out.

Ad Age: Newell Rubbermaid posted $6.5 billion in revenue last year, roughly the same as in 2007. How has Sharpie been affected by the recession?

Ms. Grimes: Just like most companies, our organization has been affected by the recession, but we're really excited about the passion that we're seeing with our products. We recently launched the first Sharpie that was made for everyday writing. Finally our loyal consumers have a pen that does not bleed through paper. That was a huge launch for us. Probably the strongest new product introduction in the history of Sharpie. We just hit the one-year mark for that, and it's continuing to do very strongly. We're launching a retractable version of it in August, and then in November we're launching yet a third version that has a grip. We'll have a nice lineup of Sharpie pens for our loyal consumers.

Ad Age: In these days of computer programs and games and digital expression, how is Sharpie faring? Is technology a threat?

Ms. Grimes: We've talked a lot about this. We've actually found that Sharpie and technology have worked pretty well together hand-in-hand as technology has allowed consumers to showcase their expressions. With technology, it's easy to personalize. But what's really missing is the personal. We think of, what better way of expressing who you are than creating it yourself? It's not at all that technology is the enemy, we feel that digital complements Sharpie -- but it really is about being able to make it truly personal. And that is what Sharpie is able to do.

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