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Crayola Colors Outside the Lines

Aiming to Remain Relevant Among Tech-Savvy Kids

By Published on .

Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen

Nestled among acres of cornfields and farmlands in Easton, Pa., the Crayola factory cranks out colors like Carnation Pink and Burnt Sienna as quickly as a nearby dairy farm churns butter. A staple on back-to-school shopping lists, Crayola's yellow box of crayons had enjoyed a consistent, if quiet, existence in the world of toys and crafts for the past century. Then a marketing campaign to add a new blue crayon to the popular 24-count box—and get rid of another—propelled the brand into the spotlight earlier this year.

The company began a contest to name the new hue but kept secret which color it would replace. Add a dash of nostalgia and you have all the trappings of a buzzworthy campaign. When a Target shopper figured out Dandelion Yellow was already missing from cartons, he spoiled the surprise on Twitter. As a result, the 114-year-old brand saw some of its strongest consumer engagement since people started tracking that sort of thing. Now as school shopping looms in earnest, the campaign is entering its final phase.

The question remains whether Crayola can achieve the kind of hip-to-be-analog alchemy that Lego pulled off with its hit movies and to lodge itself in the fore of a tech-obsessed pop culture.

Arts and crafts sales within the traditional U.S. toy sector grew nearly 10% from 2011 through 2016, to $1.9 billion, according to research firm Euromonitor International. Though Crayola commands a healthy share of arts and crafts, 48.6% last year, that's down slightly from 49.6% in 2011, Euromonitor said.

Sassy Scarlet

"This was the largest promotion we've ever done," said Melanie Boulden, who joined Crayola as senior VP-U.S. and global marketing two years ago. No stranger to children's marketing—before crayons, she handled the Capri Sun and Lunchables brands at Kraft Foods—Boulden was hired to imbue Crayola with a fresh marketing spirit.

Crayola has actually been approached over the years for "Lego Movie"-scale collaborations, but the right opportunity has yet to arise, according to executives. "Certainly, if the right partnership came around, we would seriously look into it," Boulden said. She's more focused on Crayola's current campaigns, including the personification of colors. Last year, Scarlet became a sassy "spokes-crayon" in an animated spot rather than just a regular red crayon.

Brands well beyond Crayola, which Hallmark bought in 1984, and categories much larger than toys are struggling with the rise of tech. But the challenge is particularly vivid for a wax-stick product rooted so far from the information age. As children become more digitally savvy, and interactive toys like tablets and Hatchimals take over, Crayola is working to maintain its relevance as a champion of creativity.

It's also up against trendier, and newer, analog players like Melissa & Doug and Plan Toys and, of course, the must-have of the moment, fidget spinners.

Some of Crayola's efforts, like a recent nail color collaboration with Sally Hansen and a lip color collection with Clinique, are designed to attract older consumers along with their kids. Many art-focused offerings, like the two-year-old Color Alive franchise, include a digital component that lets artists bring their drawings to life through an app. The brand is also expanding its Crayola Experience retail stores, which promote activities alongside products.

Crayola is giving its crayons personalities.
Crayola is giving its crayons personalities. Credit: Crayola

Digital creativity is key

"That's one of our biggest challenges—making sure we continue to offer products and activities, toys, that will engage children," said Boulden, wearing a dress the shade of Crayola's Vivid Violet, in an interview at headquarters on the same 11-acre property as the factory. "Digital creativity is a key strategy pillar for us."

"As digital media and social media have continued to proliferate, the task was to make sure you continue to help the organization engage with consumers—not only with what we say and how we say it, but where we say it," she added.

The new marketing, created with longtime agency McGarryBowen, is meant to reinvigorate the brand as it seeks loyal shoppers eager to revisit childhood. Crayola spent $11.5 million advertising in U.S. measured media last year, up 22% from 2015, according to Kantar Media.

"Everyone has an emotional connection to Crayola," said Craig Cimmino, executive creative director at McGarryBowen, Crayola's agency of record since 2005. "What you need to do is spark that feeling they got, that creative spark, and remind them of what it was like when they were kids."

When McGarryBowen originally met with Boulden's group earlier this year, the plan wasn't to make a big deal out of removing a crayon. They were just going to replace an older color in Crayola's stable of 152 with a bright blue hue recently developed at Oregon State University.

Dandelion discovery

Yet they realized that retiring the Dandelion color—a decision based on data and qualitative feedback—from the best-selling 24-count crayon box would extend the campaign as well as strengthen it by adding engagement and suspense. Crayola intended to announce Dandelion's demise in a much-promoted Times Square event on March 31, National Crayon Day. But a man shopping with his mom at a New Jersey Target store beat the company to it when he noticed the missing yellow and tweeted a picture: "Bye-bye Dandelion. I never thought you were a weed. Hasn't @Target ever heard of a #SpoilerAlert!!!" The message went viral, but Boulden's department was ready, immediately serving up a social media missive about Dandelion's wanderlust and desire to start his retirement tour of schools and landmarks early. Rather than stealing Crayola's thunder, the tweet popped the campaign into the mainstream, with major news outlets covering the story.

"People were on the edge of their seats and got a sneak peek," said Josh Kroo, director of marketing and communications at Crayola. "It added to the fun of it." It also added to the impact. The team expected the campaign to get around 1 billion impressions within six months, Cimmino said. The first week of the Dandelion announcement generated 4 billion, en route to 5 billion today. Boulden noted that Crayola has seen early year-over-year sales lifts as well, particularly around the 24-count box.

Parents are now voting among five possible names, such as Bluetiful and Dreams Come Blue, whittled down from 300,000 consumer suggestions. The winner will be announced in early September. The last time Crayola asked consumers to help with a hue was 1993, when naming rights went to 90-year-old Mildred Sampson for her Purple Mountains Majesty.

"We are spending much more resources trying to do more user-generated initiatives," Boulden said, noting that such offerings extend to using consumers' creations in marketing. The strategy is a shift from previous messaging that leaned on Crayola's Americana roots to appeal to patriotic shoppers. The company produces 63% of its products, excluding paint and Silly Putty, at its 450,000-square-foot plant in Easton. Roughly 99% of crayons are made there, aided by its six-year-old solar farm, whose 30,000 panels help create 500 million markers and 1 billion crayons each year.

"We've invested in the last couple years to make sure we can meet consumer demand," said Kevin Flanagan, VP-supply chain, during a tour of the factory, where the smell of wax fills the air and employees in Crayola shirts work side by side with machines.

Pinterest and projects

The company is also focusing on stores. It was nearly two decades between the first Crayola Experience in Easton, a place for kids to melt wax and make their own designs, in 1996 and the opening of a second shop in Orlando, Fla. But a third opened last year, and 2018 will bring a fourth in Plano, Texas, as the brand recognizes the importance of selling experiences to mall-weary shoppers.

The current campaign also paves the way for more social media fodder. Crayola plans to increase its do-it-yourself presence on platforms such as Pinterest and continue to work with influencers on projects, Cimmino said.

"The campaign really touches into that nostalgic and childhood memory," said Chris Byrne, a toy industry consultant and content director at TTPM, which stands for Toys, Tots, Pets & More. "It really is something only a handful of brands can get away with."

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