Think Ink Is Dead? Sharpie's Success Is Writing on the Wall

New Video Ads, Strong Facebook Presence Prove the Pen Is Still Mighty in Digital Age

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Pens may not seem like a promising business in these days when social media and smartphones weave keyboarding into almost every area of life.

Yet the pen is proving mightier than a whole bunch of billion-dollar brands on Facebook these days, thanks to category leader Newell Rubbermaid's Sharpie. Now the company is looking to duplicate that success by shifting the TV spending it's done on Uni-Ball entirely to digital and social media. The shift is being led by an unusual new series of online video ads from Tris3ct, Chicago, directed by former "Wonder Years" star Fred Savage.

Sharpie has amassed an impressive 1.8 million Facebook fans since launching its "Uncap What's Inside" print and digital campaign led by DraftFCB, Chicago, in 2009. That puts it ahead of such multibillion-dollar behemoths as Tide, Dove, Amazon, Bud Light and Burger King, according to database marketing tracker DBM/Scan.  

Uni-Ball web ad.
Uni-Ball web ad.

And that social-media presence appears to be helping pens survive the rise of keyboarding. While both pen and marker sales declined last year, Newell Brands, led by Sharpie, grew sales 3% in both categories last year, according to SymphonyIRI data for the 52 weeks ended June 12.

"People still use pens and pencils," said Rusty Snow, VP-general manager for Uni-Ball. And even if they use fewer of them, Uni-Ball is betting they'll pony up more for what they do buy to make a better impression. "Your pen says something about you."

Unit volume in the $195 million pens segment measured by SymphonyIRI fell 4.8% in the past year, but dollar sales fell only 1.4%. Newell managed a 4.2% sales gain despite a 5.3% volume decline.

Uni-Ball makes its point, aimed at males ages 15 to 30, with humorous videos personifying cheap or inappropriate writing instruments, such as "the Piddler," which spews ink all over a manager in a job interview. Uni-Ball will uncap the campaign in pre-roll ads July 15 after already running since late last month on Facebook.  

A sweepstakes distributed through 2 million packs directs people to enter codes on Uni-Ball's Facebook page to win "instant upgrades."

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