Saturday, April 22, 2006

"Catch" of a Lifetime

I recently added this 1954 Mirado Pencil magazine advertisement to my collection. I find some of these old pencil ads intriguing for both their design and copy content. Of particular interest to me is the contexts they provide as a historical reference and indicators of trends in promotional focus within our industry.

Given my own favorable predispositions towards both fly fishing and pencils (as covered in my prior post, WoodChuck on Fishing) I found this ad particularly interesting from both the graphic and copy standpoint. The use of the fishing scale to demonstrate that the strength of the Mirado lead “will take over five pounds of pressure… far more than you apply in daily use” is the first of several fishing references in pointing out features of the product. This theme continues with additional fishing analogies… “This yellow-bodied beauty with the bright red brand glides like greased lightening … smooth and fast. A Mirado reels off more than thirty-five miles of line, and you’ll agree that every inch is a joy and pleasure.”

So when you look at the Mirado performance features being promoted in this add it comes down to: the strength of the graphite core, smooth writing/gliding capability and it’s long lasting nature “35 miles of line”. It’s unclear if you’d have to sharpen down to an uncomfortably small nub to realize the claim of 35 miles of line. The ad also offers a free sample for writing into the Eagle Pencil Company.

Today there is much less print advertising done for particular pencil products like we saw in the first 50 to 60 years of the 20th century. Today newspaper circular insertions in support of given retailers mostly during the back to school sales period are the most common form of print advertising for pencils. These circulars generally cover pencils in addition to other writing instruments from a given manufacturer or brand range. The failure of these circulars in my view is that they communicate none of the performance features of product, just brand name and price point. Of course this is not the purpose of newspaper circular advertising which is designed around price promotion of known brand names to generate store traffic for the retailer, not to promote features and benefits of brands.

Where some manufacturers do seem to focus more marketing effort these days is on public relations activities focused on the wider corporate brand umbrella and not necessarily on specific pencil products themsleves. In the case of the Mirado pencil brand I am not aware of any advertising and promotional effort expended on this product by Sanford these days. Certainly their Sharpie marker range is quite heavily advertised and promoted along with their Waterman and Parker pens. I am sure there are also other less visible means of promotion of Prismacolor, Papermate, Uniball, etc. but the Mirado which is Sanford’s “flagship” high quality graphite writing pencil gets even less promotional support from what I’ve seen.

Also unclear at this point is whether today’s Mirado performance lives up to the billing of this Mirado ad from 50 years ago. Today’s cartons still make the claim of being “The World’s Smoothest Writing Pencil.” Some would say it does not offer the same performance as just 10 years ago following a series of cost reduction and brand repositioning steps. It has transitioned over the years from the Eagle corporate brand umbrella to the Berol Mirado, then in the past 12 years or so to the Sanford Mirado and is now currently the marketed as the Papermate Mirado pencil. I don’t know about you, but when I think of a high quality writing instrument that I would want to associate with my flagship graphite pencil brand, Papermate of all the brands under the Sanford umbrella is not the first one that springs to my mind. Over this time the Mirado has lost share in it’s primary market in the USA relative to Dixon’s Ticonderoga despite similar price points and market positioning for these two products. One thing that has changed is that the Mirado no longer fits the final claim from this 1954 advertisement that it is “The Largest Selling Pencil in the World”. Of course, I'm not certain that it did in 1954 either.

Sanford of course is not alone and I do not mean to pick on them in particular. The reduced advertising and promotional expenditures on branded wood-cased pencils in general these days is a partial consequence of trends that tend to “commoditize” all consumer goods. These trends include greater availability of lower priced foreign imports with improving quality, an increase in retailer concentration and control over access to distribution points along with their increasing use of Private Label. Another contributor is the reduced amount of product innovation in wood cased pencils, so there is less to talk about. When any product faces increased price pressure for products that are not well differentiated from other competitors this generally leads to reductions in marketing expenditure and excessive focus on cost and price reduction. This is to the detriment of other important aspects of a balanced marketing mix. Admittedly, this is a difficult challenge when every third sentence coming from buyers at Walmart, Staples and other large retailers is about the need to reduce prices.

Despite this I still believe that if the top pencil brands continue to advertise and promote their products and focus on keeping a quality advantage then their loyal consumers would continue to support the brand at reasonable pricing premiums and they would have “A Catch of a Lifetime”. More creativity is needed today in tying the fly and casting the rod to the right spot of the river than ever before. If the brands fail to do so then the fish will increasingly bite on other lures.


Slywy said...

Some people write with Bics, some with Watermans. Surely that is true of pencils, too.

I love the ad.

Slywy said...

I have a question for you (if you want to answer :)). I received a decorated generic pencil as a sample (it's meant to be given by teachers to kids who pass tests or whatever). The paint is red and gold. The wood has no scent (not incense cedar obviously), but it doesn't appear to be the wood that Faber-Castell uses in the Grip 2001 and 9000 -- it has a smoother grain. The odd thing is, the wood is red. It doesn't look like it's an effect of the paint but like the wood itself is actually reddish in hue. I'm curious if you know what wood this might be. TIA.

WoodChuck said...

Without seeing the pencil it would be difficult to tell. Perhaps it could be a pencil using Basswood from China. Some pencil slats from other manufacturers are treated with a very brighter getting a reddish pink hue to the wood versus what you would see in our Prosepctor natural pencils which we try to get a more light brownish/red color closer to our ense cedar finish.