Sharpie: A Social Media and Digital Content Case Study

Created in 1964, Sharpie is a long-wearing ink marker. Ubiquitous due to its long-standing market presence, availability of seven versions with thirty nine colors and retro design, Sharpie realized that it would have to undertake a millennial makeover to remain competitive and relevant in the ever increasingly saturated office supplies market. Despite holding 50 percent of the market share on permanent markers, Sharpie undertook a drastic overhaul in advertising, digital content and social media engagement in order to be proactive and interactive with its consumer base that has become accustomed to sophisticated digital content. This essay seeks to analyze the Sharpie brand as it relates to its recent social media evolution and process from a static brand to the recipient of TED’s Ads Worth Spreading award.

We all have a personal connection to Sharpie. For me, it was collecting various colors for school projects, expressing myself in art, decorating the face of an unsuspecting friend during a sleepover, or even the more mundane tasks of using a Sharpie to mark moving boxes. It’s exactly for that reason — Sharpie’s presence in everything from the artistic, to the humorous, to the pedestrian – that has made it an indispensable tool for students, moms, and office workers. As Howard Heckes, President of Sharpie-producer Sanford Brands North America notes, “Sharpies are good for the president of the United states of the president of the PTA.”

In addition to the personal, Sharpie has entered mainstream culture and even the upper echelons of government. Former President George W. Bush was rumored to enjoy Sharpies so much that the company decided to make monogrammed editions for him. San Francisco 49ers receiver Terrell Owens famously pulled a Sharpie out of his sock to sign a touchdown ball for his financial advisor in the stands, creating a trend of celebrating touchdowns in unorthodox ways in what was known as “The Sharpie Touchdown.” Sharpie has also been featured by brand name, logo or mention in the movies such as Oscar-winning Juno, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World featuring Michael Cera and Date Night featuring Tina Fey. These examples serve to underscore Sharpie’s proliferation in diverse areas from politics to sports and entertainment. Need to commemorate a moment? Sharpie makes it happen. Sharpie has even enjoyed a recent rash of internet memes.

In 2003, Sharpie created the “Write Out Loud” campaign featuring universally recognized life occurrences in and how they relate to Sharpie. Commercials featuring a girl writing a note to a classmate that his fly is open with Sharpie, a woman writing “I QUIT” in red Sharpie ink instead of a formal resignation letter, and a spot featuring David Beckham signing autographs while trying to surreptitiously pocket the pen blended the use of personal connection and celebrity brand endorsement well. These ads displayed Sharpie as a mode of communication, tool of expression, and covetable item. The campaign featured celebrity endorsements (such as Sharpie fan Terrell Owens), at in-person brand events as well as mobile marketing and the aforementioned 15-30 second commercial spots. While successful with resources of the time, an update was necessary to keep Sharpie current and competitive.

Sharpie’s recent digital incantation is an innovative campaign spearheaded by DRAFTFCB and announced July 27, 2011. Josh Dysart, DRAFTFCB corporate communications manager, notes that strategy revolved around putting Sharpie users at the center of the campaign, with an emphasis on finding new and creative ways that consumers are using the product. The blend of digital, social and print advertising strategies showcase stories rather than obvious advertising tactics, lending an authenticity that allows users to connect on a personal level. Even the catchphrase “Uncap What’s Inside” indicates a focus on content and the reality of the Sharpie experience. Sharpie has identified a general audience, but seems to cater more towards a younger generation that is more media savvy. This is evidenced by the campaign’s targeted television outlets: CW, MTV, FUSE and Nickelodeon. Also of interest is the outreach to the DIY community, which is a direct recognition and appreciation of the community or “tribe” that already is invested in Sharpie products. An identified group of users called the “Sharpie Squad” was tapped for inspirational content ideas as well. However, the brand didn’t just get an image makeover. New lines of product that acknowledge the needs of students, such as the Sharpie Gel Highlighter that prevents bleeding, and the retro Sharpie 80’s Glam collection provide more content to promote on the social media outlets that will propel the brand from an older model of advertising to the digital age.

Sharpie’s website delivers a full experience of the company’s revamp aesthetics. A personalized wall paper featured a Sharpie design, modern graphics and the requisite social media features position Sharpie as a current brand that wants to provide its consumers with a holistic online social and digital experience.  While the product holds an appeal across all spectrums of age, socioeconomic status and gender, Sharpie took a decidedly youthful tact in its online aesthetics – no doubt in trying to appeal to its largest buying group and most likely social media user.  Interesting features, such as a Sharpie creations gallery and a “Find Sharpie by Color” search tool provide more interactive content that usual among consumer brands, and makes the experience of visiting the Sharpie site personal. The following is a break down by platform with an analysis as to strengths and weaknesses:

Facebook: With an impressive 2,848,204 page likes, Sharpie’s Facebook presence is robust. User generated content mingles seamlessly with brand-promoted pieces such as blog highlights and product announcements. Creating a reciprocal relationship through Likes of stakeholder pages (i.e., Office Depot, Kmart, Goody, Rubbermaid and The DYMOvement) brings in new potential users and sends a message to business partners that they are recognized and appreciated, fostering further goodwill. User engagement is frequent, with comments further endorsing the brand and generating trust among fellow consumers. Out of all outlets, Facebook seems to be their strongest.

Twitter: Sharpie’s Twitter boasts 236,204 followers, with frequent tweets. Relevant hash tags, an Instagram image gallery and current profile picture promotion of the intertwined TED and Sharpie brands positions Sharpie as social media savvy, on-trend and interactive. Sharpie Twitter moderator Susan Wassel notes that her style of interaction and authenticity stems from her passion for the brand. As a mom who uses Sharpie for her children’s lunch bags or home-made Christmas ornaments, Wassel’s personal anecdotes engage a variety of users. Given that Sharpie’s Twitter account is relatively new, I wouldn’t count their low following (in comparison to their Facebook following) as a weakness, but would certainly advise Wassel to use Facebook to drive more support to Twitter.

Youtube: Sharpie’s Youtube channel is incredibly impressive. A wide variety of human interest pieces (such as an artist would couldn’t speak English, but could express himself with art via Sharpie), celebrity spotlights (Lo Bosworth and Michael Phelps), and official commercials integrates brand promotion with creative original content. An intricate and interactive mosaic features user images and stands as a unique feature in comparison to other Youtube brand channels. Eighty-seven uploads, 1,008,350 upload views, and 1,374 subscribers is admirable, but with the last upload being over a month ago, I’d say a weakness is possibly not as much interaction from the brand side and room to grow in terms of followers and engagement in the comments section of uploads.

Blog: The Sharpie blog does a fantastic job of providing interesting content as well as promoting the brand in and of itself. Blog posts featuring creative uses of Sharpie’s products for designs on paper cups and handicrafts create interesting visuals and digitally tangible examples of the brand’s product in action. Guest bloggers ranging from fashion experts and artists, funny posts (such as a picture of a staff-made Sharpie King Cake in honor of Mardi Gras), and video content such as a Valentine’s Day short film on love make the Sharpie blog the strongest component to its website.

Secondary personalized site: An offshoot of the main site, is the personalized site to all things Sharpie. This space provides the ability to design your own pen based on your specific needs, a guide to Sharpie best practices (yes, that exists) and a social media-enabled login area with the ability to upload original content and interact with fellow Sharpie appreciators. Users can present “doodle challenges” to one another and provide tutorials on design methods. With invocations such as “Start Something!” and “Show Your Stuff!” Sharpie’s online tone is inviting, conversational and proactive. As with previous analyses of Sharpie’s social media platforms, I’m struggling to identify a weakness. The secondary personalized site is creative, engaging and comprehensive.

DRAFTFCB’s Sharpie campaign was one of the 10 recipients of TED’s Ads Worth Spreading award, showcasing as ad about Cheeming Boey, an artist in Malaysia who found solace in creating art on blank paper cups with Sharpie pens. Boey’s story is inspirational, because he was told his idea of creating art on cups was unprofitable. Boey now enjoys recognition as an artist and tapped into a universal narrative of being unsupported initially, but preserving through self-belief in one’s worth. The campaign captured this in an authentic, three-minute documentary-style inspirational webisode featured on its Youtube channel, and was an exemplification of what digital campaigns should strive for – authenticity, story-telling, and positive associations between inspirational or uplifting emotions and the brand being promoted.

Sharpie’s competitors are few and far between. Boutique brands such as Blick feature video content and varying medium tutorials, but does not have the necessary accompanying social media component. Crayola has an aesthetically pleasing website that is consistent with its current branding and an online community with interactive features such as the Story Studio, which allows online character coloring book creation, but similarly to Blick nowhere near the sophistication and comprehensiveness of Sharpie. BiC has a sophisticated website, but no interactive content and a paltry 663 Facebook likes. After surveying the competition, Sharpie remains the standard bearer for digitally integrated marker brands.

Sharpie’s evolution could be likened to that of Polaroid’s. Polaroid eventually realized that its product had become a cultural icon, or conduit to producing memories in an instant, portable form. Similarly, Sharpie realized that they had this iconic product that was valued for ability to assist its users in expressing themselves both personally and pragmatically. Both Polaroid and Sharpie focused on what their product did (create memories and facilitate expression, respectively) rather than what it was. While Polaroid has done a good job on Facebook sharing a Polaroid app for framing pictures and showcasing celebrity endorsements, Sharpie has been more successful in building a comprehensive digital presence. Highlighting the service beyond the product ensures Sharpie’s longevity and injection into popular culture and discourse — capitalizing on that that through social media amplifies the brand and ensures long-term sustainability.