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How a Small Pen Distributor Built a Brand: The Write Stuff

“How a Small Pen Distributor Built a Brand: The Write Stuff”

Niche marketing, above-and-beyond service and creating an image drive Kenro sales up 30%.

Though Aurora Pens were well known in Europe, they had little recognition in the United States — until 1992 when Kenro Industries became their exclusive U.S. distributor. With only a fraction of their competitors’ marketing budgets, the Mineola, N.Y.-based Kenro needed creative, cost-efficient ways to promote the upscale pens.

Kenro president Joel Blumberg decided the best strategy was to convince Americans that Aurora pens, for the most part priced at $30 to $300, aren’t merely writing tools, but fashion accessories. The company also touts special-edition collector pens, which can dent the wallet as much as $5,000 to $10,000. To portray this image, Blumberg started with a series of splashy full-page ads in the Sunday New York Times Magazine.

Optimizing an Image

"I decided to do that because it’s an image thing," Blumberg says. "We’re selling an Armani, a Cartier, so to speak." Running several high-profile ads in the same magazine not only provides consistency, but has more impact than buying large ads in several different publications, he explains.

Because positioning of products is crucial to their image, Kenro is particular about where Aurora is sold. That means no discount stores. Instead, the distributor concentrates on specialty pen stores, boutiques and upscale department stores. Aurora pens are also prominently featured in all major pen catalogs.

Image-conscious executives are proving a boon to Kenro as it focuses on corporate incentive gifts. Even with computers shouldering the bulk of communications, people still need pens to sign contracts, and executives want something that projects a successful image.

In each of the past seven years, Kenro has grown Aurora sales by 30% or more with between $7 million and $10 million expected this year.

Blumberg attributes much of Kenro’s rapid success to service. The distributor takes the smallest orders as seriously as large ones, he says: "If a merchant orders a pen, I hope they’ll sell it the next day and order one more. We don’t require them to buy large inventories." Often Blumberg or an employee will hand-deliver orders to New York retailers to ensure a speedy arrival.

In-the-Trenches Sales Support

Another unusual service Kenro provides is to send sales reps to work alongside retailers’ staffs. During December alone, each rep logs about 30 hours behind various counters, often on weekends. Any time taken away from standard sales calls is more than made up for by increased sales following these visits, Blumberg believes. Not only do retailers get free counter help, but they learn about the pens by observing as reps discuss specific features with customers.

In 1996, Kenro added a complementary line of products, Piquadro Leather Goods — including pen cases, diaries, desk sets, computer cases and travel bags, which they market in much the same way as the pens. Blumberg considers it a matter of the customers spending their money in the right place.

"People are interested in quality," Blumberg says, "and it’s a luxury to have a fine writing instrument." And as far as luxuries go, good pens — except for collector’s editions — aren’t that extravagant.

Writer: Paula Hendrickson