Shreyas Kulkarni
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Of all the products, canvas has seen the biggest demand surge: Sonali Shah, Faber-Castell

She became the brand's marketing director at a time when the Coronavirus pandemic took centre stage in India.

Imagine becoming the marketing head of Faber-Castell India in May, at a time when the Coronavirus pandemic had entered our lives like an unwanted guest. A dream job. The circumstances, not so much.

Since May, Sonali Shah has soldiered on like one of the knights that appear on the brand's logo. In a conversation with afaqs!, she sounded confident about the future. It’s as if she was built to handle tough situations. Shah has, after all, been involved in marketing to children and dealing with tough customers for over a decade. It has all been "challenging and fun".

Her experience, in fact, stretches over two decades with stints on both sides of the table – agency and client. She was manager, strategy planning at Contract India for about four years, and has also worked with Moneycontrol.com, Mattel and Hamley. She joined Faber-Castell in 2017 as business head, art and graphic and in May 2020, she became its marketing director.

At most of these places, children were one of the, or the main, target audience, and Shah feels like she's been marketing to only them all her life. She said that it's easier said than done because children pester their parents to buy them toys. "Your user is someone else, while the buyer is someone else," remarked Shah.

She has a remarkable insight as far as the challenges in advertising to children go. She says that research reveals that children everywhere remain the same till the age of three. After that, the cultural and behavioural changes come into play, and the challenges.

When it comes to marketing stationery to children, Shah talks about the 'two influencers'. The first being teachers, who influence their students' choice of stationery. The second are parents, who play a larger role because they buy the product for their kids.

Shah told us that canvas was seeing the biggest demand surge...

"In the stationery category, parents and teachers have a large role to play, and here the pester power doesn't work. Instead, parents tell their kids to use a product now, and they will buy the fancy one for them later," she says.

A washed-out season

Schools have been shut for quite a long time now due to the pandemic. For a brand like Faber-Castell that sees peak sales during these summer months, it must be quite tough. Shah agrees, saying that the back to school season lasts from March to June, but (now) it's completely lost. "We (Faber-Castell) don't see schools opening till January 2021," she says, adding that the company is looking at other opportunities.

One such opportunity is 'My Creative Buddy' – an all-in-one essential kit for kids to keep them entertained as they study from home.

The true TG

While children will always be the main target audience (TG) for Shah at Faber-Castell, what about others? Shah says that her TG is divided into three parts:

School – children and parents

Office – B2B, office stationery

Art and hobby

Talking about the B2B revenue losses, Shah says that they aren't too worried because offices will open before schools, and there are plans to create essential office kits, too.

Adults, a new TG?

When one thinks about art, crafts and stationery, the first thing that comes to mind is school children. With adults now working from home and dabbling in these activities, are they now a new audience segment for Faber-Castell?

Shah nods her head in disagreement. For her, adults were always hobbyists, who lost their enthusiasm as life happened to them. But hobbyists were always a TG for her brand. It's just that they've got more time now and, hence, rediscovering their artistic side.

What's selling?

While discussing the increased interest in art, we assumed a spike in the sales of pencils and sketchbooks. Turns out, we were mistaken. Shah told us that canvas was seeing the biggest demand surge as people, especially adults, started painting more. There was demand for canvas baords, pre-framed canvas and ones that came in different shapes such as hexagon, heart, oval. Then come brushes and colours. Paints? Not so much, according to Shah.

The biggest change

Shah explained that before COVID struck, art communities began cropping up. Weekend hobby classes had become the rage as work-weary people tried to relax by learning coffee painting techniques (exotic ones too) at these (paid) sessions held at cafes and bars. These sessions were priced at around Rs 1,000 (including food and beverages).

Once the pandemic struck, people started working from home. A lot of time was saved as there was no daily commute, and so DIY concept witnessed a surge. Says Shah, "We used to earlier upload DIY tutorials on social media to teach people. Now, it served the dual purpose of teaching them and inviting them to online sessions."

"The same tutorial before the pandemic saw 25 people sign up. Now, we see double the number, since it's online and priced at say Rs 200, instead of Rs 1,000," she added.

As far as opportunities go, Shah also talks about Faber-Castell's Goa manufacturing unit, which now exports products to the UAE and Africa.

Then there’s the partnership with Swiggy Genie, where the product that one orders from the nearby stationery store gets delivered in half-an-hour, versus a day (Amazon).

"We (Faber-Castell) realised that we've to live with the virus. It's not like switch on or switch off... it's not like a war that gets over.... we have to think long-term," Shah signed off.