How this 200-year old brand is reiventing for the Millennial age

Collins Debden CEO talks to CMO about brand strategy and the needs of next-generation consumers

Connie Chan
Connie Chan

Building a brand from a blank sheet of paper can be a difficult ask, especially when the product you are selling is mostly made from blank sheets of paper.

For Connie Chan, however, the task is made even more challenging by the fact that the brand she is building is already 200 years old, and its products are ones many pundits have said should have been consigned to the history books by now.

Collins Debden was founded in the Scottish city of Glasgow in 1819, selling a range of diaries and notebooks throughout the UK. Since then it has changed and evolved, and in 1995 merged with the stationery business of Singapore-based company, Nippecraft.

As CEO of Collins Debden, Chan is tasked with having to reinvent the brand for modern consumers without losing touch with its history and core brand attributes. And to do that, she’s keeping in close contact with its customers.

“We are listening to them about how they see the brand and based on that we have been actively refreshing our design,” Chan tells CMO. “A lot of other brands are more expressive with a lot more colours and patterns, but that is now who we are. We are still more in a professional space.

“A lot of feedback we hear is that with some other notebooks the design may be great, but it is not something they would want to take to the office.”

Credit: Collins Debster


But while the products are designed with a professional purpose in mind, Chan says the brand also likes to play with humour, albeit in a subtle way, to connect with modern consumers. This includes featuring humorous quotes on the products’ belly bands.

“It’s good to have a sense of humour over 200 years,” Chan says.

Most surprisingly, she says the brand has proven popular among younger generations who are also the savviest when it comes to using digital devices that have been predicted as replacing paper diaries and journals. Chan says it is the sense of history embodied with Collins Debden’s products millennials find appealing.

“They want that authenticity and history and all those heritage things, but at the same time they don’t want anything that’s too stodgy,” she says. “So the way we approach that is to lighten it up.”

This same phenomenon can also be attributed to increases in vinyl record sales, with the US-based Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) noting vinyl revenue grew by 12.8 per cent in the second half of 2018 and 12.9 per cent in the first six months of 2019.

Book sales have also seen a similar increase, with Nielsen BookScan reporting in Australia in 2017, 55.5 million physical books worth $1.07 billion were sold, a slight increase on the 54.6 million books that were sold in 2016.

“We are seeing an increased interest in touch and feel, and anything that is analogue,” Chan comments. “But it is not about one or the other, it is really about coexistence. What technology brings you is efficiency, but because everything is so easy, nothing is precious anymore. That is why we feel the need for [digital] detox, and connection and human touch.

“It is really about how we adapt and change and listen to the customer and continue to evolve. And this really comes back to how we have been able to thrive for that 200 years.”

Chan says the brand has also received a boost from the rise of the mindfulness movement, and the accompanying increased interest in journaling.

While the company might be 200 years old, Chan says it still has plenty of growth opportunities ahead of it. Collins Debden has successfully expanded into Australia and South East Asia, and Chan says the goal now is to further that globalisation strategy by pushing into the US and Japan.

“We have really only just started actively looking outside of our traditional markets in the last couple of years,” she says.

While few brands today can claim a brand history as old as Collins Debden, many marketers might aspire to create one that does. Chan says the key is in remaining passionate about what you do.

“You need to be passionate about what you do,” she says. “Stay true to yourself, but then also evolve. The world is changing, so if you want to last 200 years, that really requires you to have some courage and change and adapt.”

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