In 2015, when French stationery leader BIC acquired 100% ownership of Cello, the Indian company, which was founded in 1995, was already a market leader in pens in the country. But instead of only competing with the local players, most of whom had limited distribution networks and not much potential to scale up their businesses, BIC Cello decided to take a more evolved perspective on the future of the industry.
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“Instead of depending on push-based buying and on wholesalers, we decided to take the categories we sell into the hands of retailers, e-commerce platforms, premium-end stationery segment, and shopping malls,” says Tanveer Khan, the director of marketing at BIC Cello India. That early strategy of pivoting to an omnichannel presence in the market is proving beneficial five years on, as the pandemic plays havoc with most businesses across the country. BIC Cello has 25% value in terms of market share in the writing Instruments category, which includes pens, markers and mechanical pencils.
Forward-planning hasn’t entirely insulated the company from loss in terms of volume and shares. BIC Cello’s largest customer base is the educational sector, which faced a huge crisis of its own. With online classes becoming the norm, there was much less demand for pen and paper, leading to a 35% dip in the sale of school stationery products for the company. “But with parents struggling to keep children busy in lockdowns, our relatively new art and craft segment grew hugely,” adds Khan. “Apart from the colouring range, which had a sell-out of over 50%, our markers also sold well.”
Marketing has also been a challenge in this time. With fewer offline avenues, the messaging has become more focused on empathy and understanding, motivating people, especially children, to stay home, and targeting special occasions, be it Raksha Bandhan or Teachers’ Day. A partnership opportunity with Disney for the show Disney Imagine has also worked well for the company.
With the pandemic seeming to recede, BIC Cello is hopeful of a return to a some kind of a status quo. “Assuming the market comes back to normalcy and the education sector goes back to operating the way it was pre-pandemic, the stationery category is expected to grow at the rate of 5-6% year on year,” Khan says. “The growth will be fueled by the influx of roughly 4-5 million new students in the formal education system every year.”
In the meantime, there’s much to innovate in the segment, especially with rising concerns over plastic waste, the major ingredient in BIC Cello’s best-selling ballpoint pen, adding to environmental damage. For the company, phasing out pens priced ₹5 or less (as was some of the older Cello pens) has been a way of tackling the challenge. The marketing arm of the company has been also pushing for reuse and refilling of pens, though only 3 out of 10 buyers do so, according to Khan.
Of the 5 million pens that BIC Cello sells every day in India, most are in the range of ₹10 and above. “Most students buy pens in this price point because they can get a product that ensures a smooth, long-lasting and fine writing experience,” Khan says. The latter is especially crucial for scripts in Indian languages, which usually require finer ballpoints to execute than the Roman script.
Indians, especially students, do seem to take the art of writing seriously anyway. “I get 5-7 emails every day from students telling me their pain points with their favourite pen, or demanding that it be manufactured in a certain point size,” says Khan. As a veteran of the FMCG industry, having spent over a decade at Unilever, it's the kind of customer response that gives him the most satisfaction.