Vendor Profile: Pilot

The desire to overcome technical challenges and create new writing sensations through best-in-class technology has been a trademark of Pilot since its creation in Japan in 1918, as this potted history shows.


In January 2018, it will be exactly 100 years since two Japanese entrepreneurs founded the Namiki Manufacturing Company and launched the first fountain pen fully made in Japan: the Pilot. 20 years after that launch, in 1938, Pilot would be promoted from product name to company name.

Ryosuke Namiki and Masao Wada were both engineers in the merchant marine. Since the Meiji restoration of 1868, Japan was still modernising and working hard to catch up with Western powers. In a country that was still developing, Namiki and Wada witnessed merchant ships coming into Japan loaded with merchandise from the West, but leaving its harbours empty. As proud Japanese, they probably felt disappointed: didn’t Japan have anything to offer the world? 

Spending many months a year aboard boats, the budding entrepreneurs were also disheartened by how quickly the nibs from their fountain pens rusted while at sea. 

It was probably these two frustrations that were the main reasons which sparked the creation of the company: the desire to make a high-quality product fully made in Japan, and the quest to overcome a technological challenge. 

The first prototype, equipped with a nib from a new alloy, was completed in 1916. Two years later, in January 1918, the Namiki Manufacturing Company was born. As early as 1926, the company had showrooms in London, New York and Shanghai, making it one of the first Japanese companies to venture abroad with determination and ambition.

Driving force

To this day, Pilot continues to be driven by its initial goals to bring high-quality and technologically-advanced writing instruments to the rest of the world. Its geographical expansion has never stopped and Pilot is now present in more than 100 countries through a dense network of subsidiaries and distributors. 

Marine values still run deep in Pilot’s DNA. Sailors never rest, always look at the horizon, are curious, bold and daring dreamers. It is probably these character traits in Pilot’s founders that has made the company one of the innovators in the writing instruments sector over the past century.

Celebrating with a splash – and a celebrity

OPI speaks to Ken Schoellhammer, European Brand Manager at Pilot Corporation of Europe about how the company is marking its anniversary in 2018

OPI: 100 years in business is a very special occasion. How are you planning to celebrate the event in Europe specifically in 2018? 

Ken Schoellhammer: It is indeed a very special occasion for our company. Marketing-wise, it is a great opportunity for an outstanding campaign. Awareness of the Pilot brand is generally good already in Europe, although it needs boosting in some countries.

One of our key priorities was to use this anniversary opportunity to highlight Pilot’s leading products. Of course we want to throw a big party to celebrate, but the aim of the party is also to raise our brand and product profile in the minds of our distributors as well as consumers. We wanted to come up with something very special and unique for this 100th anniversary.

Typically, you would launch a new range of products that embodies the special occasion. This would then be followed up with top-notch advertising material, a dedicated website, plenty of brand content, etc.

But we felt there was still something missing, a kind of special ‘wow’ factor that would make the campaign really stand out and be seen. Because, let’s face it: in our particular sector we don’t have the financial resources of industries such as automotive or high-tech. Pilot is probably the writing instruments’ brand that invests the most in media and advertising, but our share of voice still remains tiny in the universe of advertisers. 

OPI: So how can you be more visible with a limited budget – what did you come up with?

KS: We explored the concept of a celebrity endorsement. This type of campaign can build brand equity and awareness. You have to be careful though as there can be pitfalls. It could be the celebrity overshadowing the brand, so even if the ad recall is good but brand attribution weak, the campaign overall cannot be considered a success. 

When we started on this path, we set ourselves a list of objective criteria: the international character of the celebrity, because the playground for this particular campaign is Europe; his/her cross-generational appeal; and perhaps most importantly how he/she resonates with the type of product we manufacture. As a marketer, I see myself as a constant gardener – my approach is perennial and I’m not looking for one-shots that provoke a big spike in noise and activity that cannot be sustained over time.

My belief is that there has to be a connection at a deeper level. Obviously, Nike and Michael Jordan come to mind as the most successful endorsement ever, but very often it is about piggy-backing on a famous celebrity just because he/she is famous. 

Mika, the celebrity we chose to partner with and who accepted our proposal, ticked many of our criteria boxes. He is best known as a singer obviously. But first and foremost, he is an artist. An artist who has chosen music as his preferred way of expressing a unique worldview. But that’s not it. His tailor-made, unique outfits he wears on stage – the design of which he is very much involved in – and past collaborations with Coca Cola and Swatch designing limited-edition products all show that he has expressed his creative side outside of the music industry. 

He has had tremendous success as a TV personality and has appeared on The Voice in France and The X-Factor in the UK. In September 2017, Mika won the prestigious Rose d’Or international television award for best entertainment programme for his variety show Stasera Casa Mika in Italy. All of this speaks volumes about his creative mind. 

Pilot Corporation of Europe, meanwhile, began work on its communication platform #happywriting in 2014. This ongoing campaign celebrates the emotional aspects of physically holding a writing instrument and explores issues such as creativity, self-expression, relaxation, learning and connecting with others. 

Mika, as part of our anniversary campaign and with #happywriting in mind, was thrilled to have the opportunity to redecorate a number of pens that have been a part of his life since childhood.

Overall, we felt there was a real fit and a real connection between Pilot, its products and Mika.

OPI: Tell me a bit more about these limited editions that Mika created with you?

KS: The limited editions by Mika encompass the four bestselling ranges of the Pilot rollerball family, each in six colours: G2, V5, FriXion Ball and Clicker. That’s 24 designs overall. These will be on the market only during Pilot’s 2018 anniversary year. The idea is that Mika’s world is reflected on each of these 24 pens – colourful, weird, fun, unique, full of energy and life. 

The 24 writing instruments form an eclectic mix and are based on a number of themes: pop culture, Pilot’s maritime origins and candy stores. Another inspiration came from the popularity of collectable cards, so each of the four ranges is like a family of unique pens that consumers can collect and enjoy together.

Apart from these limited editions that represent the core of our anniversary campaign, we’re supplementing and underpinning this with a whole range of marketing and advertising collateral. This includes an exciting new television commercial directed by the very talented Lukas Zanotto and production company TroubleMakers; a dedicated website, and of course a whole array of POS for the mass market, retailers, superstores, etc. Overall, I’m confident that we have covered all bases.

OPI: What has been the reaction from your distribution partners? 

KS: Reactions from our distribution partners across Europe have been excellent. In those countries where Mika is best known, such as southern Europe or the UK, the response has been particularly enthusiastic. But even in nations like Germany where Mika doesn’t enjoy the same celebrity status, reactions have been very positive because of the sheer attraction, energy and momentum of the limited editions as well as the marketing assets and tools that we have produced. 

Everyone has been complimentary about our 100th anniversary and how we’ve chosen to celebrate it in our own unique style. On a more pragmatic note, I believe there’s a real sense among our partners that the whole campaign has enough gravitas and attraction to actually increase sales – and that is, very bluntly-speaking, what ultimately matters the most to them! 

OPI: Your celebration year is obviously only just kicking off, but what is your view now – almost in hindsight – on collaboration with non-industry personalities and celebrities?

KS: I believe that collaboration with external talent is definitely something we should be looking at again in the future. It’s positive to expose our company to new energies, inspiration and influences from outside our industry. I will never forget my favourite-ever brand campaign of Absolut Vodka which started with the successful collaboration of musicians and artists – including Andy Warhol – in New York in the 1980s. 

The collaboration with artists fits in well with Pilot’s ethos and what we do, and it can be a very powerful combination. We also, for example, began work with artists for the Pilot Pintor, our new paint marker range in 2017, producing videos of their creations.