It’s been an interesting year for ACCO Brands Corporation, the global $2 billion OP giant that was created last October through the merger of ACCO World and General Binding Corporation (GBC). A year of change, integration and adjustment, all intended for the betterment of the company and its customers. And it’s looking good at the moment. ACCO Brands recently posted a 68 percent increase in its Q2 net sales to $462.6 million.
Much of this growth is due to the company’s enlarged product portfolio. Part of this portfolio is the Swingline brand, arguably the organisation’s strongest in terms of revenue as well as brand awareness. With a 75-year history, Swingline has had to adapt to market changes time and again in order to capture and retain the trust and loyalty of its customer base.
Jon Chamberlain, president of Workspace Tools at ACCO Brands, has only been part of the ACCO stable for 18 months, but he’s very much aware of the importance of the Swingline brand and the need for continuous innovation in this traditionally low involvement category.
OPI: Just over a year on from the ACCO/GBC merger, how are things progressing in terms of integration? Looking at your recent set of results, you must be fairly pleased.
JC: Yes, we are pleased. It’s been a lot of hard work by a lot of people which is going to continue, but so far we’re ahead of pace.
About 85 percent of the identification of the milestones and benefits that we outlined when the merger was announced has been completed, and now we’re progressing along the plan to execute them. I believe that over the next 12-18 months most of the work will be finalised.
OPI: Is it difficult to focus on the job in hand – providing customers with new and innovative products – at this time of change and integration? Swingline is very proud of the trust and loyalty that its products engender. How important is this at this time of integration, when perhaps the competition is also stepping up a gear?
JC: Maintaining trust and loyalty is always important and is not in any way dependent on whether there’s more or less competition. Any time you offer a product in a low involvement category, it’s important to make consumers aware of what you have in the marketplace. It’s essential to continue to impress them with the quality and performance of your products.
We don’t change our strategy based on what the competition is doing. We always produce the same high quality products because that is what earned years and years of loyalty and trust in the products we have in the first place.
OPI: Do you have a view on the likes of Accentra/PaperPro that you’d like to share with us?
JC: Well, I think competition is great and very healthy. It forces you to be more creative and innovative and it doesn’t allow you to rest on your laurels. Distribution companies also appreciate competition, because it provides more alternatives and allows them to challenge manufacturers to be more responsive to user needs.
OPI: As you say, staplers and punches are a low involvement category – how do you make sure you keep customers’ interest and loyalty?
JC: Marketing is a huge focus for ACCO Brands and the Swingline product in particular has powered its well-known brand with some aggressive marketing campaigns to reach its loyal customers as well as a generation of new consumers.
OPI: Can you give an example of a successful campaign and the strategy behind it?
JC: Sure. About a year ago, we really focused on our Optima stapler line with our Red Cross campaign. It lasted for about 60 days. For every unit that was sold through up until the end of 2005, we made a $1 donation to the Red Cross in aid of the Hurricane Katrina Relief Efforts in New Orleans.
The response we got was tremendous. Basically, end-users wanted to contribute to Katrina Relief Efforts and they did it by way of buying a high-quality product that they needed for their work. We saw our point of sale of Optima products spike significantly during the campaign period. At the same time, Swingline donated over $80,000 to the Red Cross for relief efforts. It was a remarkable initiative for us.
Another example, also to promote our Optima products, was the "No Worries" tax break sweepstakes campaign. April 15th is tax day in the US, so we ran this promotion during the first quarter of the year. All people had to do was to sign up for the chance to win – there was no purchase necessary. We had a $25,000 grand prize winner, a series of $1,000 winners and some lesser price packages as well, all aimed at offsetting the tax bills that were about to arrive.
The interesting thing about this campaign is that while the stapling category in the US is not overly large and dynamic, we received 550,000 entries for this campaign which is staggering considering the market size. We also saw a 50 percent point of sale (POS) growth during that period.
OPI: In addition to these huge nationwide campaigns, I assume that you also have specific marketing campaigns geared towards your particular channel partners?
JC: Yes, we have these national programmes that are more or less the same across all channels. They tend to have a big impact and we will continue to drive these types of programmes over the next 12-18 months.
In addition, however, as the category leader we take the role of helping our dealer and retailer partners succeed very seriously, so we created a large number of specific channel promotions. The message in terms of products and what we’re trying to educate the user about is the same, but the marketing vehicle itself is often unique to what the various channels are looking for. Wholesalers have different needs than retailers or contract stationers, so we’re working with these customers individually to drive the right activities.
The idea behind all campaigns is to increase consumer awareness. We’re in a fortunate position in that we have a very large successful business with sought-after products. What we’re trying to do is maintain that vitality while using the vehicles we have at our disposal to introduce new products to our consumers.
OPI: And as far as your channel partners are concerned, I guess they benefit from the national as well as the more targeted campaigns?
JC: That’s correct. Our resellers are very happy because we’re creating demand on a larger scale than we have traditionally done. So the feedback has been great and we’ve seen it in our POS improvement.
In addition to marketing campaigns we are recognised as the overall category manager for our channel partners. We invest a significant amount of time and effort into category management best practices, improved merchandising, and of course continue to monitor POS very closely to help our channel partners succeed within the categories we operate.
OPI: How else do you educate your customers about what’s new or improved at ACCO and Swingline?
JC: We have a dedicated salesforce that works directly with our large contract customers and their customers, the end-users. Don’t get me wrong, we don’t sell directly, it’s really a team of people that markets products through our channel partners and provides a great vehicle for us to get feedback on new product innovation.
This almost direct contact with the end-users is rather unique. The salesforce is a large financial investment for ACCO, but we believe it’s a worthwhile one.
Another area we focus on is the International Association for Administrative Professionals (IAAP). Administrative professionals are extremely important to us, because they are heavy users as well as purchasing decision-makers for their companies. The IAAP held its annual national show at the beginning of August and we were very involved in that, partly through our Swingline Golden Optima Admin Pro of the Year award, which we gave out during the event.
This award highlights the fact that we respect and appreciate all the hard work that administrative professionals put into their organisation. In the run-up to the event, we had a national campaign whereby we collected nominations from companies and individuals, inviting them to write 100-word essays on why their administrative professional is integral to their team.
Those essays were posted and the public was invited to vote on the most compelling entries. We then sifted through hundreds of entries and thousands of votes to create the final top 20 list, which was then used to choose the national winner who was announced during the IAAP convention.
The IAAP also has regional meetings and monthly chapter meetings that our salesforce attends. Again, it’s another chance for us to interact with the people who are passionate about Swingline products.
OPI: In your experience, do the wants and needs of your various end-users actually vary much?
JC: No, not substantially. As I said, the administrative professional is very important to us, as are SOHO users. Those are probably our two primary user groups and it’s interesting for us to see that there’s great commonality with regard to what these customers are looking for.
What they all want is high quality and performance which is why they’ve been buying Swingline all these years. Our core equity with these folks comes from the fact that we haven’t disappointed them – they trust the Swingline brand.
It’s also important to note that we don’t bring additional SKUs to market if they don’t create user value. We’re aiming to continuously introduce innovative products that are true game changers. I think our new PowerEase stapler is a good example.
OPI: What’s different about the PowerEase?
JC: PowerEase is part of our Optima line of products. The first two Optima products – Optima Desk and Optima Grip – were launched about 18 months ago and are 25-sheet, jam free guaranteed desktop staplers.
The Optima PowerEase is a high end product within that range and it’s just come onto the market. It’s a metal unit that also provides the 25-sheet capacity, jam free guarantee. But in addition, and most importantly, it works with up to 70 percent less force than the traditional desktop stapler, so it’s very easy to actuate. We are very excited about this new addition.
OPI: I believe the EasyView desktop punch is another product that has been very successful for you. What’s unique about it?
JC: Yes, we launched the EasyView line of two and three-hole punches within the last 18 months. What’s innovative about them is that you have indicators at either end of the punch which assist the user to align paper correctly for proper punching. Once you’ve put your paper in and it’s perfectly aligned, the red light goes green so that you know you actually get the hole exactly where you want it. That’s a unique and patented Swingline feature.
OPI: When you took the job at ACCO Brands about 18 months ago you knew that the company was about to split from Fortune Brands and that its OP business was about to get a whole lot bigger following the merger with GBC. What attracted you to the job and what are your hopes for the future?
JC: I liked the fact that we were about to become one of the largest OP companies in the industry. We’re a $2 billion company primarily focused on OP which is great because it allows us to chart our own destiny.
The other factor that attracted me to the job was the strong brands we have, like Swingline. And when you have a strong brand, it gives you the latitude to be innovative and creative, knowing that you have the equity with end-users to try different things.
Stapling and punching are slow growth businesses, just 2-3 percent on an annual basis. If we can create innovative products, we should expect to double or triple that growth rate.
ACCO and SWINGLINE are registered trademarks while OPTIMA, POWEREASE and EASYVIEW are trademarks of ACCO Brands. GBC is a registered trademark of General Binding Corporation.