Johanna Basford has become something of a surprise celebrity. Three years ago, the Scottish illustrator’s first coloring book for adults was published, filled with garden images, closely followed by her second book, featuring a forest theme.
Both sold millions of copies and were snapped up from South Korea to the United States. The 33-year-old was suddenly a trendsetter, kicking off a fad no one thought possible in the Internet age.
That’s probably why one of the most analog of companies has an area devoted to her in the lobby of its headquarters. For the pen and pencil maker Staedtler in the southern German city of Nuremberg, she has become a sort of icon.
The adult coloring book trend Ms. Basford inspired has been manna from heaven for companies like Staedtler, which have been left struggling by the digital revolution, as computers and tablets replace traditional writing implements, especially in schools.
The popularity of adult coloring books has hugely boosted Staedtler’s sales, which soared by 14 percent to €323 million or $360 million last year. The company estimates that the coloring book boom accounted for 6 percent of that growth.
Staedtler’s factories have been forced to add extra shifts to keep up with demand while maintaining the eight-to-nine week-turnaround time for bulk deliveries.
Alongside operations in Germany, Indonesia and Thailand, Staedtler is considering opening a new production plant in its biggest market, the United States, with the first pens and pencils rolling off the production line by the end of 2017.
“We are looking at that very carefully at the moment,” Staedtler managing director, Axel Marx, told Handelsblatt.
“I wanted to tell you about one sort of pencil from Faber that I’ve found. They are very soft and … they are very nice to use on big works.”
There’s even academic research examining why the coloring trend has emerged recently. Scientists from the University of Plymouth say coloring boosts concentration by up to a third. It focuses the mind and improves problem-solving abilities.
“It is also as helpful at combating stress as meditation,” the researchers wrote in their study.
Still, the nature of trends is that they fade, or are received with varying degrees of enthusiasm depending on the market. Although it’s caught on widely enough to be considered a mass phenomenon, reception has still been mixed.
Adult coloring books first became massively popular in South Korea, followed by the United States, Great Britain and Norway. Germany caught the coloring bug soon after, and is still seeing sales records broken every month. But Italy and Sweden haven’t had the same uptake.
The response in South America has been patchy as well, with sales skyrocketing in Brazil, and tepid interest in Argentina. The trend hasn’t even arrived in Chile yet.
But Staedtler competitor Faber-Castell considers the popularity of adult coloring books a new creative trend, rather than a passing fad, as customers invest increasingly in high-quality art gear.
Their production facilities in the southern German municipality of Stein lie just 15 kilometers away from Staedtler’s headquarters. Founded in 1761, the company is 92 years older than rival Staedtler.
And Faber-Castell has been careful to document its two-and-a-half-century tradition.
“I wanted to tell you about one sort of pencil from Faber that I’ve found. They are very soft and … they are very nice to use on big works,” said Vincent van Gogh in a letter in 1883 to his mentor Anthon van Rappard, a comment preserved in the company’s archives. To this day, workers describe how the late Lord Anton-Wolfgang of the Faber-Castell family often dropped pencils from the top of the castle tower as a quality control test. They usually survived intact.
But like Staedler, the company has also faced with the problems related to present-day digitalization – and was therefore just as glad to see the same windfall from the adult coloring book phenomenon.
Faber-Castell has also had to introduce extra shifts to keep up with the demand. Its Art & Graphic business, selling coloring and lead pencils, felt-tipped pens and high-end artists materials, swelled by 42 percent last year.
Rolf Schifferens, who heads European operations, described the boost to business from adult coloring books as “more than just the icing on the cake.”
And almost ironically, the firmly analog trend has provided companies like Faber-Castell and Staedler with a bridge into the digital world. Social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook are full of pages where users post their work.
“The social networks are an ideal platform to inspire our customers with new ideas and products,” said Mr. Schifferens.
But at the end of day, the sector has to prepare for the future rather than just ride the coloring-book wave.
“There will be no never-ending growth,” said Staedtler’s Mr. Marx.
For that reason they are stepping up investment in research and development, investing between 4 and 5 percent of their profits each year on the creation of new colors and broadening product lines. And most of that new production will take place in Germany.
“After all,” said Mr. Marx, “long before Siemens, Deutsche Bank and Volkswagen, we were proud of the designation ‘Made in Germany.'”
Christian Schnell writes about companies and markets. To contact the author: email@example.com