A Legacy in Chalk: An Incredible Brand Building Example You’ve Never Heard Of
What if your product could be known as the best in the world? Completely unrivaled by any other, with customers willing to pay a premium far higher than any competitor.
Honestly, for many brands, that level of distinction is out of reach.
So what does it take to build a cult-like following of loyal customers?
Let’s Start at the End
In 2014, Hagoromo Stationery announced they were going out of business.
The news created what some called “the apocalypse of chalk.”
For 82 years, the Japanese company created the infamous Hagoromo chalk. It established a reputation as the crème de la crème for chalk, especially in the education industry and even more especially among mathematics professors.
David Eisenbud, professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley (and former Director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute), said, “I discovered it when I went to the University of Tokyo, and one of the professors there said to me, ‘You know, we have better chalk than you do in the States.’ And I said, ‘Oh, go on, chalk is chalk.’ And so I tried it out, and I was surprised to find that he was right.”
The chalk claimed fame with a variety of distinguishing features, from being dustless to more density to a smoother flow.
It also created better legibility of elaborate Chinese characters written with the chalk, a key selling point for one of the company’s larger target markets.
But the success of the Hagoromo brand was based on more than just product features.
The Secret Sauce of This Brand Building Example
Their rumored secret sauce was more than just oyster shells and other premium ingredients. Or two generations of experience. Or a great advertising campaign and phenomenal content marketing.
Customer story after story echoes the same sense of awe expressed by David for the unmatched quality of Hagoromo chalk.
“It’s the Rolls Royce of chalk.”
“…the Michael Jordan of chalk.”
“I assume the special ingredient is angel tears.”
“It’s a cult favorite.”
The customer voices convey an excitement that a company’s own marketers just could not.
There’s something so genuine about the passion they express.
“A legend around this chalk is that it’s impossible to write a false theorem,” David said.
There’s the sense among Hagoromo users that they’re part of an elite group. In the US, many customers shared that they had to import from connections in Japan. That adds to the perception of exclusivity.
This sense of an exclusive community. The organic creation of a VIP in-group. The expansive reach through simple word of mouth.
It’s all exactly what the dreams of any brand builder or marketer are made of.
David added, “There’s a real high craft side to giving a beautiful lecture on a blackboard. Mathematicians admire this in each other and like to use the best tools for it.”
And the structure of the Hagoromo company, its limited distribution, its pricing model, the exclusivity of the entire operation, all catered to its brand evangelists and their sense of being a part of something great.
Saved by Brand Loyalty
The passion of these brand evangelists evidenced itself further when sales of the chalk increased exponentially after news of the demise of Hagoromo Stationery. People were grabbing as much of the product as they could, 10- or 15-year supply, and hoarding in bulk.
Production ended in March 2015.
Part of the problem was that Hagoromo President Takayasu Watanabe had fallen ill and didn’t have a designated successor. The company and its refined processes would end when Watanabe passed away.
Enter Shin Hyeong-seok, yet another Hagoromo chalk fanatic.
A teacher who also resold the chalk to his peers, Hyeong-seok reached out to Watanabe when he heard the news. He believed he could be the successor the dying man was looking for. And so after some convincing, Hyeong-seok purchased several manufacturing machines, the brand rights and knowledge about how to keep up the same level of quality production.
Production of Hagoromo chalk resumed in 2016.
Sales in the first year exceeded a quarter million dollars, doubled in 2017, and then rose by another quarter million in 2018.
Overseas sales grew at an even faster rate of 600% from 2016 to 2018 (about $40k to over $250k).
A Return to the Beginning of Our Brand Building Story
Brand marketers constantly seek authenticity.
The benefits of case studies and testimonials are that they just feel more natural. So many of the Hagoromo customer stories strike a chord because they aren’t solicited.
It’s easier to believe what’s being said by someone who isn’t scripted. Marketing collateral often chokes on jargon-filled phrases like “award-winning solution” or “top-rated innovation,” just to name a few that we lean on.
Building a successful brand is about delivering undeniable quality.
Then clear the stage for your customers to speak for you.
New owner Hyeong-seok started as just a customer and now will carry on the brand legacy. He believes in the resilience of Hagoromo chalk.
“There are products that are bound to disappear as times change, but the best quality product should be the last to disappear.”
You can also sign up for my newsletter and get my content (plus other insight) delivered to you weekly.