Creating a brand in a niche market

Brands that operate in niche marketplaces face an interesting proposition. The nature of the beast means that there’s a finite number of customers that they’re able to reach. However get it right and these potential customers are likely to be far more committed than those of a mass market.

One brand who are currently inspiring a devoted following are Bristol-based Papersmiths, who curate and celebrate the best in stationary and paper goods. We spoke to founders Sidonie Warren and Kyle Clarke about what has inspired their brand and what they themselves look for in other brands.

What does the concept of branding mean to Papersmiths? Is it a visual identity or does it go deeper than that?

Kyle: Branding for Papersmiths is much, much deeper than the visual identity. What we’ve created with our identity is fairly one dimensional. As a small business with limited budgets we haven’t made too many physical touch points that can be overtly branded. Of course, with the ones we have, we aim to make them special, ensuring the production process is always well considered - which is to be expected from a shop that sells a lot of beautifully crafted print products.

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It could be argued that that’s a little self-indulgent as we're also designers! The concept of our brand and its value is portrayed in our voice and how we showcase Papersmiths. The fact that we love, live and breathe our business and run it to an exacting standard makes this easy. 

We’re in a marketplace where the customer is ridiculously excited about the product - our people literally love stationery. They don’t leave saying they love the attention to detail in the logo or the receipt pads, they love the fact we’ve created a completely unique space that is a shrine to stationery. We’re undoubtedly in a niche market. Our customers feel this and we have created an invisible shared connection because we both have a shared, slightly odd obsession and love for this product that other people just don’t get! Our brand is our bond and genuine affinity with the product we adore.

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What does your branding say about your business?

Kyle: Graphically we based it on the squiggles that our customers doodle in store when trying out our pens. We're inspired by them every day and wanted to bring them into our identity. Emotionally it shows we care about what we’re trying to do. We haven’t written a brief and sent it to some agency looking to tick boxes for shared business objectives. We’ve made a pretty simple platform that allows easy interaction between the business and the customer. It’s simple and straightforward, it’s easy to get us. We want people to feel a part of Papersmiths and feel proud of our growth, from our little shop on Perry Road to growing into London. When you pick up a pen and test it on our notepad, I’d hope people feel connected to the brand. 

What’s the secret to good curation? 

Sidonie: I think everyone has their own way of curation and I wear mine on my sleeve and share it, because it's such a personal skill that nobody is going to do it in the same way as another, unless you're just plain copying. When I'm bringing products together, I use a mixture of instinct and my commercial mind. I tend to know right away if something is suitable for Papersmiths. If I start trying to make something fit, I clock this and let it go. But even with those items that make my heart soar, I bring in a commercial mindset and look at the numbers. And a second opinion is extremely valuable. I get over excited about new ideas, new product types, anything new basically. I work closely on the buying for Papersmiths with my colleague Becks. She'll tell me if I'm heading off in a strange direction. 

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How do you decide which brands to feature on your site and in your stores?

Sidonie: We look for quality in the goods, beautiful form, functionality and a good story. But sometimes a brand excites us so much that all that goes out the window. This has seen us selling miniature wooden oars that were handmade in Brooklyn and have no useful function related to stationery whatsoever, and a rather expensive transparent speaker by People People which was so good looking that someone nicked it from our London store a few weeks ago. 

Lastly, what qualities do you think are the most important for a brand in your industry?

Kyle: We’re in a big market place, the UK stationery industry is £2.1BN and growing, the big guns are a bit behind the times and sadly go after margins before product quality and create stores with no sole or passion. There are also a lot of smaller businesses not too dissimilar from us but I think no one has the focus that we have. The other smaller companies stray off the path and start selling product mixes that don’t gel and ultimately customers can’t describe what they are. For us, we think honesty, openness, integrity and passion is what will elevate us as a brand.

Sidonie: We’ll never stop digging out the buried treasure from the overwhelming amount of stationery that's on the market. I think a sense of playfulness is key too, and a human touch. We like to have fun and show what's going on behind the scenes. 

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