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From China, a Plan to Topple One of America’s Most Dominant Brands

Every list of America’s most valuable brands includes the same parade of names, year after year –Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Disney, Google. Every year, these lists also ignore what could be the single most dominant brand of all. This brand is known by everyone in America, enjoys a higher market share than any of those on the list, and is able to charge a price premium as much as 300% above its competitors. The brand? Crayola Crayons

That’s right, that most humble and low-tech of children’s toys. No one outside the company knows Crayola’s exact market share. A good estimate is at least 80% of the US crayon market. Maybe higher. In other words, Crayola is dominant enough not just to warrant an anti-trust investigation, but to be broken up as a monopoly. 

Of course, I’m partly joking here – about the anti-trust part, not about the market share. Heaven forbid the US Department of Justice should ever decide to police kids toys. But, Crayola really is astoundingly powerful and dominant in its market. It enjoys, according to the company’s own research, 99% brand recognition in the US. Its name is not only synonymous with crayons, but has more or less shut down any lower-cost competitor from grabbing much of its market share. How it does this is also something of a miracle, since as far as I can tell, they do comparatively little advertising to sustain this. In other words, they are not only the most dominant brand, they are also the thriftiest, in terms of how much is spent each year sustaining that position in parents’ minds and kids’ playrooms. 

We don’t know exactly how big Crayola is, or any other fact about its financial performance, because it’s a private company. In fact, even more impenetrably, it’s a private company inside a private company. Binney & Smith, the original manufacturer, was sold to famously-secretive Hallmark in 1984. It’s all educated guesswork. 

But, I’m lucky to know a Chinese boss whose guesswork is far more educated than most. David Zhan is boss and majority shareholder of Wingart, a manufacturer of children’s art supplies based in Shenzhen. David is one of the smartest, savviest and most delightful businesspeople I know. Wingart is also one of my very favorite companies – though they are not a client, nor an especially large and fast-growing SME. But, Wingart is exceptionally well-run and focused, with well-made and well-designed products, as well as the most kaleidoscopically colorful assembly line I’ve ever seen. 

Wingart makes crayons. They are better than Crayola’s. That’s not David’s pride speaking, but the results of some side-by-side testing done by one of the larger American art supply companies. I personally have no doubt this is true. I’ve seen Wingart’s crayon production. Not only are they better, but they are much cheaper too. 

Still, it’s almost impossible for Wingart to gain any ground on Crayola. Wingart mainly sells under other companies’ brand names in the US, including Palmers, KrazyArt and Elmer’s. They have good distribution for many of their products at Wal-Mart and Target. But, not crayons. Wal-Mart would like to start selling Wingart’s crayons – not just, presumably, because they are better than Crayola. But, Wal-Mart, famously, does not like to be reliant on a single brand, a single supplier, for any of the products it carries. 

For the time being, Wingart’s factory is too small to produce crayons in the quantity Wal-Mart requires. This should change within a year or so, when Wingart moves to a new and larger factory about two hours from Shenzhen. Then, perhaps for the first time ever, Crayola will begin to face some real competition. I can’t wait. I think Wingart has a realistic chance to build a crayon business, worldwide, that will compete in size with Crayola, which is pretty much a US-dependent company. 

I have a lot of admiration for Crayola – not so much the crayons, but the fact that a 106 year-old brand could be so predominant in its market, and enjoy such unrivaled – and largely uncelebrated — supremacy for so long. But, I’d still like to see Wingart knock them down a few notches, or more. Crayola has it too good for too long.  American kids deserve the best crayons – as, for that matter,  do European, Chinese and other kids on the planet.