Painting career success

From Northwestern’s Vitamin IMC. 2011:

Think back to your first box of Crayola crayons: That whiff after opening the school-bus yellow box, all those colorful possibilities in one place. When Tom Marchese came to talk to IMC students last Friday, it was as if the former Crayola product manager and inventor of the world’s first quick drying arts-and-crafts paint was showing us how to color again, this time with our careers.

“Everybody puts a box around their thinking,” Marchese said. “Nothing is really impossible, but something happens the older we get, and we start to get scared and never venture out of where it’s safe. That’s where the most innovative, creative ideas are.”

Almonds in Hershey’s kisses wrapped in glittering red foil? In the mid-1980s, that was unheard of. As an associate brand manager with the famed Hershey Company, Marchese pitched the idea of reinventing the iconic, bite-sized chocolates; his manager was more concerned about attaining one percent incremental growth.

“I asked myself a question: Do you want incrementalism in your life, doing a little bit better? Drowning in information, using just logic? Or do you want to picture a breakthrough in your head, build the know-how, use creative thinking and be totally committed to success and innovation?”

When Marchese took the role of vice president of marketing and innovation at Elmer’s Products Inc., glue sales dwarfed sales in all other categories. “We had to redefine the playing field. We said, ‘We’re going to become the leading arts-and-crafts company focused on enabling creative success.’” It was a new brand position for the traditional glue company, previously focused on back-to-school sales. Marchese and his team analyzed Elmer’s historical sales as well as recent trends, studied the market and category dynamics, and conducted a SWOT analysis.

“We found children were more sophisticated at younger ages. They didn’t want to play with Barbies or Matchbox cars anymore. But their parents were concerned about all the time their children were playing video games.”

Marchese and his team found an area of the market untouched by major players such as his former employer Crayola, or, another competitor, Rose Art. “At Elmer’s we said we’re about innovation. Crayons were already saturated, so I asked, what would transform the paint business? Then I asked what if the paint were invisible? People told us it was impossible. But it wasn’t.” That’s how Elmer’s came up with Go-Paint, squeezable tubes of paint that left no mess to clean up for time-crunched parents. Go-Paint became a best-selling product and was named Toy of the Year multiple times.

Marchese, currently vice president of restaurant marketing at Bob Evans Restaurants, has brought this same commitment to innovation and creating what he calls “breakthrough goals.” “At Bob Evans, we could’ve said we’re in the sausage business, so we’ll grow the sausage business at two percent a year. But we said we’re going to go from being just a sausage maker, to whole meal replacement.” The company is well on its way to achieving 11 percent growth as a result.

So much of what we learn in the IMC program trains us to be skeptical of gut-level decision making. But Tom Marchese’s accomplishments are evidence that rational methods to making marketing decisions can dovetail with more creative approaches, and that tension can produce something we never thought possible.