Skip to main content

Kobo commercials play to those who are passionate about the written word.

It starts at bedtime. The warmth of a blanket, the smell of a bathtub's fading steam, and the soft voice of a mother as she flips pages and coaxes her child to sleep with a story. Kobo is tapping into those emotional roots of reading as it launches its biggest advertising campaign to date.

The multimillion dollar global campaign, which launched on Wednesday, represents a tripling in ad spending for the Toronto-based e-reader company. The Mother's Day ad shows moms all over the world at bedtime, and encourages consumers to give an e-reader to the person who gave them the love of reading.

The second new TV commercial focuses those who are passionate about the written word. They are meant to be the first step in a new approach to advertising for the company, and its largest brand-building effort in the three years since its launch.

"Up until this point, we really haven't done much in the way of advertising. It's been more organic, and leveraging our channel partners – bookstores around the world," chief executive officer Michael Serbinis said in an interview Wednesday, calling the move a "transformation" in the company's brand strategy.

It's also indicative of the trajectory that start-ups must follow as they pursue long-term growth. Initially, new companies have advertising that matches their tiny marketing budgets, relying on the kind of "organic" growth Mr. Serbinis referenced – often through word of mouth, and striking the right partnerships to build distribution and early loyalty.

At some point, however, for most companies the advertising mix must change.

"Our strategy and our offering for consumers when we come into a market – we work with booksellers, and we've got a strong catalogue and partnerships with publishers – it really works," Mr. Serbinis said. "… What we realized is that that can only go so far."

Launched by Indigo Books & Music Inc. and sold to Tokyo-based Rakuten Inc. last year, Kobo is now available in 190 countries, and its sales have grown "triple digits" year over year, he said. However, the company's research shows that, in Canada, the number of people who have not adopted e-reading, or even tried a digital reading device, is two to three times larger than those who have. Strategically, the company decided it would need a bigger advertising budget to take its consumer base beyond those early adopters.

The campaign will run on major TV networks in Canada, the United States, Italy, Australia and Brazil – important growth markets for Kobo – and the company anticipates that it will expand further around the world. The commercials will also be supported by ads in other media, and online. The campaign will be in heavy rotation. "You won't be able to miss it," Mr. Serbinis said.

It's the first major work for the brand from Toronto ad agency John St., since it won the account last November. Kobo faces a particular challenge because it is going up against giant competitors, such as Inc. and Sony Corp. But advertising for other devices, such as the Kindle, did not focus as much on the emotional aspect of reading, said Angus Tucker, partner and co-creative director at John St.

"They're readers. That's who they are. That's readers with a capital 'R,'" he said of the target consumer.

Mr. Tucker said they took inspiration from Apple Inc.'s early marketing, for example, which advertised products for creative people, and set itself apart from the image of computers as fancy calculators.

"If you look at the work Kindle's doing … they're a hardware company," he said. "We felt that our best bet was to align ourselves emotionally with what draws readers to the category."