Supplier Spotlight: Pierre Martichoux, Chameleon Like

10 min read

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We love to share the stories behind the scenes of the most successful makers in the $23 billion promotional products industry. In today’s spotlight, we visit with Pierre Martichoux, President of Chameleon Like, whose inspiring, custom creations are held by some of the most notable brands today. 

What inspired you to start Chameleon-Like?

My late business partner and co-founder Emmanuel and I were both working for a French company selling Portfolios and Sketchbooks to the then flourishing Graphic and Art Supply Retail market. One of my friends was a promo distributor and told me she thought there was an opportunity for similar products in her industry. At the time, Journalbooks, our main competitor, was mostly known as Timeplanner, a supplier of dated planners. Blank journals were not even on the radar in the promo industry.

What brands do you follow and respect that are outside of the industry?

Muji. It is a Japanese retailer of quality “brandless” products (Muji means “without brand”). The irony is, it has become a very successful brand. So there you have it, you can’t escape branding.

Where do you find your inspiration for your product?

Mostly, we look at retail trends, and not necessarily in the stationery world. Daniel Busatto who works on design for our line and lives between Paris and New York, is constantly looking for new ideas and materials from European retail stores and brands, small and large. He is an artist and comes up with -sometimes crazy- designs.

What is it that you enjoy the most about this industry?

The pace. I love the short sales cycle, the fact that you can chase and close a good order in a few days. It is also an industry where people are open-minded about new products and new companies. The diversity of people you meet and the fact that I have made quite a few friends (and met my wife!) is also something I treasure.

What does Pierre Martichoux do when he’s not working?

I enjoy a good game of tennis, which satisfies my competitive side, and I love to balance it with a weekly session of Bikram Hot Yoga to clear my mind and stretch my 50-year-old body. I love to spend time with my wife and six-year-old daughter, and hang out with my three older kids (23, 21, and 17). The little one keeps me grounded, and my older children keep me in check while bringing me up on emerging trends … and lingo.

Why do you think Chameleon Like remains so successful?

We specialize in one product category: journals and notebooks. We do not want to be everything to everybody; we just aim at being the best at what we do. We have genuine custom capabilities, thanks to our “can make” attitude and our domestic production facility. And we are design-forward and creatively edgy, that’s our European retail DNA. At the core, we believe that a journal is just the best promotional product one can receive. It is useful, lends itself to unlimited customization options, and presents a wide range of price-point options. Year after year, we also invest a lot of resources in new designs and bringing new features to the marketplace. “Knocking off the latest fade” is not and will never be what we are about. As a result, customers come back to us when they want something special and different. And while highly creative, we were the smallest supplier to become QCA certified, something that has forced us to implement a process in our operations that we are very proud of.

What’s your favorite Chameleon Like product?

I love our SOHO leather journal set introduced in 2017. When we started manufacturing our sewn bound commuter journals four years ago, no one in the industry was offering it but us. A huge success. Last January, we designed a leather jacket for it to make it an instant, best-selling executive journal set! I love the accent stitching, the subtle pen holder, and the fact that it is easily refillable.

Do you have a memorable project or story that sticks out to you from a product that you’ve developed?

The Dave Koz Memory Album/Journal we have been producing for about four seasons now. The Distributor handles the room drop for this celebrity cruise: a high-end trip where you travel with your favorite jazz musicians. When the Distributor first approached us, they wanted an item that travelers would use during the cruise and keep after. The client wanted to include the program of activities (P.O.A.), bios on the various musicians, etc. We came up with a Program/Photo Album/Autograph spiral-bound piece. Because of the many moving parts, and the fact that the POA is not finalized until a few weeks before the event, this had to be printed and bound in the USA. A perfect project for us! After the first event, the Distributor called me to let me know that the album was extremely well received and the centerpiece of the room drop! Even though guests had received much more expensive gifts, this had sentimental value, especially once guests filled it with actual pictures of the trip and various autographs!

What’s something that you’re proud of that no one knows about or underappreciates about Chameleon Like?

What’s under the hood. I think when people see a journal, they have no idea how many hands and operations go into producing them. It takes many teams to come together and produce the orders that come out of our factory, and this is why it’s hard when people compare us to one of the big suppliers/ decorators. For us, when we make a product from scratch, the decoration aspect is just the final touch.

Why do you think people still love the tactile aspect of taking notes and writing in a journal?

Look, I get it: we are located 20 miles South of Silicon Valley. When I go out socially, and I tell people at a party what I do for a living, they look at me like I am an alien. Then I tell them we make journals for Apple, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, on a weekly basis, and they tell me: WE LOVE THOSE! For them, a journal is much more special than a power bank. When tablets first came out, I was worried. I lost a couple of nights of sleep over it. After all, Chameleon Like is not only my paycheck, it’s my baby! Then I went to our sample room and saw all the overs from journals we make for numerous high-tech companies. The end of paper? The jury is in: paper and note-taking is edgier than ever! Look at the continued success of Moleskine® in the retail market.

You started in 1998, “insisting on making products from scratch in your small California facility rather than outsourcing.” Why the insistence on manufacturing in the US? 

Simply because I am passionate and fascinated by the manufacturing process. When I give a tour of our facility, I acknowledge the hard-working people in our offices: the inside sales customer service team, the designers, the pre-production crew. But the soul of Chameleon Like is in the back, where the magic happens!

We started importing some products from overseas when we introduced our generic version of the Moleskine® notebook to the corporate marketplace, before Moleskine® was even a name in the USA! This has been a very successful venture. But in the past two years, 100% of our growth comes from our “made in California” product lines. When you import and decorate, there is only so much you can do in terms of customization, and the way our industry works unfortunately, as soon as you have a good seller, the big guys will knock your product off. What we do when we make products from scratch is not rocket science, but it is tedious, complicated hard work, and because it is hard and challenging, we embrace it!

Do you think custom work will continue to proliferate? If so, what are some of your best tips for helping distributors get into doing more custom work for their clients?

More and more, I hear from Distributors that their clients do not want “cookie-cutter,” and our sales of custom journals continue to grow. The new generation, they want something special, and they want to have an impact on the design. We tell them: let’s design a journal together! My advice for our Distributors is: trust the specialists! If you want the best drinkware, go to ETS. If you want the best journal, come to us! Be aware of your client’s budget, but don’t obsess over pricing. Once you offer something different, special, customers will not shop you out for a few cents, and they won’t be able to!

How do you think collaboration is changing in our industry?

If I were a kiss-ass, I would tell you that commonsku is the best thing that happened to the industry as of late. I am even upset that we got late on the bandwagon, to be honest. When we present some of our custom products from past projects, a typical question we get is: who came up with this idea/ design? I tell them, sometimes it is us, sometimes it is the distributor, but I can guarantee that the best ones always are a product of collaboration between the two. Here again, I think the industry has a long way to go, but the trend is there and the success of commonsku proves it!

How can a distributor best collaborate with a supplier? Any tips, best practices you can share that will help distributors learn how to best collaborate with you?

Email AND pick up the phone. Also, please open your doors and spend some time with us when we come see you. We know that distributors are frequently solicited by suppliers for meetings. At Chameleon Like, we do not use multi-line reps; we have factory trained ambassadors (two for the whole country, plus myself) that are coming to visit you because they have already identified you as a special partner. How can you effectively collaborate with someone you have never met in person?

What do you wish more distributors knew about Chameleon Like?

That we bring something special to the table. But unless you sit at the table with us, you may never know what it is. And we will both miss out.

What are you most excited about what is going on in our industry? What are you most concerned about?

My biggest concern is the growing commoditization (i.e., all the major suppliers offering very similar products), and the consolidation on both ends, suppliers and distributors. I am of the thought that “creativity and size do not get along well.” When I hear distributors complaining that they get bid out, and all they do is pitch the same products, I am like: hello?

I would also guard against a trend where distributors and service providers are looking for the suppliers to pay for virtually everything. I do not think it is healthy for the industry to be transferring the financial burden increasingly to the vendors (rebates, coop fees, sponsoring events, etc.). This year, Chameleon Like has decided to peel back a lot of our rebates and work more closely with Distributors who are not systematically taking advantage of the fact that they are higher on the food chain, and I know it is going to work out because they already are our biggest fans!

On the positive side, the new generation is more open, they don’t approach this as “ASI” or “PPAI,” they see that we (distributors+suppliers) are one of the marketing tools that any company or corporation out there can and should use. The old school distributor worried about us “going direct” and the old school supplier resenting that some of the distributors are “buying directly from China,” is an old debate. This is already happening. Call it “multi-channel marketing” or “direct sourcing” but there is no point in resisting it. I love it. I think it opens up our industry to so many opportunities!


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Also published on Medium.