Turks are once again embracing their historic brands. It’s good news for diary maker Ece Ajandasi, looking to recreate the dizzy heights it reached in the 1980s.
“This book was written about Ece and how modern our printing process was,” beams Sedef Gunsiray, holding a cracked and frail publication from 1950 dedicated to one of Turkey’s most iconic brands, Ece Ajandasi (the Ece Diary). Sedef is rooting through the company’s archive: a pile of old diaries, ledgers and notebooks. The great-great–great-granddaughter of founder, Mehmet Sadik Kagitci, Sedef is discovering much of the material for the first time.
A 23-year-old graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Sedef returned to Turkey 18 months ago and with her father Murat is hoping to breathe new life into one of Turkey’s oldest and most recognisable brands. First published in 1910 – and used by statesmen from Ataturk to Inonu – the Ece diary’s fortunes have dipped slightly in recent years. Few products were added to the archive shelves after the early 1980s and, from a peak of 127,000 diary sales in the mid-1980s, the company now sells just 50,000 copies annually.
As Istanbul has sprawled, so has a flood of cheap mass-produced goods and imitation products. Add to the mix a new sense of what it means to be modern and Ece had been pushed to the margins of the market. “In Turkey, it’s difficult to survive as a very old company. When it’s a fast growing country, which is becoming so capitalist, it’s tough to exist as a family business,” says Sedef. According to the Association of Turkey’s 100-year-old Brands, there are now only 48 such brands left in Turkey.
For the few historic brands that remain, however, the climate is finally changing. Not only are Turkish manufacturers more confident in referencing the country’s Ottoman past, but dormant cosmopolitan sensibilities are resonating with a new urban elite. From the ubiquitous tulip symbol of the Istanbul municipality to soap operas charting the deeds of Sultans, Ottoman chic is invading popular culture. “As brand awareness has become more sophisticated in general, consumers have started to appreciate Turkish brands more and realise the value of heritage,” says Nukhet Vardar, author of the Series of Turkish Brands.
Murat Gunsiray, the new managing director of Ece, argues that there is huge potential for the company in today’s market and does not rule out a return to the success of the early 1980s, when, according to Sedef, one in 10 Turks owned an Ece diary. The key to success will be preserving and promoting the company’s core product: “We could spread ourselves too thin and spend our name very easily.” To protect the brand, Murat will concentrate on relaunching the vintage diary this summer, a handmade black cotton-backed book with gold trim. There are also plans to launch an English-language Ece diary for export.
A key part of this strategy is to roll out new boutique stores that communicate the new positioning of the brand. “Our intention is to sell the story and for customers to fall in love with it and the history,” says Murat. Having trained at the London School of Fashion, Murat has already experienced considerable success in the Turkish market (his company, Dogaspor, introduced J Barbour & Sons to Turkey in 1989 and the country is now a major market for the brand).
According to Jeff Shepherd, consultant for Dogaspor, Murat’s track record should stand him in good stead. “I see a lot of similarities between Ece and Barbour. In this day, people are looking for authenticity and something with history. If you’re a company that has this history and trust you have an advantage.”
Such authenticity is also linked to the quality of the product, as Murat and his rambunctious cousin Ali Muhsinzade, the man responsible for the company’s print operations, are only too aware. Muhsinzade says that it takes almost four painstaking months to produce an annual batch of the mostly handmade Ece diaries, compared to more like one month for industrially-produced products.
These printing operations have recently moved to a factory in the distant suburb of Kucukcekmece, where the city begins to give way to fields and uniform apartment blocks in bright chemical colours. Such a setting seems a long way from the old derelict Ece Ajandasi print house, located behind the family shop and company archives in the historic heart of Istanbul. Yet Murat is confident that the Ece diary can remain relevant in this new world. “We have to keep our roots. But also find a solid place in today’s market.”
As the Turkish consumer market continues to mature, a number of other heritage brands are succeeding.
Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi
Turkish coffee founded in 1871 in Istanbul
The company has begun to expand its distribution and business range in recent years. The product list now includes a range of filter coffees, from Colombian to Ethiopian. The company’s brand is increasingly focused on the history of coffee in the Ottoman Empire, including the artists who consumed the drink in Constantinople.
Turkish Delights founded in 1777 in Istanbul
Some consider Lokum or Turkish Delight tourism fodder. While Hacı Bekir has become ubiquitous at Istanbul International Airport, it is also cherished by local consumers who often drop in at its shops in the Eminonu, Beyoglu or Kadikoy districts of Istanbul for sweet delights.
Tile and porcelain factory founded in 1890 in Istanbul
This factory school was established to fulfill the interior design needs of the city’s palaces and continues to flourish, producing a range of tiles, dinnerware and decorative objects. Much of its product range is now sold at the high-end chain Pasabahce.
Eyup Sabri Tuncer
Fragances establised in 1923 in Ankara
Eyup Sabri Tuncer began producing cologne in a little shop in Ankara in the same year that the Turkish Republic was founded. While famous late Ottoman perfume brands have evaporated, Eyup Sabri Tuncer is still going strong, with a range of fragrances from olive oil soaps to eaux de cologne.