How do you start a craze? What makes something a must-have? Even if you don’t know the answer, Zara McLaughlin’s brand Zara Ceramics has found itself at the very centre of a craze that’s quickly growing beyond Northern Ireland. The brand found its beginnings in the small town of Ballymoney and now her mugs are being sent as far as Australia.
Zara attended Ulster University Belfast and initially was interested in jewellery making, however, after deciding that metal was not the material for her, she soon found herself taking a trip to the ceramics department. Zara Ceramics was originally born while documenting her final year at university, her success has far exceeded everyone’s expectations, even Zara’s! In January 2020, during her final year at university, she thought she would need to take on a second part-time job, however, the combination of a pandemic and a lock-down meant that Zara’s small online business started to soar. The Instagram page ‘Zara Ceramics’ currently has 31.8K followers and is growing every day. Moreso, Zara has definitely taken full advantage of the power social media has, with her brands account on Tik Tok currently having 61.8K followers with some videos having as many as 3.5M views.
On her Instagram and Tik Tok Zara is very open with her creative process, telling me
“ I document the process of a ball of clay to a final mug on Instagram stories, you’re investing not only into the finished good- it’s something that you’ve watched come to life from scratch.”
What is it that makes these mugs so desirable? Getting your hands on one on release day is like gold dust, so much so that Zara frequently tells her followers to get in their “thumb stretches” a week in advance.
I spoke with Matthew Kearney, a lecturer and subject director in marketing at Ulster University, who specialises in consumer behaviour and psychology, guerrilla marketing, digital marketing and tourism. He explained to me the psychology behind why Zara’s products are so successful, one reason being ‘supply and demand’. The very scarcity of the product is what is helping drive the interest. However, had she not created such a desirable product, the scarcity of it would not matter. As well as the product being desirable, they are also of such high quality that the rising demand outstrips the supply. Matthew Kearney also references memetic theory in regards to Zara Ceramics rising popularity and following. Through the natural imitation of others, we often want a product that someone else has.
However, there has also been a rise in independent businesses like Zara Ceramics. In the past year, the message to shop local and support local businesses has never been more important. In fact, by supporting her business, people are often supporting the other small brands and businesses that she collaborates with such as Surf Shack in Castlerock and A Broader Picture in Portstewart. Zara believes this to be a great way of networking and meeting new people, especially since she usually works in isolation.
Of course, this story of success is not the case for all businesses this past year, we have seen multiple retail giants close their stores due to the ongoing pandemic, such as Topshop, Debenhams and Paperchase. According to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, the unemployment rate is currently 3.7%. The news headlines are frequently filled with the fallout from Covid-19 on business and employment. I interviewed Aodhán Connolly, the director of Northern Ireland retail to gain a better understanding of what has happened in this last year to make businesses crumble, whilst others thrive. Aodhán Connolly represents retail from the people online, to the big supermarkets and right down to individual stores. He works on the policy that affects every part of retail such as taxation, alcohol licensing and business rates etc. A key part of his job is figuring out how to make our city centres better destinations for people so that they want to not only spend their money but also their time. He described this last year in retail as a sort of “economic Darwinism”, where it is essentially the survival of the fittest, and those who are able to adapt to the current economic climate are the ones who will do well. An example of this ability to adapt is the retailers who have gone online, as this is what their customers were doing.
In terms of Coronavirus and post-lockdown, there is no way to tell how badly our high streets will be affected until the current furlough ends in September. Mr Connolly stressed the importance of time in this scenario, just because shops are open does not mean it is profitable and it will also take time to get people to feel safe to come back to city centres again. Many have described the bounce back from lockdown as taking a ‘V’ shape, but Mr Connolly disagrees and feels that we will actually see a ‘U’ shape in terms of recovery, and it is actually the high street that will see it last. This could be due to the fact that over the last year many of us have found other things to spend our money on, we have picked up new hobbies and interests that we now put our money into.
Nonetheless, Zara Ceramics continues to thrive whilst in the middle of a lockdown and also at what seems to be the light at the end of the tunnel. In February she released marshmallow themed mugs and travel mugs, selling 100 of each at £25 in less than two minutes. The success of each release could also be down to the use of ‘swipe up’ links and the ability to store various types of payment on your phone, so you don’t even have to think twice before purchasing. Occasionally Zara physically sells her products, as seen recently at the Surf Shack in Castlerock, where 100 mugs that were due to be sold at 10 am had too many people in the queue at 9 am. Possibly one of the reasons Zara Ceramics is so popular is due to how on-trend her mugs are, the glazes are often experimental but with earthy and neutral tones that would fit nicely in any home. A style that some might find themselves drawn to is the sea foam glaze, living close to the Northern Ireland North Coast during the recent lockdown Zara says opened her eyes to the beauty of the north coast and what she has on her doorstep. Whilst her designs may fluctuate at each new release date, she is proud that the brand stays true to her and is “strong, classic and always unique.”
I asked Aodhán Connolly if he believed lockdown would have had an impact on the success of local/ independent businesses and he stressed that it is not about the size of your business, or what you sell, it is all about how you sell your product. He described Zara’s website as “tactile” and “emotive” as it tells a story in just a few pictures. A Zara Ceramic mug costs £25, which is by no means cheap but it reflects the amount of time and artistry that she puts into making her products. This is an important aspect of selling in Northern Ireland, Mr Connolly believes Northern Irish shoppers to be “canny shoppers”, where our country’s definition of a bargain is when something of high quality is at a cheaper price than you originally expected to pay, whereas in other countries a bargain simply means cheap.
If you find yourself wondering how to secure such a sought after Zara Ceramics mug, the advice is as follows; set up an account on the official website www.zaraceramics.com, this will safely store your payment information and your address to make for faster checkout. You should also aim to be on the website around 30 minutes before the site goes live with the new products, this way your browser is less likely to crash when there is increased traffic on the website. If you are ordering a bespoke mug, practice typing out what you want it to say or copy and paste it from your notes.
Most importantly, do not be greedy when trying to secure a mug, as you will be extremely lucky to get one, never mind multiple.