Alexander
by on June 28, 2022
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My friend sent me this photo of an encased Moleskine notebook with the following text:

“Evidently the people are so consumed with the need to write…that they now need to lock these up at Target.”

The Classic notebook that my friend showed me retails at Moleskine’s website for $14.95, excluding sales tax. On Amazon, you can find these for as low as $10.58 depending on the day. So the price tag alone doesn’t justify locking the notebooks up as you would a tech gadget or prescription drug.

What’s so great about a plain notebook that every brooding writer or serious doodler I know has shelled out anywhere from $16 to $30 for one? To put it in context, a quick search on Target for a comparable product pulls up an inventory that starts at half the price of The Classic. Yet this doesn’t steer fans of the product toward more affordable options but instead creates a demand that ultimately results in stores employing anti-theft cases.

Creating a Cult Following

Annual revenue of Moleskine from 2014 to 2018

Annual revenue of Moleskine from 2014 to 2018

Annual revenue of Moleskine from 2014 to 2018 (in million euros), by Statista.com

Moleskine’s branding success hinges on a few strategies that all marketers and entrepreneurs are familiar with. The difference is that their moves were very tactical and they didn’t cost an arm and a leg.

Please note: Moleskine (singular noun with capital M) refers to the company and brand that produced the signature notebooks, which may also be referred to as Moleskine(s).

1. They Harnessed Celebrity Power Without Paying for It

The earliest traceable iteration of the Moleskine website (moleskine.com) goes back to April 2001 and tells the following tale (edited for clarity):

This is not just any ordinary notebook. It is the exact reproduction of an authentic moleskine, the legendary notebook used by Louis Férdinand Céline, Ernest Hemingway and, most of all, Bruce Chatwin….

Chatwin used to buy his moleskine at a Paris stationery shop in Rue de L’Ancienne Comédie. He always stocked up on them before going off on one of his journeys. He had a ritual set up over the years — “before using them, he numbered the pages, wrote his name and at least two addresses in the world with the promise of a reward in case they got lost. ‘Losing my passport was the least of my worries, losing a notebook was a catastrophe.’”

Rue de L’Ancienne Comédie in Paris, France

Rue de L’Ancienne Comédie in Paris, France

Rue de L’Ancienne Comédie, where Chatwin used to buy his notebooks. (Source: Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Céline, Hemingway, Chatwin. And a colorful story that takes you back to the streets of Paris and inside the mind of an acclaimed travel writer. It’s the stuff of legend and lore, one that attracts like-minded fans to try and partake in history by sharing a prized accessory. Currently, the About page on Moleskine’s official website additionally name-drops Van Gogh and Picasso to round out the list of celebrity endorsements. But surprise — none of these people had ever touched a modern Moleskine.

To be clear, Moleskine was first officially registered in 1996 by Italian design company Modo & Modo in Milan. Chatwin — the last of the cultural artists from the list — died in 1989, having only used generic moleskines (emphasis on lowercase m) from little bookshops in France. This means that none of these people were alive at the time of modern Moleskine’s conception and therefore couldn’t verify if their love affair with the legendary notebooks also applied to their reproduction.

What has been the benefit of tacking on half-truths to a product, painting a picture as if we’re handling exact replicas of the timeless original? A New York Times article from 2004 stated that about three million Moleskine notebooks were produced in 2003 (up from 30,000 in 1998), even with Modo & Modo’s marketing head claiming at the time, “It’s marketing, not science. It’s not the absolute truth.” In 2018, Moleskine reported sales totaling $197 million for their signature notebooks (plus other lifestyle products — more on that later), with double-digit growths from all their reporting regions.

“[Moleskine is] a heritage brand built upon the street cred of creative generations past–the ‘pantheon of celebrities’ like Picasso who ‘have the advantage of being dead, so they can’t embarrass us, and they don’t charge.’” (direct quotes from Arrigo Berni, CEO of Moleskine, 2015)

A white lie goes far!

2. They Got Their Marketing Persona Down to a Tee

It’s logical to assume that admirers of Hemingway and Picasso aspired to the same ideals and achievements of their heroes. Retracing Moleskine’s merchandising choices shows that they leveraged this understanding by luring the Moleskine seeking archetypes to the places their heroes would most likely be found today.

Moleskine began selling in the 1990s by strategically placing their blank notebooks in bookstores like Barnes & Noble to set themselves apart as “a book yet unwritten.” Independent bookstores were also looped in with the same perspective. Starbucks has collaborated with the brand for limited-release journals in certain global regions, and you can continue to find the notebooks in boutique art stores and cultural institutions all around New York City. And as a nod to Chatwin and his storied love of taking the notebooks on his travels, you can still find Moleskines being sold in retailers lining airport terminals, train stations, hotels, and inside luggage shops. It’s not a surprise, therefore, to find these notebooks in the hands of designers, architects, and wanderlust writers of today.

Moleskine notebooks on display at Frankfurt’s Paperworld exhibition

Moleskine notebooks on display at Frankfurt’s Paperworld exhibition

Moleskine notebooks on display at Frankfurt’s Paperworld exhibition. (Photo by Patrick Ng, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Funnily enough, in following their celebrated literati the persona of the Moleskine user has evolved into a highly niched individual who could be found poring over manuscripts while sipping black coffee filled to the brim. A manifestation of Moleskine’s “liberal smugness,” as one article admitted. A facetious account from “Stuff White People Like” brings the stereotyped Moleskine aficionado to life:

“…the growing popularity of these little journals, is not without its own set of problems. One of the strangest side effects has been the puzzling situation whereby a white person will sit in an independent coffee shop with a Moleskine notebook resting on top of a Apple laptop. You might wonder why they need so many devices to write down thoughts? Well, if a white person has a great idea, they write it by hand, if they have a good idea, it goes into the computer.

Not only does this help them keep their thoughts organized, but it serves as a signal to the other white people in the shop that the owner of both instruments is truly creative. It screams: ‘I’m not using my computer to check email and read celebrity gossip, I’m using it to create art. Please ask me about it.’”

Although the description is satire, you can see how a Moleskine user is now a living, breathing organism with specific tastes and reactions. Contrast that with Moleskine’s simple definition of their target audience:

  • those focused on creativity and the arts
  • and those for productivity.

As Moleskine hasn’t reversed any of their retail strategies, it seems they’re running with the public’s interpretation. Looked at another way — the more specific a persona is, the more passionate the type of people you find fitting the mold. And niche marketing creates an intimate audience that will stay loyal to your brand.

3. They Stretched the Definition of a Notebook

Moleskine was never intended to be just a notebook according to Maria Sebregondi, Moleskine’s founder who first linked Modo & Modo to the history behind the notebooks. Moleskine’s credo was first practiced when they decided to place their notebooks in Barnes & Noble instead of stationery stores in the ‘90s to signify their brand was not to be viewed as mere paper products.

But pairing Moleskines with tech involves a stretch of the imagination. A recent phenomenon has emerged where startup executives could be found in a meeting (pre-COVID) with a Moleskine for notes instead of a tablet, according to “Why Startups Love Moleskines.” This was also the result of a planned move that started in 2013 when Moleskine started marketing themselves within an “analog-digital continuum.” Their notebook’s chic and minimal design was presented as being complementary to high-tech gadgets, thereby making their mark on an aesthetics-minded tech crowd. Partnerships with companies like Evernote kept their message consistent and brought productivity-minded folks into their sphere of influence.

Moleskine started to position itself as a lifestyle brand after being purchased by a private equity firm in 2006. They started building on their vision by selling in-house writing tools like pens and pencils followed by bags and tablet cases. But at the center of this universe is still the signature notebook, which in 2015 accounted for 92% of company revenue and created growth at about three times the rate of stationery markets.

By extending the definition of their notebook, Moleskine allowed an analog product to stay relevant in a tech-driven world. Moreover, the iconic status of the notebook has allowed for diversification of its products created for an audience already familiar with the brand.

And all this over a notebook… but not just a notebook! The secret, Sebregondi says, “is to offer always new things or a new approach, or to grow with your story.” This is the making of a brand.

4. They Didn’t Do All the Talking

Moleskine takes pride in sharing that their paper is manufactured in the Far East where paper was invented. It’s mostly China, but painting a “Far East” view falls more in line with their storytelling nature. Regardless, loyal fans of the product praise the durability of its paper, which withstands aggressive erasing and absorbs ink and markers without bleeding through.

The ivory color of the pages is also an appealing factor that makes sketching in brightly lit conditions easier. One user went as far as to note, “The cream pages offer just the right amount of color to be unobtrusive to my ideas but are also far enough away from pure white that it doesn’t cause mental blocks (sometimes staring at a white blank page makes my ideas disappear).”

When quality speaks for itself the customers will sing its praises and the company doesn’t have to do all the talking. Because it’s one thing to boast about your product, but if others are talking about you then your testimony automatically earns street cred. Customers were Moleskine’s first evangelists according to Sebregondi, the “culture-worshipping nomads” of the internet age writing about their favorite analog product on digital blogs in the early 2000s. There’s no shortage even now of people passionately speaking for (or against) the notebooks — a quick Google search will lead you down that rabbit hole.

Moleskine’s story brought the initial appeal, but its durability and minimalist vibe are what made people convert. And now there’s a whole community that won’t stray from the brand no matter how many knock-offs or quality alternatives exist.

Summary and Conclusion

Moleskine didn’t set out to market a commodity but an ethos. They focused on a bespoke vibe and organic stories to sell to a community of cultured nomads, a creative class of people who are productive and constantly on-the-go.

When a brand is presented to fit the tastes of a niche audience, the experience of owning a piece of it becomes an intimate affair. You feel like you discovered it and you’re worried that other people are going to find the secret out. Yet Moleskine is a global, mass-produced brand that’s ubiquitous in the internet age. The illusion that their notebook’s anything exclusive is the result of every stretch of its definition and the myths surrounding its backstory. But the quality is what held the tale together, and customers will pay to keep the story alive.

Source https://bettermarketing.pub/how-moleskine-notebooks-became-a-cult-brand-5c00edea9ad4

Posted in: Business, Education
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