May 1, 2013

What is going on with Moleskine?


Moleskine meets Lego?

Have you noticed recently that Moleskine products are available in Barnes & Noble, Target, Staples, Walmart, and other big box stores across the country?

A college professor of mine used to specially-order slim Moleskine notebooks and wait weeks for them to be shipped over from the UK. She admired the stiff fabric of the cover and the grid paper pages. There’s no doubt that they make a nice notebook, and they’ve become ubiquitous in the States.

But the key to the company’s success hasn’t been the quality of the paper; it’s the way the product has become synonymous with the concept of creativity.

By being seen as indispensable to creativity, the company’s operating margin was an astounding 41.7 percent last year! Moleskine tried out an IPO at the beginning of the month, selling 106.3 market shares (including 12 million new ones). The numbers have declined a bit since April 3, from €2.30 to €1.80, however, which isn’t great. Bloomberg reported at the beginning of April that the company is worth $620 million (€483 million).

Still, the brand has gained luxury item status and the notebooks have remained astonishingly cheap to produce; as a result, now that Moleskine is going public, the company has the capital to try all sorts of marketing efforts to reach even more consumers.

It’s challenging to stay true to the roots of a company that used to have a staff of thirteen, especially one that relied on artists to do most of their marketing work, scanning images from their notebooks and posting them on personal blogs.

The “legendary” status of these notebooks is the foundation of their appeal. It’s a clever marketing technique employed by the two men who bought and rebranded the company in 1998. When Francesco Franceschi partnered with Mario Baruzzi to form Modo & Modo, and their branding was somehow more straightforward. Franceschi admitted linking the notebook to well-known artists and writers was “an exaggeration.” He told the New York Times in 2004, “It’s marketing, not science. It’s not the absolute truth.”

They renewed interest in the notebook by focusing on the quality of the product and placing their consumers’ work within a creative canon. By 2005, they were selling 4.5 million notebooks a year.

What does Moleskin’s marketing look like now?

A recent Atlantic article by Zachary M. Seward included a surprising image from the company’s IPO prospectus:

Knowing the personal and cultural things that are significant to you, the consumer, is of the utmost importance to keep the company on a different tier than publishing or stationery.

Moleskine wants to:

1. Take a trip with you

This spring Moleskine stores opened in Columbus Circle, Heathrow Terminal 4, and in Sanlitun Village, Beijing. That’s a total of ten stores around the world. The New York location, at least, looks like a cross between an Apple store and a Joe Fresh (by which I mean there’s a lot of orange).

The Moleskine press release describes the design vision for their retail stores in a way that might gross you out:

The store design mirrors the elegance and simplicity of the Moleskine notebook: the classic black rectangle is reimagined as an open platform for creativity in a physical space. A map covers the floor, symbolizing the mobile identity of contemporary nomads. An experience table allows visitors to interact with different tools to find the one which suits them best. Some stores will house a Stamp Station, an interactive customization area for recording travel memories using a variety of location-specific designs. Creativity is further enhanced with the playlist: the likes of Bat for Lashes, Belle and Sebastian, Au Revoir Simone and Lykke Li have been selected to provide the in-store soundtrack.

Curiously, the Moleskine website links to these bands’ MySpace profiles.

Moleskine has an “undefined national identity”: it was derived from French, popularized by a Brit, and headquartered in Italy. The fact that these stores are in tourist hubs is no accident; the site quotes sociologist Marc Augé, calling these locations “‘non-places’ full of significance.” (They’re also full of travelers who ostensibly have time and money on their hands.)

The Atlantic says this strategy connects consumers to a “transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen.”

2. Listen to the music you’re listening to

In addition to the playlist above, the company is producing a notebook that includes a 7″ vinyl with ten songs by Ellen Allien that are inspired by Italo Calvino. (Perhaps the goal is to expand the retail line to 55 cities.) This oversized notebook is available exclusively in London.

2. Be your friend on a social media app

Why stick with analog when the internet has been so good to your brand? Moleskine partnered with Evernote last fall, and now sells an app you can use to share that weird dog you just drew while you were on hold with your cable company.

“The partnership with Evernote is the first project that’s part of a bigger analog-digital vision we have. This is really related to transferring content from place to place—it’s this content being moved from analog to digital and vice versa that we really want to focus on, with the values our brand stands for,” said Marco Beghin, president of Moleskine America in an interview with Fast Company.

“We’ve seen that the job of going back and forth from analog to digital is not that easy. So the partnership with Evernote has a focus on positioning the brand on our fans who are digitalized.”

The company owes a lot to artists like Armand Frasco, who started a blog called Moleskinerie in 2004. (The site is now owned by Moleskine SpA.) He spent up to five hours a day posting and sharing artwork from Moleskines with other Moleskine fans.

In an interview with Customer Evangelist, Frasco said:

“I feel deeply responsible for the product. Why? I don’t know.” Frasco pauses for a moment. “Because I feel like, since I own the product, I don’t want to damage it. I want to help. You see, I’ve always liked travel. I listened to shortwave radio when I was a kid. You close your eyes, and you’re there. As a documentary photographer, I want to help people document their lives. So with this site, I’m helping people document their lives. That may sound trivial to many people, but it’s not to me.”

4. Make friends with your friends

Moleskine has recently partnered with companies like Polaroid (with a special Japanese sticker printer) and Lego (with a Lego plate embedded on the cover).

5. To commit you to buying a luxury product during a recession

“Classic” products that are supposed to last seem like a strong investment in times of economic unrest; this product aims to be the “little black dress” of notebooks. At about $12 a pop, a Moleskin notebook is an object consumers will splurge for.

Valentina Palladino explains in Wired:

You’re buying something more than just a notebook or an address book when you buy a Moleskine product, and the company reminds you in nearly every purchase with its history printed on tiny ecru paper quietly slipped inside its notebooks. You’re buying the same notebooks first made by Parisian bookbinders for a creative class dominated by expats and the likes of Wilde, Picasso, and Hemingway. You’re buying the notebooks that symbolize culture and travel, and were the first to capture bursts of creativity by some of the most famed thinkers and artists—if you care. And chances are if you’re buying a Moleskine book, you do care.

Today, one sixth of the profit is swag (pasting corporate brands on products). BusinessWeek reported that the profits of Moleskine were in the same league as Tiffany’s and Burberry. The company’s website tracks sightings of their product on TV shows like Fringe and Grey’s Anatomy.

Arrigo Berni, chief executive of Moleskine, said to CNBC that his company’s ability to “nurture the creative dimension of the brand” was “the best insurance that we can provide our investors with about our future” and attributed the success of the company in a digital age to the need for people to be reassured that “we’re still human beings.”

But Frasco has moved on. And in the wake of his creative efforts, the company is spending on new apps, bells, and whistles to generate new spaces for creative communities.

This isn’t a first-class ticket to a European city or a tuition check to art school. It isn’t a lifestyle; it’s a paper product, albeit a lovely one. Your writing isn’t going to rival Hemingway’s just because you guys bought the same notebook. Regardless of the record in the flap or the quotes on the pages, it’s a blank book. If you want your work to become your lifestyle, you have to begin on the first page.



Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.