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August 05, 2006
Moleskine: How to revive a brand
Modo & Modo, the Italian company that owns Moleskine notebooks was sold on Friday to a French company for 60 million Euros. (The story in the French newspaper Le Figaro is here; a machine-translated version of the story is here.)
I mention this because the sale closes an interesting chapter in the history of Moleskine; a chapter about redemption, of how a brand that was once considered dead was given new life by a 13-person company that focused on the notebook's magical past and the evangelism of its current fans.
That evangelism was codified through a global marketing push loosely organized by a group of Moleskine citizen marketer-bloggers who are scattered around the world. (A very active Flickr community is involved in talking about Moleskine, too.) Perched in the center of that world of fans is Armand Frasco.
A few weeks ago, I was chatting with Armand on the phone as he was sitting at his home in Niles, Illinois, describing the call he’d received one day out of the blue.
“Hello-ah, Aramando,” he said, using his best imitation of an Italian accent. “It’s ah-Francesco Franceschi!”
Franceschi was calling from Milan, Italy. He was the co-owner of Modo & Modo, maker of Moleskine, a decidedly untechnical, richly traditional notebook favored by designers and artists. Franceschi was calling because Frasco had built a solid following with Moleskinerie, a blog that the Frasco started on a whim one day in 2004. Now some 5,000 people per day visit Moleskinerie to share their stories about the small black notebook that decades earlier had been the journal and sketchpad of Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse and Ernest Hemingway.
Franceschi was also calling because Moleskinerie had started to spawn copycat fan sites around the world, nine in all and most of them in languages other than English. Like Moleskinerie, all are maintained by independent citizen marketers. By most accounts, they are essentially the notebook’s only organized global marketing.
“I thought, well, ‘I have a Typepad account, and I have a Moleskine. What happens if I combine the two?” is how Frasco recalls his decision to launch Moleskinerie.
Franceschi, along with a partner, revived what was essentially a dead brand. A French company had owned Moleskine previously, but inattention and neglect slowly killed it. So Franceschi partnered with Mario Baruzzi and bought Moleskine in 1998. They set out to re-create the magic that inevitably follows in the draft of the world’s most famous artists. By deftly focusing on exceptional manufacturing quality and a few obvious but killer features (a black elastic band wraps around the outside to hold the French-vanilla-colored pages of the notebook closed tightly), the Italian entrepreneurs used Moleskine’s history as its distinct selling advantage. That helped it become a cult product with mainstream sales numbers: 4.5 million Moleskines were sold in 2005 . Most marketing was being done by volunteers like Frasco, who works by day as a commercial photographer.
"The company insists I remain independent of them, which I insist as well," Frasco says.
Sometimes for five hours a day, Frasco attends to Moleskinerie, primarily by featuring the work of artists and designers who use the notebook as a pallette for their creativity. But why a fan blog dedicated to, of all things, a notebook? After all, it does not come in trendy colors or extol techy features like GPS, much less a sleeve for a compact disc. It’s sold primarily in one color: black. Henry Ford would approve of its old-school focus.
"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."
Plus, there’s the Moleskine history by artistic association. "There’s a magic associated with it, and people want to believe it,” he says.
When the true believers or the curious search for Moleskine on Google, Moleskinerie is often the third or fourth result. That’s one reason why Franceschi started calling Frasco regularly: A highly ranked fan site can be a key source of influence. "We’re like an informal focus group, and that’s a huge advantage for them," is how Frasco described the value of his blog for Modo & Modo.
While Franceschi could have monitored the blog anonymously, Frasco guesses that Franceschi preferred to make and maintain connections with fans (“We share a lot of beliefs,” he says), plus it’s more efficient to take a barometer reading of a brand’s health directly from the weatherman in the field, not a weather website. “Corporations should realize the power of a community,” he says.
Modo & Modo did, which fueled Frasco’s concentrated work on Moleskinerie. “I feel like there’s a partnership between us, and that’s gratifying. We don’t talk about the business side of Moleskine. We talk about issues of the world, and that’s very profound to me."
Now that Moleskine is in the hands of a new owner, the big question for Frasco and all of the other Moleskine volunteer marketers is "how they will deal with us."
"I hope Mr. Franceschi will put out a good word for us, better yet, shepherd the same support with the new owners. I have a feeling he's that kind of person."
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I love Moleskine notebooks, and have been part of that grassroots customer evangelization process. I promoted Moleskine on my 3,000 member Yahoo GTD group and other groups. However, the issues with integrity lead me to send the following today to the GTD Yahoo group and Analog GTD Yahoo group:
On this list and others I have promoted enthusiastically the use of
Moleskine notebooks, especially as tools helpful in a GTD context. The
Moleskine buzz on the Internet contributed to a massive upsurge in
demand for Moleskine products.
Now, as a matter of personal integrity, having done my part to spread
the Moleskine gospel, I feel compelled to warn people to buy Moleskine
notebooks as their own risk because of a growing body of consumer
complaints about the quality of the notebooks.
Early on in my use of Moleskines, I had a cover break apart from the
pages in a pocket Moleskine. I thought this was an isolated incident,
and the next couple of notebooks were OK.
From there it has been downhill, I have had a few more reporter and
large notebooks have similar problems with the binding.
The Moleskine and other lists have reports from other users of the same
kind of problems.
A number of us have written by email and snail mail to the Italian
company that used to make Moleskines, and as far as I can tell, none of
us has ever received a reply.
Today, I learned that a French firm has bought the Italian enterprise,
or at least the Moleskine line.
Until it is clear what the French firm will do to enhance quality (some
of the problem books seems to have been made in China, though that
doesn't appear to have been the case with mine) I cannot in good
conscience go on recommending Moleskines. So I am saying, buyer beware,
purchase at your own risk.
I feel badly doing this because no other notebook has pleased me as much
as Moleskines as an analog technology for GTD. But if it is going to
I always treated my notebooks (Moleskine, Rhodia, Mead, generics, etc)
as tools and when they fail to perform as well I discard them or shift
to a different brand. Marketing/mythology is the company's concept and
whether we subscribe to it or not is our prerogative.
Having voiced our opinions on a perceived product
defect/deficiency should be enough. In the end, each of us has the
freedom to choose which brand to use.
I do not feel used or have any complicity in some sleazy scheme. As
they say in Texas, "manure happens", in this case the company may
have neglected aspects of its production or design. Thanks to you and
the rest, we voiced our opinions. Now they know. It's up to the new
owners to make the necessary changes if any.
Personally, it's nothing I'll get all worked up, risk a hear attack
or lose sleep on. There's more to life than notebooks.
Very interesting thanks. I hope this is for the best.
I have been thinking about One Percenters ever since it has begun its rounds here. I find that this demographic has had more to do in lots of areas of human progress than just in the space of user generated content.
Wouldn’t it be right to say that there are about One Percent of us who are confident of expressing themselves publicly and having a strong, maybe even a unique point of view?
Ben while it is probably easy to demonstrate the effort of One Percenters with respect to web properties like Wikipedia, Flickr or YouTube, don’t you think the action of this group has been responsible for all of human progress? I don’t know if I am preempting your book, but I find One Percenters everywhere, even though there’s no real data to back this up, but the people who take the trouble to find a contact number of a soap company and complain/appreciate the product? Probably the marketing department do not like the complainers, but in fact they are the people who could be the ones responsible for product improvements and such.
The tiny minority of people in an office who were earlier 20% of the 80 20 rule? Were actually a far smaller number?
Even people like Gandhi, Galileo and Newton, and Trevor Balis, and Larry Harvey, maybe these guys are the .001% ers but the little guy who unbeknownst to the world is tinkering away on his own.
I think the narrowing of what was once believed as the 80 20 rule is the key here.
Nishad -- We theorize the One Percenters are an example of power law distributions, which states that some phenomenon are highly concentrated within a wide band of possibilities.
Power law distributions explain common names across cultures, the size of earthquakes, the sale of books and, like you observe, probably a number of other human-related contributions. Your hunch that power law distributions probably apply to a number of current and historical phenomenon is probably on the mark.
I'm not sure if the 80/20 Rule is getting narrowed because of the democratization of everything, or that we just have a better system to explain more phenomenon. That could be a very interesting academic study.
Better the French than the Chinese!!!
I wonder if this means the and of quality fears.
What's interesting, is just as quickly as Moleskin has risen on the backs of web users, it can also fall as quickly.
There's a post on the Moleskinerie site that complains about the bad quality product being put out by the Italian company since it's outsourcing it to China.
For trendy/cult-type products (think Apple), you cannot bilk your user base with low quality crap. Just won't work.
Moleskine - the Mode e Modo version - was a brilliant piece of emotional branding; thousands upon thousands fell for the - actually completely meaningless - alleged associations with Chatwin, Hemingway etc. A "moleskine", as Chatwin used, was a generic French notebook with a waterproof cover; the nearest thing now is the Scottish "Alwych" notebook. Mode e Modo piggybacked on the reputation of others and, frankly, made a very fine product: beautifully-designed, simple, elegant. I even wrote about it in a book...
But here comes the inevitable. They've sold the company (and good luck to their bank accounts) for €60 million to a French investment company. Production is now outsourced to China. Quality has gone down (poorer paper, flimsier bindings, cheap inelastic "elastic" bands, badly-glued pockets etc etc) and before long everyone will realise that they aren't buying a mystic connection to Great Minds, but an incredibly high-margin product sold by owners who don't really give a damn, except for the money (it's business, see), assembled in some outsourcing works in China by people being paid a fraction of the European minimum wage. Mystique? No. Wise old craftsmen who love their work? No. A chance to reach out and join hands in a communion with the great? No. An expensive notebook which people will stop buying once the secret is out.
Fair enough. But the sad thing is, the capital investment guys won't have the faintest clue how their carefully cost-trimmed, globalised, HBS-spreadsheeted little plan has gone tits up.
See, the thing is, consumers may be romantics, but they aren't stupid and they don't like being infantilised or taken for a ride. We're getting a bit used to it now -- look what LVMH has done to Guerlain -- and a bit better informed, and we've got the, what is it called again? Oh yes -- the Global Interweb.
Bad luck, guys.
I am a software engineer. I always need to thrash out the tasks in my work.
I made new way by mixing GTD and managing the tasks with RHODIA.
I call it "GTD + R".
It is very simple for the concept. I call it "Card game for push through the work" as metaphor.
Anybody wants the tasks or work to get things done sooner. To get things done, you have to capture it. So I call it the GAME to clean up the tasks.
I think that there are a lot of people who wants to do their works as games.
You prepare FIELD because it is the GAME. You can play it and clean up the tasks on the field.
You prepare POCKET. It makes easy to carry and to clean up the tasks anywhere.
Let's try "GTD + R"!
the obsession for outsourcing production from that part of the world may have advantages, but, like moleskine, many brands will risk eroding equity with their consumer.
i know of someone who even changed and cleaned up her handwriting because she was writing in her 'moly'!
crazy? silly? but why not.
mass can never,or should be allowed to replace the quality, the aesthetics, the 'feel' or the emotions that one experiences when buying or using certain products.
maybe, this 'made in.... 'should be done away with. the romance lies not in the tangibles of where it was produced or who checked it but with the legacy of the brand.
it is the total experience that matters.