Moleskine notebooks

Here’s a translation of an article on legendary Moleskine notebooks published recently in a German business publication, Brandeins. The article was sent to us by a client friend in Munich. As Everett Cook at New York equity firm Pouschine Cook declares, “it’s Primal Branding 101!”.

“Nobody buys a little, empty exercise book for twelve Euros only to write something down”, Arrigo Berni thought in spring of 2006 when he held his first Moleskine notebook in his hands. Société Générale Capital, a French Private Equity company, had just asked him to check a potential investment of a two-digit amount in millions in the Milan company Modo & Modo. The former management consultant and Procter&Gamble manager was to assess the value and future prospects of the company’s only product: the little notebook called Moleskine that was as wide as a thumb and was available in DIN A5 or DIN A6, lined, squared, or plain, with a black synthetic cover and an elastic band holding together the cover. Berni spoke to the company founders and approximately 30 employees of the company, made inquiries in the internet and with acquaintances. In the deciding meeting he recommended Société Générale Capital to make the investment. He said: “You will buy much more than just a notebook company.”

According to Modo & Modo, Moleskine is the legendary notebook of Hemingway, Picasso, Oscar Wilde, and Sartre. They are said to have entered their ideas in such notebooks, like many other famous philosophers and artists. In the book “The Songlines” by the English travel writer Bruce Chatwin published in 1987 it says that Moleskine was the name of the cover originally made of black moleskin. Therefore, the French had called the notebook “carnet moleskine”.

Chatwin writes that whenever he came to Paris, he bought such notebooks in bulk in a stationery shop in Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie. But one day it was over. The owner of the stationery shop told him that the only manufacturer had died. Her supplier, a small family-owned enterprise in Tours, could no longer provide any new notebooks. The merchant said: “The real Moleskine does no longer exist.” Until 1998. At that time a Milan enterprise called Modo & Modo took care of the little notebook and brought it back to life. That’s what is written on the Moleskine homepage and became the story of the little black notebook that was valid for a long time.

“And that’s what Chatwin wrote”, says Maria Sebregondi of Modo & Modo in Milan. Cartons with packages full of notebooks are piling up all over the offices. In the past few years the offices became very cramped so that now it is hardly possible to turn around and new business premises are necessary. Today approximately ten million Moleskine notebooks are annually sold in about 14,000 sales outlets in 53 countries, 65% of those notebooks are sold in bookshops. The notebooks have become a popular lifestyle product, especially with customers who like to behave in a sophisticated and selective manner: advertisers, designers, architects, management consultants, journalists, writers.

Maria Sebregondi played the significant role in that success. Like thousands of other people, she read Chatwin’s bestseller in the middle of the nineties. But she was the only one who got caught by the short passage regarding the Moleskine notebook and recognized the potential of the story. At that time she had been looking for ideas for her employer Modo & Modo, a company that developed and sold products for design stores and gift shops. It was the time when booksellers began to set up coffee and reading corners in their shops. The people of Modo & Modo wondered which products would go well with such trend.

Sebregondi went to Paris. She looked for the stationery shop in Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie described by Chatwin. In libraries she investigated into sources of the legendary Moleskine. And she made a call to find the original supplier in Tours. She found – absolutely nothing. No single clue indicating that a notebook called “carnet moleskine” by the French had ever existed; no entry in the commercial register; no brand registered under the name of Moleskine. She could not asked Chatwin himself. He had died at the age of 49 in Nice in 1989.

But during her inquiries the Italian noticed how many philosophers and artists, from Picasso to Sartre, had actually worked with black, little notebooks. In an antiquarian bookshop she found a second-hand notebook that was very similar to the one described by Chatwin. And she had the idea that it might be irrelevant whether Chatwin’s description was in accordance with the historical facts. The story and the connection with the famous names were more important to make an ordinary notebook a popular product. Sebregondi returned to Milan. There she changed some details of the old notebook she had bought in Paris. She then ordered several thousand copies using that notebook as a model – by the way, in the People’s Republic of China.

Some time later Modo & Modo also delivered the first notebooks to Italian bookshops in addition to other products. It was offered as the legendary Moleskine, the notebook of artists and philosophers that only waited to be written. “People bought it like crazy”, Sebregondi says. And since demand did not drop off, the people from the Milan company had “Moleskine” protected globally as the name for their product. Then they started to expand: in design stores and bookshops in Italy at first, and then, encouraged by press reports and high sales figures, also abroad. In the year 2000 they started with museum shops in Germany. Great Britain and USA followed, which is the most important market for Moleskine today.

And all this just by linking a beautiful product with a good story that was obviously made up?
In their book “Storytelling. Branding in Practice” Klaus Fog, Christian Budtz, and Baris Yakaboylu of the Danish market research company Sigma examined to what extent stories can help develop and strengthen a brand. Their conviction: Stories do not only help storytellers and listeners in a unique way to combine experienced things to a whole and thus give it a meaning. There is no other form to provide information that is as credible and easily comprehensible as a story and leaves that deep marks in memory. Therefore, good stories are ideal instruments to create and develop brands. After all, strong brands only live in the consumers’ heads where they are formed by linking emotion, character, imagination, and clear messages, i.e. all that good stories are about.

The black notebook as a discreet sign:
There is someone who still takes its time to write!

According to the market researchers, several elements are required to tell a story that is to support a brand: a clear idea of the brand’s core, i.e. a target or a message that is to be delivered; furthermore, a problem that can be solved with the help of the product. In addition, diverse characters and talents and an exciting plot that is classically moving to a highlight just before the happy ending of the story. In the story the company plays the hero who, with the help of supporters and good products, manages to reach its selfless goal against the evil adversary‘s will – for the consumers’ good.

The story of Modo & Modo fits such standards perfectly. After all, the little Italian company presents itself as the hero who made the Moleskine notebook available to everybody. With its help the company is fighting against a uniform way of thinking and the bringing culture and taste into line. To finally offer a high-quality, proven platform to this world’s individualists, artists, and philosophers for their ideas again. The message is clear: Moleskine is the selfless partner of creative people. The person who buys one of the notebooks does not only acquire a place to write its notes down but becomes a creative person itself. It also goes without saying that Moleskine notebooks cannot be inexpensive. After all, the high price is passed on to the significance of the thoughts entered by its owner. And, consequently, to the owner itself.

Furthermore, the buyer “only” enters thoughts in the notebook but it sacrifices the one thing many people are lacking the most: time. Looking at it that way, the notebook’s contents are really valuable, even if the things written in it should not be creative or particularly intellectually stimulating. The notebook becomes a statement: The persons who own a Moleskine signal that they take their time to think and write, so they appreciate leisure and the quality of life. A Moleskine as an identification mark and gimmick to distinguish oneself from others: Some people whose self-image has begun to waver in a digital society that has become breathless between mobile phone, email, and Blackberry, use the Moleskine image to show their personality in its correct light again. Even if they rarely write down more than a telephone number.

Therefore, the Moleskine’s success is not only the result of a good story but of a story that perfectly encourages today’s yearnings. It is therefore not surprising that the users’ identification with their Moleskines is extremely high and many of them advertise their notebooks voluntarily and in public. In January 2004 Armand Frasco, founder of the blog, found 60,000 entries when he googled the term of Moleskine. Today there are 2.2 million entries. In the past few years there were dozens of famous movies, such as “Magnolia”, “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, “Amélie”, or “The Devil Wears Prada”, where Moleskine notebooks can be seen without Modo & Modo doing anything for it. Journalists from all over the world wrote benevolent reports on Moleskine. And prominent figures such as Richard Branson or Brad Pitt like to have their photographs taken when holding a Moleskine and praise the notebook.

A long time ago the people from Modo & Modo recognized the brand’s potential that is in these reactions of the users. After all, the official story of the legendary notebook is resting on shaky foundations. For two reasons the brand therefore needs people who use their Moleskines and report on their use. On the one hand, to continue spreading the story of the legendary product and strengthen it. On the other hand, to keep the central promise: to offer philosophers, artists, and creative people a platform.

Moleskine invites users: Let’s see what you can do!
That’s how works of art are created. Or city guides.

Therefore, the Italian company is taking care of the famous Moleskine users by several means. According to its Vice President Fabio Rosciglione, the company invests ten to twelve per cent of its turnover in cooperations with artists and creative people. Such activities focus on the Moleskine’s presence in the internet. From the graphic point of view, it is designed professionally but, nevertheless, it appears as if composed by fans with loving attention to detail. From the main page the visitor can directly reach diverse Moleskine projects, such as the Moleskine City Guides. The idea: People are to write their own city guides, quite real in special Moleskine notebooks in which, in addition to empty pages, a street map, important telephone numbers, or an underground map of the city in question are included. Furthermore, they are to combine their impressions, experience, and recommendations regarding cities, such as Berlin or Barcelona, in the Moleskine City Blogs to form interactive city guides.

Under the name of Detour, the company has also invited artists, designers, illustrators, writers, and architects to design a Moleskine according to their own ideas. An exhibition with works so created is presently touring round the world.

In addition, Modo & Modo has several employees who are exclusively responsible for the agreement of cooperations with inspiring places and events. So exclusive Moleskine notebooks are often created with a limited edition, such as for the Frankfurt Book Fair or the Moderna Museet Stockholm. Every year ideas and inquiries from all over the world lead to up to 300 of such joint projects, says Roberto di Puma who is responsible for that line of business.

As to the activities that are all linked via the internet page, the boundaries between the company of Modo & Modo, its product Moleskine, professional artists, and normal customers are becoming more and more blurred for outsiders. Often it is no longer possible to detect whether individual contributions, e.g. in the City Blogs, have been made by employees of the company or third parties.

On the one hand, this is confusing. But on the other hand, this leads to the effect the Milan company has its eye on: Moleskine is perceived as a platform for creative people. It indicates that the enterprise and its customers want the same thing. And a new content is created so that the story of the legendary notebook is continued. But this time in the internet instead of in the notebook.

So Moleskine creates a connection between the analog and digital world, the traditional notebook and the global network. According to the manager of the internet subsidiary Interone Worldwide at the advertising agency BBDO, Christoph Mecke, the extent to which users are obviously making use of such opportunity is a “stroke of luck for the brand”.
However, a stroke of luck that also involves risks: Whoever gives customers the possibility to pass on and help design the official product story, also leaves a part of the control of the brand to them. This may become critical. After all, consumers do not always behave in the way an enterprise wants them to behave. And it is difficult to forbid a person to speak if that person has once been allowed to speak. This is particularly true if people feel so closely linked with a brand such as Moleskine. After all, one is dealing with particularly attentive and sensitive consumers in a case like that.

Customers are having a discussion about the brand? Let them have it.
The enterprise is keeping quiet? Exemplary!

Modo & Modo has made appropriate experience with that subject. Some time ago some news suddenly appeared at different places in the internet. Such news said that Moleskine did not come from workshops in Italy at all and was not made by hand but in a Chinese factory. Immediately a discussion started about the notebooks’ quality that had allegedly deteriorated. About the prices that were dubious in view of such origin. About the company story that was not in accordance with the historical facts at all. About the ethic of the production conditions in China.

Arrigo Berni, now Modo & Modo’s CEO appointed by Société Générale Capital, remembers these discussions well. In particular, he remembers how difficult it was for him not to take any actions against them. Not to initiate any PR measures. To keep calm. “To let the brand flow”, as the advertiser Mecke calls it. From his former employments with big branded article manufacturers Berni was used to leave no stone unturned in trying to keep or regain the control and sovereignty of interpretation of the brands in a case like that.

At that time the discussions sorted themselves out because other Moleskine users stood up for the brand. The ideal case. For Berni it was an important experience. He learnt that the wish to control a brand is a farce in times of internet. And brand management comprises a dialogue where sometimes the company must – or may – simply keep quiet.
And if this does no longer work?

Mecke says that, as a rule, there is no further need for action unless a full-blown scandal has occurred. Or if the discussion in the loyal fan club is getting out of hand. The expert for internet marketing knows companies that wrote to all bloggers individually in a case like that to inform them and give them product presents. According to Mecke, this was hard and time-intensive work that “dragged on for almost a year”. And sometimes such procedure involves the risk that exactly such efforts will again be discussed in the internet as a deceitful attempt to exert an influence.

Mecke’s suggestion: you should first intervene in the blogs directly as a company. This is cheaper, quicker and also legitimate in a case like that. However, you should always be honest and reveal your identity and act in a transparent way.

Up to now no discussion held in one of the Moleskine blogs has got out of hand. The approximately 5,000 visitors who click on every day provide one another with tips, explain how they decorate the black covers of their notebooks with the help of lasers, report on their experience with their Moleskines and put their own works of art from their notebooks into the internet. So they permanently pass the Moleskine story on and make it independent of its alleged origin in that stationery shop in Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie. They do it although the blog was bought by Kikkerland Design in December 2006, the U.S. distributor of Moleskine. Not to have a better control of the brand, the company naturally assured. But because the blog had become too large and its founder, Armand Frasco, was no longer able to do it as a hobby.

In accordance with Berni’s recommendation, Société Générale Capital acquired 75 per cent of the Modo & Modo shares from the former company founders at the end of 2006. Since in the next few years the company intends to expand to even more countries, to cause even more attention with the help of events and cooperations and to create even more City Guides.
What comes next? How will the story of the legendary notebook go on?

Arrigo Berni has a lot of ideas. But for the time being these ideas are so secret that he only writes them down in his private Moleskine.