For decades, sector analysis has been one of the fundamental tools of business strategy. By uncovering the analogies and the differences between comparable brands and businesses, it has been—and still is—the default approach to identify competitive gaps, determine strategic priorities and, establish relevant key performance indicators.
Every so often, however, along comes a business that defies traditional benchmarking, and that can only be looked at through an entirely new lens. Moleskine is one such case.
This is the case of a business growing across a number of categories, but a brand belonging to none. A business gravitating around physical products, but a brand addressing cognitive needs. Perhaps most importantly, a business built entirely around a brand—and a powerful story.
There are several aspects that make the Moleskine story extraordinary—a good way of capturing the essence of this extraordinary brand.
Start from an insight, not a product
While the Moleskine notebook is by far the brand’s best-known incarnation and possibly one of the past few decades’ most iconic objects, Moleskine did not start with a product, but with a very clear target audience – and an even more powerful insight. As compellingly told in a 2016 Financial Times article:
In the mid-1990s, [Moleskine co-founder Maria Sebregondi] wanted to create a set of products for a type of person she called a “contemporary nomad” — someone who used the emerging technology of mobile phones, the internet and email, to live, work and travel wherever they wanted… At the time, she was reading Bruce Chatwin’s book The Songlines and came across a passage in which he complained that the French family firm which made his favourite notebooks, “carnets moleskines,” had gone out of business. Chatwin epitomised Ms Sebregondi’s ideal customer. Later she found that Henri Matisse and Ernest Hemingway had used similar notebooks with waxy black covers.
Moleskine pitched itself as the notebook for the creative and imaginative. The notebook was therefore always meant to be part of a wider set of products, the anchor point of which was a deep understanding of an emerging audience. This gave the original product a meaning that went beyond its functionality—in the words of the founder, “the book yet to be written.”
The Moleskine ecosystem is built around an deep understanding of the way its audience lives—and explores.
The depth of this insight transformed the product into a tool for expression, creativity and ideas. As we shall see, this significance is still at the heart of the brand, and has brought it well beyond the boundaries of its original target audience.
Keeping the insight at the forefront of product and experience design
“The book yet to be written” and “contemporary nomads” are more than catchy phrases. They were the principles driving the entire product design and experience. The notebook’s hard cover, the bookmark string, the packaging band, the type of paper, as well as the choice of bookshops as the original sales channel, are clearly inspired by books, not stationery. The rounded corners—a trait later adopted by the iPhone—the back pocket and the elastic band made it a perfect traveler’s companion.
All of this was complemented by the narrative accompanying the “legendary notebook,” as it was then labelled:
In 1997, a small Milanese publisher brought the legendary notebook back to life, and selected this name with a literary pedigree to revive an extraordinary tradition. Following in Chatwin’s footsteps, Moleskine notebooks have resumed their travels, providing an indispensable counterpart to the new and portable technology of today. Capturing reality in movement, glimpsing and recording details, inscribing the unique nature of experience on paper: the Moleskine notebook becomes a battery that stores ideas and feelings, releasing its energy over time.
Not just better, but different
The power of this story and the consistency in the execution was an extraordinarily effective combination. It immediately imbued the Moleskine notebook with an aura that transcended the object itself. Rather than being a product surrounded by a story, Moleskine enjoyed the authenticity of a story materializing into a product.
This made the brand a tool for expressing one’s identity and personality, harking back to the Chatwin and Picasso archetypes—the curious traveler, the creative thinker, the insightful writer.
These traits positioned the brand outside of the stationery category—and sparked a wake of imitations. Despite being similar in terms of product design, none of these ever remotely matched the success of Moleskine in terms of size—sheer sales—or depth (i.e. customer advocacy). A simple but compelling argument suggesting that what customers look for in a Moleskine notebook was never a notebook, but rather, a tool for self-expression.
This makes Moleskine one of the most compelling examples of a brand that has chosen to be not just better, but different—a strategy that involves introducing new drivers of choice to a category as opposed to performing better on some of the existing ones.
There are quite a few analogies between the Moleskine brand’s impact on the notebook category and Apple’s on the laptop one. Both brands introduced iconic product design elements. Both addressed a core target “sect” and subsequently expanded beyond it. Both infused identity, expression, and meaning to products previously viewed only as functional tools. As an effect of that, both brands command significant premiums and virtually no price elasticity in both B2C and B2B market environments.
Neither analogue, nor digital—but both
Moleskine’s Smart Writing Set is designed to digitize handwritten notes and sketches.
Upon walking onstage at the PSFK conference in New York in December 2011, a highly-anticipated speaker began by asking the audience to hold up their Moleskine notebooks. “Wow,” was his reaction. He then went on to define it as “a container for ideas,” with “blank pages… waiting for us to fill them with stories and concepts.” That speaker was Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia, and the title of his speech was “From Moleskine to Marketplace.”
In late 2016, Moleskine was featured extensively in Canadian journalist David Sax’s best-selling and critically-acclaimed book, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter—a descriptive title. In an earlier article (“Why Startups Love Moleskines”) that appeared in the New Yorker, Sax had written:
The notion that non-digital goods and ideas have become more valuable would seem to cut against the narrative of disruption-worshipping techno-utopianism coming out of Silicon Valley and other startup hubs, but, in fact, it simply shows that technological evolution isn’t linear. We may eagerly adopt new solutions, but, in the long run, these endure only if they truly provide us with a better experience—if they can compete with digital technology on a cold, rational level… A paper notebook, by contrast, is a walled garden, free from detours (except doodling), and requiring no learning curve. A growing body of research supports the idea that taking notes works better on paper than on laptops, in terms of comprehension, memorization, and other cognitive benefits.
So on the one hand, we have one of the makers of the “sharing economy” in Airbnb celebrating Moleskine as a fundamental tool in the development of a digital business model. On the other hand, we see an appreciation of the advantages of Moleskine as an analogue technology.
These two examples are only apparently contrasting, and show the extent to which Moleskine has been a precursor in revealing the digital/analogue divide as being an obsolete and forced simplification. Moleskine is one of a handful of brands that epitomizes the way in which the digital and analogue spheres are not alternative, but complementary: as Philip Delves Broughton wrote in his FT story, “The iPhone and Moleskine are to the knowledge worker of today what the spear and shield were to the Spartan hoplite.”
"iPhone & Moleskine are to the knowledge worker of today what the spear and the shield were to the Spartan hoplite" https://t.co/5PA0GbHFi3
— Arrigo Berni (@arrigoberni) December 11, 2016
In the context of an all-round analysis conducted in late 2013, Interbrand observed how most Instagram posts featuring the notebook were portraying it in conjunction with smartphones and tablets. Similarly, the results of a “moleskine” query on Google’s image search engine say a lot about the relationship between analog creation and digital sharing, and their cross-fertilization.
The partnership with Evernote, as well as the Smart Writing Set, a tool designed to instantly digitalize handwritten notes and sketches, further reinforce a simple point: the Moleskine notebook was never understood by its audience as being an analogue tool but, rather, a universal one.
Defining this brand by the nature of it products is, therefore, wrong. This leads us to defining the brand by the nature of its benefit.
Beyond lifestyle – mindstyle
In 2014, Moleskine partnered with Interbrand to define the brand’s promise. Based on a wealth of research approaches and close collaboration, that work defined a very clear roadmap for the future, centered on the notion of “Inspiring Journeys.”
This promise encapsulates a duality. Harking back to its origin as a companion object to travelers, Moleskine enables journeys that inspire individuals; equally, however, it provides individuals with the inspiration to embark on, and complete, journeys.
— Moleskine (@moleskine) May 31, 2017
The crux in this promise lies in the very notion of journey, which goes deeper than the purely physical sense of the term. The Oxford English Dictionary entry for “journey” includes the definition as “a long and often difficult process of personal change and development.”
Interbrand partnered with Moleskine to create the Moleskine Cafè—a place of inspiration where ideas and stories could be shared.
Whilst it would be tempting to see Moleskine as a potential lifestyle brand, this promise is what makes the brand better described as a mindstyle brand. Far from being a simple pun, this term underscores three traits which are the cornerstones of the business and the brand’s growth opportunities:
• While lifestyle brands, by their nature, tend to attenuate individuality by replacing or sustaining it with theirs, Moleskine is all about celebrating individual expression. Think of how a notebook becomes a one-of-a-kind, intimate object.
• While the red thread running across the offer of a lifestyle brand is primarily aesthetic, the key driver of choice for the Moleskine brand’s most successful manifestations is always the sense of creative and intellectual empowerment.
• Finally, while lifestyle brands offer finished products, Moleskine offers platforms – be it tools, content, or experiences – which require, and incite, the user’s active participation, ultimately inducing a change in perspective, however slight or unimportant.
• The difference between a traditional lifestyle brand and the Moleskine “mindstyle” approach is therefore a Copernican one, whereby rather than customers subscribing to a brand’s ethos and personality, the brand enables the full expression and empowerment of the customer’s own intellectual uniqueness.
The journey continues
Be it writing or sketching in a notebook, discussing in a Cafè, or sharing through a Smart Writing Set, the Moleskine experience shows more analogies to the enjoyment of culture and travel than to the consumption of goods; a sense of unending quest and individual progression, as opposed to the mere fulfillment of a basic need.
What has been discussed hopefully sheds light on how an extraordinary insight has led to a brand that is unlike any other, and the latter has been managed to become the formidable engine of sustained business growth.
While the Moleskine case has some deeply unique traits, it is worth questioning whether some of these are, in fact, the symptoms of broader trends produced by generational, social, and technological shifts. Three seem particularly relevant:
• In what Interbrand calls the “Age of You,” brands increasingly act as enablers of our own personal brands, which are managed through social media platforms and served through personalized products, services and experiences.
• Loyalty and advocacy are increasingly driven by the “why,” not just the “what” and “how,” with success rewarding those businesses that convey a deeper meaning, justify the intrinsic value of their offer and associate themselves to a higher sense of purpose.
• We tend to attribute increasing emotional, intellectual and economic value to experiences rather than just tangible products. In the light of these shifts, the Moleskine case may well be not just a unique and isolated business story, but rather a useful archetype of how to engage today’s and tomorrow’s customers.
For a deeper look at Moleskine’s growth story, read our recent Q&A with Arrigo Berni.