Moleskine Pocket Ruled notebook. Italy, 1997
Imagine you work for a small, Italian publishing company. It’s 1996, you’re on summer holidays, enjoying a brioche and a coffee in the warm Sardinian breeze. You’re reading a fairly obscure novel by an English travel writer/author.
Your mind couldn’t be further from business when, suddenly, a transformative idea leaps from its pages:
Le vrai Moleskine n’est plus. (The real Moleskine is no more.)
‘The Songlines’ by Bruce Chatwin is an enchanting account of the Australian Aborigines and their ability to navigate thousands of miles using only the power of song. It’s a story of inspirational journeys.
In under 20 years, the Moleskine brand has been on an inspirational journey of its own, as it has transformed from an abstract idea into a global boutique brand.
When it launched in 1997, the Moleskine Pocket Ruled claimed to be a revival of a relic: a little black notebook that once occupied the Parisian shelves perused by creative minds like Van Gogh, Picasso and Hemingway.
Milanese publishers, Modo&Modo SpA (now Moleskine s.r.l.), showed good instincts and a unique skill for storytelling when they decided to reinvent and romanticize “le Moleskine”.
From modest, geeky beginnings, Moleskine has risen to become a brand with a large and loyal global following. Today, Moleskine products are available in more than 90 countries via more than 23,000 points of sale. The company went public in 2013.
Throughout Moleskine’s evolution, the humble Pocket Ruled notebook and its near-identical twin, the Pocket Plain, have consistently stood front and centre of the brand’s efforts. Over that time, these products have come to define the minimum standard that any serious notebook must match.
That’s not unusual in itself: many product categories have an obvious champion brand or reference-level product. What’s remarkable is how rapidly Moleskine has been able to impose spread its own brand story.
Despite being a latecomer to a market that was threatened with extinction, in little over a decade Moleskine has claimed a powerful position – both in terms of market share and mind-share. In a category where most consumers had previously bought according to need, Moleskine’s unique proposition changed expectations and behaviours. Today, “Moleskine” is close to becoming a generic term for “notebook” in several languages.
Since its launch, Moleskine has been an outsider, unconcerned by the traditional rules and conventions of its market. As book publishers, Modo&Modo’s natural instincts were to bring their product to market via bookstores rather than traditional stationers. As well as carving out a space for itself, it was a move that underlined the brand’s literary roots and challenged accepted wisdom about the relationship between stationery and stationery-users.
In this setting, with access to a literate audience, a notebook was more than blank pages; it was a book waiting to be written.
Moleskine’s cozy origin story and its commercial exploitation could easily be the product of an American marketing template. But what makes Moleskine’s success distinctly Italian is the unwavering devotion to perfecting a single product.
In Italy, I’ve always found that people have a curiously strong connection to certain products. By ‘people’, I mean ALL its people. The product is usually a shoe, a winter coat, a watch or a car. But in practically any category, Italians have a remarkable ability to agree en masse on the products that set a standard.
“Molto particolare” is a phrase you hear a lot in Italy. I remember many years ago a friend from Milan explaining why Ralph Lauren long-sleeve shirts were virtually standard issue among Italian men at a time when the brand was barely available elsewhere in Europe…
“It’s because the cuff and the sleeve are perfect. When you roll the sleeve, it ends on the point of your elbow every time. It’s molto particolare!…MOLTO particolare!!”.
Very special indeed.
Specialists in Blank Pages
The Moleskine Pocket Ruled is molto particolare. It sets the standard for notebooks in the opinion of people who really depend on notebooks.
Handy size, tactile hard-wearing materials, rounded corners, ivory paper, an expandable pocket: the Moleskine is a very well made object that ages gracefully, becoming less like a product and more like a prosthetic every day of its useful life.
And a Moleskine never gets thrown out. As the standard product insert says,“it’s a battery that stores ideas and feelings, releasing its energy over time”.
The management of the brand’s legend has been skillful and energetic. Despite rapid growth, all of Moleskine’s expansion products adhere tightly the key design principles and spirit of ‘contemporary nomadism’ established by the original Pocket Ruled.
This commitment has been never more evident than in recent years. Threatened by the surging popularity of touchscreen devices, Moleskine has responded with innovative, analogue-digital collaborations that embrace platforms like Evernote, FiftyThree and MILK. Fun digital applications apps, templates and even WordPress widgets help underscore the brand’s determination to stand alongside creative process, no matter the platform.
Moleskine is a brand that joins in: engaging with new communities and embracing new platforms in a constant search for pedestals to assert its leadership from. They know that somewhere in the world there is always someone who never previously realised how much they needed a premium notebook at a fair price.
Meanwhile, competing papergoods brands struggle to achieve attention and meaning – even in the sober setting of a stationery department.
Imaginative and energetic communication has been a constant facet of Moleskine’s claim to provide an essential accessory for modern lifestyles – the only intelligent notebook choice.
The company’s approach to product and packaging design is fastidious and reminiscent of a luxury brand. Elaborate and imaginative content shows the brand’s commitment to creativity. In the setting of a regular stationers, Moleskine has a bright and authoritative presence. For a gift or design store with no need to stock stationery products, Moleskine is an obvious choice.
Moleskine’s habit of issuing special editions and using contributions from its user community to riff on the Pocket series (e.g. Moleskine Hacks) is product idolatry at its best. Moleskine celebrates its users and compliments their good taste in engaging, product-centric ways.
Numerous cultural initiatives and programmes bring Moleskine into direct contact the creative communities they serve. Sharing Moleskine sketches is a popular, informal form of social communication in the artistic community. Moleskine’s patronage of exhibitions such as Detour and literacy programmes like lettera27 show it as a brand just as concerned with explaining ‘Why?’ as ‘What?’
Sub-categories like travel notebooks and professional journals help the brand reach an ever-widening audience with its message of indispensability. Line extensions provide ever more contact points to Moleskine. Since 2009, this expansion has also included the creation of a boutique publishing arm. For the company, it’s a return to their publishing roots, but now the catalogue features exquisitely compiled titles, each with an unmistakable Moleskine character.
Moleskine’s brand managers are conservative radicals: never afraid to innovate their product or how they deliver its core message, but rarely betraying the principles that make a Moleskine a Moleskine.
Above all, it’s the way they look beyond the confines of their own product and see themselves as champions of the blank page: a piece of paper that can become a starting point for greatness.
In another extract from their product insert, Moleskine say “Moleskine is synonymous with culture, imagination, memory, travel and personal identity”.
It’s hard not to cringe sometimes at the levels of meaning that companies conjure up to explain their brands. But in Moleskine’s case, this really seems to be a credo they live by.