Moleskine Blogs the Little Black Book

The modern maker of notebooks used by Hemingway and Chatwin reinvents the concept for the digital age, while it quietly reinvents its own legend

With all the talk of Web 2.0 and brands struggling to find their place within the brave new world of opinionated bloggers and active social networks, spare a thought for companies that seem to have no place whatsoever in the digital realm. And what could be more defiantly analog than notepaper?

Modo&Modo, the Italian producer of Moleskines—those small, distinctive black notebooks with their signature handy elastic band to hold them shut—thinks it has transcended the struggle. The notebooks have become de rigueur for university students and hip designers looking to distinguish themselves in the age of the digital notebook computer. With a new range of "city" notebooks launching in the U.S next month—featuring street maps, local information, and space for users to jot down their thoughts—Modo&Modo has also introduced a series of city-focused blogs.

Its aim is for these blogs to be more than merely a branded Web presence of the Moleskine notebooks. Written and edited by a team of young local writers, there are currently blogs for London, Milan, New York, Paris, and Rome. The European notebooks were released last year, while next month sees the arrival of guides to four U.S. cities—New York, Washington, San Francisco, and Boston. Further blogs will follow.

Braving the Web

And while readers can currently only comment on the posts, the idea is that soon they will spin out into wiki-style pages of user-generated content, with travelers, visitors, and locals all contributing tips and information. Tapping into the notebooks' target market of those with an interest in contemporary culture, the blogs talk up art, design, technology, and city life.

Modo&Modo may just be one company that's brave enough to fully embrace the scary potential of available technology (see, 4/17/07, "Executives Remain Wary of Web 2.0").

"We felt that it was important for our brand to connect with the blog world," says Fabio Rosciglione, vice-president of marketing and sales, via phone from the Milan-based office of Modo&Modo, itself owned by SG Capital, which bought it for €66 million ($89.3 million) in 2006. "This is a new kind of marketing policy and we wanted to be a part of it: These blogs are a way to connect the worldwide community to the brand through both the collection of notebooks and the Web."

A Fact of Fiction

And, as Rosciglione points out, Moleskine already had a sizable, unmonitored community of fans online. "If you Google 'Moleskine' you can see that we have more than 6 million pages," he says (it's actually 4.95 million). "We support this activity on the Web and wanted to encourage it even more with the City Notebooks, which we see as an analog version of a blog." So really, rather than ceding control, this points to an attempt by the company to take back control of its brand, or at least focus its consumers on a forum of its own creation. "We're starting to connect to all the Moleskine communities, also to authoritative city blogs in every place," adds Rosciglione.

It's not the first time that Moleskine has come up with a creative marketing strategy. In fact, you might argue that its entire existence is based on a blend of truth and creativity. "Moleskine is the legendary notebook used by European artists and thinkers for the past two centuries, from Van Gogh to Picasso, from Ernest Hemingway to Bruce Chatwin," says the pull-out blurb inserted into the back of every notebook.

But while the wording carefully asserts that the company was "brought back" by a small Milanese publisher in 1998, the current notebooks are really in no way connected to those printed way back when by the small French bookbinders.

Rather, they're modern-day versions of the originals, which look identical but, if you want to be really picky about it, aren't authentic at all. Modo&Modo resurrected and trademarked the iconic format—and nowadays the notebooks are produced in China.

Deliberate Design

"In 1998, Modo&Modo chose this literary name to bring back to life the little black notebook and decided to make a trademark of it," writes Maria Sebregondi, vice-president of brand equity and communication via e-mail. "It was Modo&Modo's smart and lucky idea to make a trademark of the unusual and literary word 'moleskine,' taking up a dense tradition, renewing notebookism, and sensing that mobile technologies needed to be accompanied by essential, self-standing tools." It raises an interesting question: In a time when authenticity has become a crucial quality of brands, can such creative fudging play out in the long term?

Does it even matter? In this case, the product itself is great—well-made, sturdy notebooks with decent paper stock available in a variety of styles, suitable for writers, musicians, animators, artists…. They're handy, and their discreet format makes a powerful statement in a market crowded with generic, less well-designed products.

They're more appealing and sturdy than other run-of-the-mill notebooks—so what if they're not, strictly speaking, the very same ones beloved by Chatwin, et al? So far, the company's cavalier entrepreneurial spirit seems to be paying off. Last year's turnover from notebooks sold through 14,000 retailers in 40 countries was €100 million ($135.3 million), up some 50% from 2005.

Happy to Customize

And that's just 65% of the company's income. For the past four years, there has also been a thriving subsidiary business, solely designed to collaborate with other companies to produce unique, customized notebooks. Two companies, Promemoria in Italy, and Black and Write in New York, are focused on this "premium" business.

"Where Moleskine is focused on developing new products and thinking about distribution, retail, things like that, we are open to external companies and organizations—corporations, nonprofits, educational establishments, and the arts," says Marco Beghin, President of Black and Write in Manhattan, which opened last year to concentrate on opening up the North American market. So the essence of the little black book remains unchanged—but subtly customized on behalf of the corporate client.

For instance, in honor of a recent series of events and film screenings by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, the Museum of Modern Art in New York commissioned a notebook featuring some of his still images and a calendar of the various events taking place. Goldman Sachs (GS) commissioned notebooks embossed with its name and logo to hand out at a financial conference. Adobe (ADBE) commissioned a collection of three different types of notebooks to help promote the London launch of its CS3 software.

"Every case is different," says Beghin. "It really depends on what the client's perspective is. It's about creating a series of Moleskine stories for the individual brands." With these projects costing clients anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000, and with the blogs intended to spread goodwill toward all things Moleskine, these are also smart, lucrative ways to stealthily spread the allure of the humble, modern-day notebook.

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