Reinvention through retail

How does an old brand reinvent itself?

If you are Moleskine, maker of simple black notebooks, it might not be easy. The story goes that these legendary notebooks were used by European artists and thinkers for the past two centuries - but that one day, the producer stopped making them. The factory closed its shutters, and a tradition died. Then, in 1998, a small Milanese publisher brought Moleskine back.

Now it's 2006, and Moleskine has crept back into the public
consciousness. Or at least the consciousness of the creative class
circles in which I hang. The notebooks are seen at conferences and on the train, often with Post-Its and magazine articles sticking out. They hold notes, sketches and thoughts. Their story is about the creative potential that a blank notebook holds. And I think they have used retail quite effectively to tell that story.

First, they have gotten around the obvious barrier: if you sell a bunch of black notebooks that all look the same, how do you announce a diverse product line? You could start with color. Moleskine uses brightly colored paper strips to package each product. And who knew there were so many types of people taking notes? There is a unique color for music notebooks, Japanese notebooks, lined, blank, squared, sketch, address, diary, reporter and storyboard notebooks. A lot of colors, yes. But if you are buying one for your brother the music student, you know to go straight for the aqua.

This makes the display simultaneously lively and clean. No crazy retail devices are needed - just a solid white stand. I know color-coding is an in-store trend, and that there's always this backlash reaction of, "It adds to the clutter." But Moleskine has managed to use up to 10 colors at retail, and I see no cause for alarm.

Next, they have presented a teaser. The display has one basic
claim: "The legendary notebook of Hemingway, Picasso, Chatwin." I don't know how to draw, I've never heard of Chatwin, but the same notebook that famous writers and artists used? It's a hopelessly romantic notion of great respect through pen and paper. I read that simple claim and feel inspired.

And most importantly, Moleskine has refrained from falling into the information overload trap. They don't announce the acid-free paper, they don't explain the French origins of the cahier, and they don't show the artists' doodles. All these details unfold as you open your notebook, and then later when you visit the website.

In truth, this is singular, if for no other reason than the fact that Moleskine seems to have considered retail from the beginning. They weren't going to mess with a classic product, but this time around, it needed a refresh. Perhaps a simple, compelling retail presence was their best chance to start anew. I don't know what their marketing budget entails, but I somehow doubt they are taking out ads in The New Yorker and 30-second spots at primetime. Like the discreet black notebook itself, Moleskine is quietly making a comeback through, basically, just retail.

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