How to Build a Better Brand

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"The Little Black Dress" of Notebooks

A brand that exemplifies a near-perfect blend of simplicity, originality, and utility, Moleskine is at the top of its game these days. The company boasts more than $200 million in annual sales and reports roughly 35 percent growth per year. The brand, most famous for its understated, black leather-bound notebooks, is simple, elegant, and a stationery staple—it's "the little black dress of notebooks," says Ken Carbone, the cofounder and chief creative director of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design and branding company.

"A simple message fuels the brand's resonance and consumer loyalty. [Its] mission is built on four pillars: imagination, travel, memory, and personal identity. Everything about Moleskine's retail presence is built to reflect the four core characteristics," Carbone wrote in a blog post for Fast Company.

Moleskine currently produces 300 products that are distributed in 62 countries—impressive numbers for a small company that just recently grew to only about 100 employees between the Italy and U.S. offices. As the company continues to grow, one of the most fascinating aspects about its advertising campaign is that there is none—at least not in the traditional sense.

The brand doesn't need to spend money on advertising because it's so iconic, Carbone maintains, and it has become so iconic because it never spent money on gimmicky ads. Instead, the brand made a name for itself by identifying its two main target audiences—those focused on creativity and the artistic side and professionals who want to get things done—and presenting these two groups with a solid product, offering it in places the two are likely to frequent.

"The company leverages word of mouth and their special editions designed for institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and events like the Tribeca Film Festival and the Montreaux Jazz Festival. These have proven to be successful collaborations and offer beneficial exposure to their customers and a revenue source for the company," Carbone says. "Free advertising [also] comes in the form of 'sightings.' Moleskine enjoys what I call brand anonymity, allowing their products to become props in films and TV. Their classic black notebook blends into the background yet can't be missed. Their journals have appeared in films such as The Devil Wears Prada and The Motorcycle Diaries, and on the series C.S.I.."

Despite its lack of traditional advertising, the company excels at brand messaging and marketing. "To 'amplify' [its] brand, the in-house Moleskine team is doing everything right," Carbone says. For one, the company has a solid Web presence. Its Web site offers animated videos that bring the company's products to life and incorporates interactive components, including a beta version of its travel aid MoleskineCity and its official blog, Moleskinerie, Carbone explains. "For a predominantly analog brand, [it has] a comprehensive social media presence; an unprecedented 75,000 Facebook fans far exceeds that of the competition," he says.

The brand has also created a traveling exhibition called Detour, which features notebook creations by internationally recognized artists, architects, film directors, graphic designers, illustrators, and writers. The show, curated by Raffaella Guidobono, has to date been to eight cities worldwide. "These initiatives do more than advertise; they help Moleskine define its brand," Carbone explains.

As Moleskine's initiatives come together, the brand thrives, despite the tech-loving audience that is its market. "Moleskine sees its function, design, and aesthetic appeal as complementary tools for these popular technologies. Moleskine is a category leader because it speaks loudly with a soft voice," Carbone asserts.

"Its ubiquity is contrasted by the humble way its logo is blind stamped on the back of each book, saying 'this book is all about you, not us.' The colorful band, or fascetta, that wraps each product is easily removed, like a drawn curtain on a stage that allows the performance to begin," he adds. "These are all masterful ways that Moleskine connects with its customers, ensures their loyalty, and is recognized for its creativity."

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