[Case Study] Moleskine : From a notebook manufacturer to an open platform for creativity

Hemingway. Van Gogh. Oscar Wilde. Legendary artists and thinkers from the 1920s taking notes and drawing sketches in little black notebooks, sitting on a bench near la Seine. Moleskine’s world surely is appealing for analog paper lovers; but how to keep this story relevant and engaging as users become increasingly connected? Many online productivity tools have recently emerged, with powerful stories that speak to today’s consumer. Evernote for instance claims to be a “second brain” for modern day workers. Samsung’s Galaxy Note II and III even lets users take handwritten notes on the go with its smart stylus. Analog paper isn’t going to disappear just yet. As Moleskine CEO Arrigo Berni told us, “People use notebooks and digital note-taking tools for different purposes.” But Moleskine’s brand narrative was simply starting to become irrelevant.


Moleskine’s new GIF Monogram

This challenging landscape led the brand to completely rethink its overall vision. Drawing from open source movements, DIY trends and online business models, the analog notebook manufacturer slowly evolved into “an open platform for creativity and self-expression,” Director of Digital Business Peter Hobolt Jensen summarizes. This case study focuses on how Moleskine used strategies usually found in the technology world to channel fan art and make it an asset for themselves.

Although Moleskine has nothing to do with entertainment, it is a worthwhile example for media networks and entertainment marketers. Its highly engaged community has been creating significant amounts of content, which Moleskine leveraged to expand its own world. Eventually, the brand even found a way to monetize fan content and unleash new revenue streams. Moleskine’s engagement strategy makes a great inspiration for how to deal with fan art, and its e-commerce platform brings interesting models for monetizing and distributing it.

A creative “hacker” community

Moleskine’s fan community emerged on Flickr in 2004. Artists and creative minds gathered in dedicated groups, where they shared art created in Moleskine notebooks – travel sketches, water paint landscapes, portraits and cartoon vignettes… Moleskinerie, the largest and most popular, was started by blogger and photographer Armand Frasco, and now holds about 20.000 members. One Page At a Time is a similar group created in 2005, with 5000 members. Aside from Flickr groups, Moleskine users typically share tips on their personal blog about how to best use their notebooks to increase productivity, how to craft a pen holder onto a Moleskine, etc. “We had an organic digital presence,” Director of Digital Business Peter Hobolt Jensen recalls. “There was almost no need for digital marketing.”

Sketches by Vikmaia

Sketches by Vikmaia

There was, however, a need to engage with this community as Moleskine developed its own digital presence. Artists were creating a large amount quality content about Moleskine, but drawing traffic to Flickr or personal blogs instead of Molkesine’s own website.

First steps towards a participatory culture

Moleskine’s first move was to create an official space for sharing Moleskine art – simultaneously endorsing the community’s social activity and channeling it. This space took the shape of exhibits, contests and hackathons.

Inspired by its fan’s love of peeking into other people’s notebooks and sharing their own intimacy, Moleskine organized Detour, a traveling exhibit featuring notebooks belonging to famous artists, designers, architects and world class filmmakers. “Detour was born out of a natural process of famous creators already using the notebooks and other creators exchanging images on their beloved Moleskine notebooks. From this came the idea to create an archive through which share notebooks in which famous creators have freely expressed themselves,” a 2009 press release specifies.

In 2009, Moleskine organized the myDetour contest on the sidelines of the Detour Expo, and across 5 italian cities. Artists could submit artwork created in Moleskine notebooks – just like they did on Flickr. In exchange for their participation, the brand offered endorsement and visibility. After a 2 fold selection process, the author of the best notebook was sent to Dakar’s 2010 Biennal of Contemporary African Art. Of course, the best 25 notebooks were featured on the brand’s website as well.

Notebook created by Nicholas Hlobo for myDetour

Notebook created by Nicholas Hlobo for myDetour

Notebook created by Julia Lohman for myDetour

Notebook created by Julia Lohman for myDetour

Outcomes: through those events, Moleskine was able to generate an incredibly large amount of fan content at almost no cost. The content was used to feed the company’s website, engaging even more fans across the world to submit their own creations online in the long run. The myMoleskine gallery is now a major community management platform where artists submit their work. Moleskine also uses it to curate artwork that is sometimes printed on Moleskine covers for special editions. In terms of branding, this fan content also serves Moleskine’s brand narrative and positioning as a platform for creativity and self-expression.

Open-sourcing the little black notebook

Yesterday, a Moleskine notebook was a high end iconic product connecting its owner to the greatest writers of the 20th century. Today, it also is a highly customizable piece open of hardware.

Around 2010, Moleskine started publishing downloadable template designs in “MSK” format. If downloaded and printed, these pages could easily be pasted on or simply inserted in an existing Moleskine analog notebook. The idea was to help Moleskine users customize their notebooks. For instance, why not add a music page to an blank notebook, or a to do list to a travel notebook?

Quickly, users were able to upload their own templates to the site, which anyone could use to add to their existing notebook, just like one would add a widget to a blog. MSK2, released in 2012, is an editor tool that lets users design their own Moleskine template online, and upload it directly to the open source library. Users can also choose to edit templates designed by others – just like developers would improve open source software, or designers open hardware.

sleeve template

Downloadable sleeve template by Loredana Micu

The MSK format has received some criticism from the community. Not everyone seems to find much value in pasting a printed sheet of paper to a beautiful Moleskine notebook. Even so, hundreds of fans have contributed their own designs to the platform, with note only templates for pages, but also bookmarks, sleeves, and other crafty work to do with a Moleskine notebook.

Outcomes: regardless of whether fans would actually want to add printed pages to an existing notebook, the MSK library is a great source of inspiration for the brand as well. From a product development standpoint, it creates a stream of ideas that can inform the design of analog Moleskines, and maybe inspire new notebooks.

The Artists Marketplace

In 2011, Moleskine opened its Artist Marketplace. It is a separate website through which anyone can submit their customized notebook and sell it to other Moleskine fans.

The e-commerce platform makes it easy for creative Moleskine aficionados to find potential customers, and for regular clients to buy DIY notebooks that are still endorsed by the brand. Moleskine does not specifically filter the creations, except for inappropriate content. The company takes a 7.5% fee on sold items, which according to the website is used to finance the marketplace itself.

Artists are free to sell their creations at whichever price they decide, which range between around $15 to several thousands. Moleskine recommends taking into account the price of the notebook, the materials used to customize it, an estimation of the time spent on designing and creating the notebook, plus shipping costs. Artists create their profile and all transactions are processed through Paypal. Artists are free to sell as many notebooks they want through the platform, and can technically sell entire collections if they want. The only condition is for each notebook to be hand-made, and not manufactured.

Buyers can search for notebooks based on various categories: the notebook style (Classic, City notebook, Planners…), the type of alteration (pages only, cover only, both), the techniques (carved, embroidered, painted, sketched…), price range and occasion (gift, birthday, travel, wedding…). Some notebooks, though customized, can still be used as such, but others are sold as art pieces. Cloudberries from Italy created a whole collection of hand printed pocket notebooks with animal shapes. Only the cover is customized and each notebook is worth $8. On the other side of the spectrum, Cecilia Murgel from Brazil sells entirely painted notebooks, as unique art pieces.

Outcomes: although data about actual sales is unavailable, Moleskine’s artist marketplace is an extremely clever move. Beyond the e-commerce platform, Moleskine has created a monetization model for fan art. In 2004, artists and creative minds from all over the world were already personalizing Moleskine notebooks. But at the time, Moleskine has absolutely no leverage on those creations; and neither did the creators of these DIY notebooks. The artists marketplace provides creators a dedicated e-commerce platform to sell their creations, take credit for it and monetize their work. Moleskine, on the other hand, monetizes customized versions of its product, and is able to monitor the transactions. In other words, Moleskine lets fans monetize Moleskine notebooks, but on its own terms.

From creating to hacking

A  shift happened in 2011, when Moleskine organized a “notebook hacking” event in partnership with Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in New York. The one-day event featured two workshops of 3h each, where participants were taught collaborative drawing and electroluminescent materials. For the first time, the brand encouraged fans to see the notebook as more than a canvas – as an object that could be altered, transformed and personalized. Participants created electroluminescent Moleskine covers, some ripped the notebooks apart etc.

Though the event itself was relatively small, inviting fans to “hack” its iconic high end product certainly marked an important step in Moleskine’s history, and its  will to be identified as a truly open brand. Moleskine features those “hacks” on its own website, in a dedicated section.

A brand narrative based on multiplicity 

New Moleskine Monogram

New Moleskine Monogram

Despite all the benefits of open innovation, acting as a platform does require appropriate branding in order not to confuse customers, dilute the brand image or look incoherent.

Moleskine redefined its brand narrative in order to accompany its increasingly open approach, and strong focus on participation and collaboration. It shifted the focus of its story from the great artists of the 20th century to its current community. Creativity and self-expression are now embodied by the multiplicity of talents of its users, which Moleskine features and supports.

New terminology, very much inspired by the technology world, now appears in Moleskine’s various marketing documents. They all stress the importance of community and user experience. Initially organizing “contests” aimed to foster creativity and self-expression, the brand started to encourage “fans” to “hack” notebooks in the DIY spirit.

More recently, in June 2013, Moleskine introduced a new monogram. The “flexible graphic acts as an open platform for creativity” embodies the brand’s new platform approach. The press release describes: “A set of nine modules consisting of the M of Moleskine and eight rounded squares come together to form a grid, evoking the essential design elements of the Moleskine notebook with its rounded corners as well as those of the digital realm. Each module is a flexible space that can house a wealth of content: the letters of the company name, the colors and configurations of the collections, community creations and multimedia content will all fill the new Moleskine monogram [which] presents the brand as designer of open platforms for creativity, communication and sharing.”

Moleskine Monogram Drafting

Moleskine Monogram Drafting

Take aways: fan created content has value

  • It shows loyalty
  • It is content marketing at its best
  • It can inform product development (open innovation, crowdsourcing)

What brands should do with it:

  • Identify it
  • Endorse it
  • Foster it
  • Provide the space and material to fans so they create quality content
  • Monetize it

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