Sometimes in academic and professionals journals, you’ll come across articles that focus on taxonomy; it’s not a word I’ve ever encountered outside of academia, but the articles can be really quite useful for framing a debate. These articles categorise aspects of a phenomenon and provide a structure within which a debate can take place. So this article is going to categorise the different brands of fountain pens, not on the basis of their pricing, but rather on how I see the companies as performing in the competitive environment.
This is important because it goes to the heart of the value proposition that we are offered as consumers: as we discussed in one of the early posts, we buy the product (the pen, ink, notebook, etc) whenever our perception of its value exceeds the price. That value perception might be marginally influenced by marketing, but it’s primarily derived from the quality of the product itself. We’ve discussed in the past how retailers compete with each other by offering more surplus to their customers, and brands do exactly the same thing. Instead of increasing the value of their products through better customer service, they manufacture better products with improved features or find ways to offer the same quality at a lower price (which is what we mean by innovation). It’s all about trying to sell more product by offering a better deal than anything else that’s available.
So understanding how innovative a company is important because it’s a proxy for how good a deal we’re getting when we buy a new pen. It’s also important because it reflects how well that company is coping with competition, how much product it’s selling, and whether it’s likely to keep operating into the future.
There are four broad categories that we’ll use:
- competitive, and
Disruptive brands are those making a dramatic impact on the market, by developing new products that can’t easily be copied or at prices that can’t easily be matched by other manufacturers. These brands are arguably the most powerful force for competition in the market, and dramatically drive down prices (or drive up the level of quality at a particular price). I like to think that the FP market in the pre-war years was characterised by a lot of disruptive firms competing hard with each other, back when the market - and the rewards for success - were vastly larger than today.
Innovative brands are those working to develop new products/features that excite consumers, and are priced in a way that offers a great value proposition. Innovative brands can also be the manufacturers working to gradually push prices down and make their products more and more competitive over time. It’s not possible for all brands to be in this space but, ideally, this is where we would want most of them to be.
Competitive brands are those that are not obviously engaged in innovation or driving down prices, but occupy a certain position in the market and aggressively dominate that space. They are aware of the competition's products and prices, they offer quite a reasonable price-value proposition, and are able to move considerable volume. While this is not a bad space to be, from the consumer's point of view it's certainly desirable that these brands invest in R&D to become more competitive and innovative. Nowadays, most brands occupy this space.
Finally, the uncompetitive brands are those releasing products seemingly without any awareness of the broader market: not really thinking about which manufacturers or products their pens are competing against, not paying attention to competitors' prices, just generally unaware of what else consumers will be considering. The value proposition of their products is generally quite poor. Unfortunately, a lot of the innovative companies in the past now languish in this space and it’s really a shame that they do. I can understand why this is - parent companies use the brands as cash cows, starve them of R&D funding, and live off past glories - but it still makes me sad. These companies are the ones which really need to consider their future: they either need to invest in developing new products at competitive prices, or they need to prepare for eventual closure.
In sorting out the brands into these categories, it’s worth pointing out a few things: first that I am most interested in how these brands are competing today. If a company was innovative sixty years ago but hasn’t released anything groundbreaking in decades, they’re not going to be classified as innovative because they simply aren’t innovative today. Second, to do this properly, you would have to be an expert in every brand, its history, its product range, and it’s pricing in various markets. I’ll quite happily say I don’t possess that expertise and I hope that readers will share their own views. The taxonomy will be updated every now and then to reflect changes in the market, as brands become more competitive and move up the scale or as they fall down the scale and eventually out of the market completely. Finally, some brands have a symbol after their name: this simply reflects whether I feel like they seem likely to move up or down a rung.
- Noodlers (-)
- Caran d’Ache
- Delta (-)
- Faber-Castell (+)
- Franklin-Christoph (+)
- Kaweco (+)
- Lamy (-)
- ST Dupont (-)
- Steadtler (-)
- Esterbrook (-)
- Parker (+)
The next few posts will examine each of these categories in a little more detail, and discuss my reasoning for the placement of some of the brands.