Taxonomy: the Competitive Brands

This post is the third in a four-post series looking at the competitiveness of brands in the FP market. If you haven’t read the other posts yet, you can find the introduction and full list of brands and categories here.

Today, we’re going to look at the biggest category: the competitive brands. By competitive, we’re really saying that these brands are offering a good product at a decent price, but they are not pursuing much innovation or that are not transforming that innovation into a significantly better deal for consumers, and forcing other brands to react. This is not necessarily a bad place for a brand to be, but I believe some of the brands here can do better – both by consumers and by their shareholders – if they were to develop a more competitive strategy. And it’s my hope that they do.

We’ll only be discussing about half the brands here; I’ve chosen the ones that are most interesting to me (and hopefully also to you) but this is really only scratching the surface. Future posts will delve into more detail on some of the brands and topics that are raised here, and into some of the brands that don’t get discussed. I’m sure that some of you will be eager to share your own opinions on the brands, and you’re more than welcome to comment on this post or get in touch with me directly.

Delta 

If there’s one Delta product known throughout the pen world, it’s the Dolcevita, with its lush amber barrel. It seems the folks at Delta have noticed this too, as the DV now has fourteen – fourteen! – different models of varying size and amber-ness. The rest of the range is similarly broad, but I understand none of them really hold a candle to the DV’s popularity.

I generally like Italian design (even some of the gaudy, outlandish aspects) but the Delta range is so vast that it’s hard to get a handle on everything, as an analyst or a consumer. Obviously, the company has the ability to do things well and to capitalise on a successful product; I’m not so sure that they have the ability to say no and focus on what best fits with their goals and strategy. The problem with such a large range is that the company’s resources are spread thin and the most popular or strategic products aren’t properly supported – not to mention that instead of consumers aspiring towards a particular product, they’re left wondering which of the Dolcevitas might be the one for them.

This haphazard – even chaotic – approach is terrible business practice, but I have to say that it’s been a feature of life every time I’ve been to Italy and it’s possibly just part of the culture there; certainly it seems to be a problem at Montegrappa as well (discussed below). It does however mean that the brand lacks the edge and competitiveness that it might otherwise enjoy.

Faber-Castell

Reddit users will recognise the FC logo as my flair and perhaps have noticed how much I love my FC pens (particularly the GvFC Classic Pernambuco) and how frequently I recommend them to new users as their second pen (after a Pilot Metro/Lamy Safari). But this definitely doesn’t translate into enthusiasm for their entire business.

The strategy for Faber-Castell is reasonably clear: produce high-quality, well-made pens with fantastic nibs and interesting materials (leather, oak) to dominated the premium steel-nib part of the market. It’s a solid approach, perhaps not super lucrative, but seems to be working well for them. Their products are widely respected, and the prices are definitely premium but not outrageously so (the entry-level Basic and Loom pens are available for around $40).

What isn’t working well is the premium end of the brand, Graf von Faber-Castell (GvFC). Despite the excellent quality of their pens and nibs, the strategy and product range is a mess. Apart from the wood options, basically every GvFC pen is the same design and it’s hard to imagine how this has come about or why the company continues to release new, still indistinguishable models. As I said before, I love my Graf pen and would love to buy another: but there’s no point when every other pen is basically the same as what I already have. This is a really good example of a company getting it right in one part of the business while letting another part languish. I’m hoping that once they have the changes at Faber-Castell bedded down, the managers move to focus on GvFC and can rebuild that brand with the same excellence and effectiveness.

Franklin-Christoph 

I’m going to declare a bias here and say that I really, really like Franklin-Christoph as a company. They’re relatively young (first FP released in 2001) and they’ve built a brand that’s high-quality, widely respected and full of potential. But as much as I like their pens, there’s no obvious strategy to their brand or their products: too many models are too similar, and almost seemed to be aimed at the exact same buyer. The prices are also high compared to other models in the market: the Model 19 (steel $195/gold $285) is a well-made, fine-looking pen, but the Pilot Custom 823 ($288), stainless steel Lamy 2000 ($300), and Visconti Michelangelo (steel $239/palladium $360) are in the same price range, and all offer a much better value proposition.

That said, with the right strategy, it’s not hard to imagine Franklin-Christoph and Edison Pens being the premier US FP manufacturers in the near future. I’ve heard rumours of a piston-filling FP launching in the near future and I’m hoping that this will be the pen that can break them into the mass market.

Lamy 

Despite their popularity in the pen community, Lamy’s reputation basically rests on only two products: the Safari/Vista/Al-Star (which I regard as different finishes on the one product) and the much-loved but very-old Lamy 2000. These pens are good value (at least for now) and I can certainly understand the enthusiasm for them, but the rest of their range offers mediocre value in my opinion and leaves many users feeling rather underwhelmed.

A refresh of their somewhat tired product range could reinvigorate the brand and its enthusiasts, but I really wonder if the company is capable of that any more. As far as I can tell, their newest product was the retractable Dialog 3 (gold, $308), which is not widely carried. Most of their innovation in recent years has been special edition colours of Safaris, Studios, and ink, which is nice for the sales figures but hasn’t made the business any more competitive.

That said, I’m hoping that the recent European release of the 14kt-gold Z50 nib (which fits their entire range of pens, except the L2k) is a sign the company sees a future in the FP market and is willing to invest in new products and does still have the expertise to do it well. I expect the next major product release will be a limited edition 50th anniversary Lamy 2000, which will give us a further indication of what direction the company is taking and whether they intend to stick with the market. 

Montegrappa 

I’m sure I’m not the only one who looks at the range of Montegrappa pens and wonders what on earth is going on. You can break their product range into three groups: the first is the reasonably nice (perhaps slightly expensive) resin pens. I like those, and they make sense to me. The second is their celluloid pens: quite nice designs but often insanely priced (such as the Extra 1930, a steal at €950/$1400). And then, you’ve got pens like the Ca$h (steel, $625), the DC Comics range (steel nibs, €300), and the 300-gram Chaos (silver body $6000, gold body $65,700). 

This brand is a complete and utter mystery to me. The only reason I’ve classed them as competitive is because they are, somehow, still in business, and must actually be selling pens to someone. The company claims to be ‘hugely successful’ which may be true, but would blow my mind if so. (If anyone has inside information on how Montegrappa survive, I would be interested to hear what you know)

S.T. Dupont 

Dupont are probably the most forgettable premium brand in the FP market. Their products are high quality and beautiful – even elegant – but they simply aren’t that exciting. Many times, I’ve looked at a Defi or Liberte and thought that I’d like to own one, only to completely forget about it days later. There seems to be almost universal agreement amongst Dupont owners that the pens are incredibly good quality but this certainly hasn’t translated into any real enthusiasm for the brand.

With some more creative products, I could definitely see ST Dupont emerging as the premier French FP manufacturer, something like a Gallic version of Visconti, but there’s nothing about the company right now which makes this seem likely. Sadly.

Staedtler

You might be aware that Staedtler released a range of premium FPs (possibly last year), but I’d be surprised if you were: these pens have completely sunk without a trace. Released only in Europe, the UK, and Australia (the latter obviously being a major FP market), seemingly, without even a press release, the range is comprised of steel-nibbed, cartridge/converter pens with smart (albeit uninteresting) designs, and cost between £70-225/. The only gold-nibbed option is the Princeps at €1600. Needless to say, Staedtler Premium hasn’t been a huge success.

While it’s nice to see a manufacturer make a serious move into the FP space, it’s another example of a company that hasn’t taken the time to properly understand the market and what consumers want before making that move. It’s really not enough to develop a new range of pens and assume that design will be the key to sales; certainly it’s important, but it’s not enough to get buyers excited and spending their money. I expect to see the entire Staedtler range discounted in the near future, and for Staedtler to withdraw from the FP market shortly thereafter. 

 

In Monday's post, we will be wrapping up the Taxonomy series by looking at the least competitive brands in the industry. I hope this post has been as interesting for you to read as it has been for me to write!