Esterbrook Pens

At the risk of jumping onto a bandwagon, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the controversial relaunch of Esterbrook Pens. This has really been one of the most vindictive online campaigns that I have seen – admittedly one that has not been helped by the attitude of the new owner – and it’s something that really jars with my experience of the pen community.

For those of you who are not familiar, Esterbrook Pens was a classic American manufacturer that was a real contender in the FP market for many decades – perhaps more than a century – in producing low-cost, reasonably high quality pens (with swappable nibs) before ultimately closing down in 1971 and abandoning their patents and trademarks. Over the last few years, those trademarks have been re-registered by an individual, Robert Rosenberg, who doesn’t appear to have had any previous connection with the company.

Rosenberg has an interesting background, which can be found here and here. In 1993 Rosenberg founded his own distribution business, Kenro Industries, before selling out and founding another distributor, Penmark Industries, in 1995 (now defunct). Two years later, he went on to law school and studied trademark abandonment before applying to register the abandoned Conklin trademark and relaunching the company with his father (formerly the sales director for Parker and Waterman), before selling the brand after a decade to Yafa Pens.

Since his acquisition of the trademarks last year, Rosenberg has launched the Esterbrook Pens website, two models (the Deluxe and the J series), and a Kickstarter campaign. He’s also endured an incredibly spiteful campaign on FPN, with many blogs joining in the attack.

Frankly, for a community that is full of incredibly friendly and helpful people – and full of pride about its niceness – I have been shocked at how quickly people have turned against Rosenberg and his business. Many people who talk about supporting local businesses and talking up the pen market have abandoned those values and just spewed vitriol. 

While I understand that many pen enthusiasts have an emotional connection to vintage brands and will have been sorely disappointed with the relaunch, I don’t see any reason for the level of hate and malice that I have experienced lately. In preparation for this post, I have read as much of the Esterbrook commentary as I could find and it was extremely difficult to get through.

It’s worth remembering that we are talking about someone who is attempting to start a new business and is struggling right now, facing the reality of a brand that isn’t working, inventory that isn’t going to shift, and an investment that isn’t going to pay off. In this community, there aren’t that many people who actually take a chance and start a new business, and Rosenberg at least deserves some credit for taking that risk.

That said, from a business perspective, I think there is a lot to criticise in Rosenberg’s choices. While it might be legally permissible to use an old brand name, simply attaching that brand to a product that has nothing to do with the business is never going to work out. As an industry insider, and with his experience from Conklin, he should have known that. The history and purpose of a brand is to communicate to users the type of product they can expect, and the new Esterbrooks simply have nothing in common with the vintage models. It’s no surprise that users feel like they’re being conned. Leigh Reyes is absolutely right

The positioning of the models also suggests that there’s no thinking about competition in the market. The J series is priced (US$75) around the same point as a the Faber-Castell Ambition ($70), Lamy Studio ($80) and Twsbi 580AL ($70): each one a high-quality instrument with a range of nib options. The J has a single nib option and its Chinese manufacture raises questions about the build and nib quality. It’s an extremely aggressive price for an entirely new brand and nothing about the product gives a compelling reason for potential users to buy.

The Deluxe model (list price $440, street price $352) demonstrates the same problem. At that price, the Deluxe is competing against the Graf von Faber-Castell Classic, Pelikan M600 ($400), and Visconti Michelangelo ($400). These are extremely high-quality instruments with gold or palladium nibs from extremely reputable manufacturers. Without the Esterbrook name, the Deluxe is a no-name, steel-nibbed product from China. Even with sterling silver trim, I simply cannot understand who is the target market that will be willing to pay such a premium for no reason. What is most frustrating about this is that the $350-450 price point is ripe for a targeted product that is not a blinged-up version of a cheaper pen (like the Vanishing Point Raden) or a stripped-down version of a premium pen (like the M400/M600) but something which is actually aimed at users who want something more than than $150-200 pens but aren’t willing to commit to a premium Montblanc, Pelikan, or Visconti. That gap in the market remains open, because the Esterbrook Deluxe certainly won’t be filling it.

And this brings me the real problem: this is a brand relaunched without someone having thought through the business strategy, the product positioning, the marketing plan; none of it suggests to me that Rosenberg acquired those trademarks as part of an overall strategy leading to a successful business relaunch. Every move seems opportunistic, particularly the Kickstarter campaign, none of it fits together into a coherent business model. 

The Esterbrook relaunch will probably fail and, given the many flaws in its design and execution, it deserves to fail. But it doesn’t strike me as a malicious, Visionaire-type plan to rip off users and make the founders a one-off pile of money; instead, the entire thing smacks of incompetence and ineptitude. It certainly doesn’t deserve the level of opprobrium that has come its way, particularly from a community that has – until recently – been one of the best on the internet. Brian and Lisa Anderson's review of the J series was informative and fair, and lived up to the standard that many others in this community have forgotten. As one of the biggest Esterbrook collectors in the world, I can't imagine the feelings that Brian has had about this episode (particularly after hearing that someone at Harpen (Esterbrook) was rude to his wife); if he can put aside those feelings and write a fair review, there's really no excuse for anyone else to get personal. 

Whether you're an Esterbrook aficionado or someone who just wants new ventures in the FP market to succeed, this relaunch has certainly been a disappointment. But while those feelings of disappointment are totally understandable, they should not become the basis of attacks that can damage our community and harm the wellbeing we all have toward one another.