The Role of Social Media

Admin note: Apologies for the late publication this week. 

Given the extent to which the FP market has shifted online, it’s somewhat surprising that so few brands have developed strategies for the digital environment. It’s obvious that the online market will only grow in importance in the future but it appears most brands are only mildly interested in developing their presence. In today’s post, we’ll talk about the role that social media plays and look at the brands that are doing well – and not so well – at harnessing it.

Despite my rather obvious antipathy towards marketing (advertising and promotions), I have to accept that it can play an important role, particularly when it is well targeted: informing interested parties of new products, features, services, etc. I’m more cynical about marketing when it becomes focused on persuasion: attempts to shift customers from one product to another, especially when the appeal is made to some real or imagined shortcoming in the user. But it can be valuable when informing people about things that they might find useful. 

Branding is also important, playing a role in building awareness of the brand and its products, shaping the expectations of potential buyers, and building trust between the brand and the buyers. In this sense, trust is about the product meeting the expectations that the marketing has created; how often have we chosen to avoid a brand because they overpromise and underdeliver? That is because we can no longer trust the brand or any of its products. This is something I plan to discuss further in a future post.

Marketing also provides value to a brand by channelling feedback from users back to the product designers and manufacturers, as I’ve discussed in an earlier post. By allowing users to communicate design flaws or issues back to the product team, a brand can make refinements and develop superior products.

As the business of FPs shifts online, an effective marketing strategy would encompass these three dimensions: it would inform potential buyers of useful, relevant information; create and appropriately manage their expectations; and enable buyers to provide feedback. This sounds relatively straightforward and, as someone who doesn’t work in marketing, it’s hard to see the challenges in effectively executing all three simultaneously. But looking around the FP world, I’m surprised at how few companies are achieving success on any particular dimension. Most disappointingly, I can’t see any company that is achieving all three.

Perhaps the most effective brand in this area is Pelikan, who have adeptly experimented with different techniques and launched the Wanderlust and Hubs campaigns to develop awareness and build their brand. My instinct is that these campaigns are about broadening the appeal of Pelikan; their typical customer is probably middle-aged (even late middle-aged) and the campaigns are about engaging a younger demographic. It’s certainly executed in a way that would be comfortable to a younger audience: Pelikan is exercising little direct control, allowing users to take it in the directions they find interesting, and giving them some sense of ownership. It’s smart, and judging by the social media response, it also seems to have been quite effective.

Unfortunately, Pelikan’s excellence in brand-building has not been matched with excellence on the other dimensions. Their main way of sharing new product information with potential buyers online seems to be newsletters, and I can’t find any evidence of feedback channels. So while Pelikan is a leader in this space, there is still a lot missing from their social media strategy.

Pelikan and Twsbi have some interesting comparative strengths. While Pelikan excels at building the brand, Twsbi excels at channelling feedback back inside the company (as I’ve noted before) and is quite adept at informing customers about new products (and building anticipation). They are much weaker at building the brand and managing the expectations of their buyers, as demonstrated by the occasional flood of frustrated Twsbi posts on reddit. Social media users have done a lot of the heavy lifting for Twsbi but some of their techniques, like sharing insider photos or asking what users think of prototypes, have been spectacularly effective. It’s not a technique that is going to work for every company – I can’t imagine Montblanc asking what people think of a pencil case, then deciding to withdraw it when the feedback isn’t positive – but it has certainly worked for Twsbi. The challenge is to use that audience to start building an identity and managing expectations.

Those two brands have both experimented and found techniques that work for them – they ‘get social’, in the words of my social media colleague – but most brands have a token offering that offers very little to customers and creates little value for the business: a blog, Twitter or Instagram account that is updated sporadically and has no clear purpose. All of them are wasted opportunities for brands to connect and engage with their customers.

As much as I like Montblanc’s products – haters be damned, I love their pens – their social media efforts are emblematic of this, a waste of resources that might actually be worse than useless and harming the business. The Winter Tale is a good example of this: a story produced by Montblanc that was told in episodes, designed to entice repeat visits from customers to their website in the run-up to Christmas. The paper animations were really quite charming and I thought it was a wonderful concept; unfortunately, the story sucked. It lacked real engagement with the characters, and any tension or drama, which are core elements to any story. I felt this was a huge problem because the principal criticism that is made of Montblanc is that their products are all style and no substance: the story played right into that narrative, a tale that was beautifully portrayed but totally empty in the centre.

I’m willing to applaud the company for taking a chance on this; experimentation is vital and some failures are inevitable; c’est la vie. I’m also neutral on the fact that their other social media ventures – the Twitter and Instagram accounts – have large followings but little traction, because that’s (unfortunately) the norm for the FP industry. Unfortunately, there’s an inconsistency in how the business operates: the social media team puts substantial resources into developing the brand and engaging consumers and then the legal team destroys that goodwill by attempting to control the Montblanc image and message. Recently, they forced FPN to remove an entire thread that discussed some new, unannounced products. The kicker here is that, of everyone on the internet, the most likely to buy a new Montblanc – particularly a Limited Edition – are the guys in that forum. Preventing that discussion destroys the enthusiasm for new products but also destroys that wonderful feeling of shared anticipation that brings a community like ours together. At best, it’s a tone-deaf move and, at worst, diminishes the value of the company.

Montblanc and Pelikan offer an interesting contrast in their approaches to social media: Pelikan’s strategy is decentralised, ceding power to the customers, while Montblanc’s is a top-down approach which centralises power and demands social media by in sync with messages coming through traditional media. Of course, this is the way marketing has traditionally operated and it’s understandable that the company might not be ready to shift – but it is a poor match for the digital age. Pelikan seems to understand this and it’s no surprise that they have been more successful to date.

Finally, it’s impossible to have a discussion about this topic without mentioning Esterbrook. It’s not something I’m eager to discuss – life is undeniably happier without having to think about or deal with Rob Rosenberg – but there are plenty of lessons to be drawn from the debacle, principally that our community is far more interconnected now than in the past. When news of the relaunch came out, it spread far and wide by social media, building quite high expectations that Esterbrook’s management did nothing to manage. When the final products defied those expectations, it resulted in shock, disappointment, and a serious breach in the trust buyers had in the brand. The interconnectedness that had allowed the news to spread so quickly now allowed the feelings of disappointment to spread just as quickly. Although the company still exists and is apparently about to release an Abraham Lincoln memorial pen (curiously timed to coincide not with his birth or election, but his death), I think it’s fair to say that social media has destroyed the company’s reputation and prospects.

A second lesson is that social media is not independent of the physical, brick-and-mortar stores and pen shows that have long been the foundation of the industry. When a brand manages to piss off the social media community, it isn’t simply going to affect online sales: the agents of social media (the bloggers, Twitterers, forum addicts, etc) are also the folks who go into stores, who read Pen World, and attend the shows. What a brand does in the digital space matters for their physical business.

For any business to be successful in a competitive market, it needs to do something better than the others, something that is valuable and isn’t easily copied. For a company like Twsbi, their advantage is low-cost production. For Parker, their advantage is their reputation (particularly amongst non-pen people) and the breadth of their distribution. For Graf von Faber-Castell, it’s about striking, modern design. Digital marketing is another such dimension, one that no company has yet figured out, and that makes it a massive opportunity waiting to be exploited. I wonder who will get there first.