By now, you’ve probably heard that I decided to pick a fight with the Fountain Pen Network (FPN) by calling them out for their rather weak submission to Montblanc’s request that they censor posts on the site, an act that turns out to be standard practice for their admins. In today’s post, I continue in that fine tradition and pick a fight with Montblanc for being stupid enough to make that request in the first place. If you’re just looking for the new pens Montblanc are releasing this year, you’ll want to skip to the end of the post.
Now, I’m not going to go through all the details of what happened last month — it’s all available in the previous post if you’re not already up to speed — but I do want to cover a few things up front. First, there’s a lot of Montblanc haters online but I’m not one of them. In fact, I’ve frequently defended them from the haters, in what could be charitably described as an unwinnable battle. But I’m not blind to their flaws so I am willing to call them out when they do something phenomenally stupid. That is what today’s post is all about.
I was able to speak with one of their senior PR flacks before putting this post together but they didn’t seem that interested in explaining or defending their actions, or even engaging on the issue. The flack spent more of our emails discussing their travel arrangements than talking about censorship or FPN. They had a chance to respond but chose not to take it.
It seems pretty clear that information escaped into the wild and Montblanc wished it hadn’t, and tried to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube. What’s less clear is who is responsible for that information escaping and what duty others have in helping Montblanc sequester that information. From the initial posts on FPN (all of which have now been censored), it was clear that the commenters had received the information from Montblanc retailers once they received catalogues and product details from Montblanc HQ.
As far as Montblanc is concerned, they probably view the fault here as lying with the retailer, who was sharing information that should not have been disclosed, or with the buyer who was granted privileged access and should have respected the agreements. My understanding is that retailers are required to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in which they promise not to reveal product information before the official announcements. I also understand that the retailers who do share information ahead of time generally ask the customers to keep it under their hat. So perhaps it’s understandable that this is where they view the problem as lying, and censoring discussion on the forum is a lot easier than going after your customers.
One of the interesting details in the immediate aftermath was a retailer, active on the forum before the censors got a workout, said later that there weren’t to be any consequences for his business. At first, I breathed a sigh of relief — they have a good reputation and I’d hate for their business to be affected — but that detail stuck with me. If you’re running a brand and your own retailers are leaking information and it’s escaping to the internet, why wouldn’t you take action to stop that from happening? I reached out to a few other retailers and they confirmed that no action was being taken against them either.
The truth is that Montblanc has placed their vendors, particularly their boutiques, in a position where they basically have to break the rules set by Montblanc. If you’re managing the only boutique in town, you have a geographical monopoly and all the local buyers will necessarily come to your store. But once there are competing boutiques, things become more complicated. Suddenly you’re selling the exact same product at the exact same price as someone in the same city. In Sydney, there are two stores on adjacent blocks. As the manager of a boutique, how do you compete in that kind of environment?
For most pen retailers, they compete through customer service. That doesn’t necessarily mean that one retailer offers superior service to buyers but that different retailers offer different services or different types of customer service. Some salespeople will find things they have in common with you and become friends. Others will be diligent, trustworthy, and extremely dependable. The problem is that Montblanc has its own training program — somewhat pompously titled the Montblanc Academy — where its staff are essentially trained to act the same way, so that customers have the same experience regardless of who serves them.
That leaves the boutique managers with no real advantage over each other, yet they are still incentivised to sell more — in other words, to compete with the store which might be just a block away. The only real way they can do this is by offering customers something they can’t get anywhere else: privileged access to upcoming product information. Taking a risk and breaking their NDA is the only way that a boutique can effectively compete with other stores and get the bonuses that Montblanc are offering to them.
Given that Montblanc themselves are the ones who established this structure — who decide to open this many stores, set the incentives, and insist on the NDAs — the fact that leaks occur are essentially their own fault. The fact that no boutiques or retailers are being punished makes me think that Montblanc are well aware of this, that it may even be the point of the entire structure. Which really demonstrates how hypocritical it is for them to complain about information leaking when it’s a core feature of their business model.
Some of the posts which were ultimately censored by FPN argued that Montblanc’s actions could be defended because they have a right to keep their products secret until they are ready to release. I think the above shows that such arguments are untenable, since Montblanc themselves are the ones leaking the information and deliberately so. The problem for the brand was that the information didn’t just leak to certain customers but ultimately leaked online — and if they didn’t see that coming, you really have to wonder about the supposed brilliance of their marketing team.
The Problem with Censorship
Aside from the inherently flawed business model and the sheer hypocrisy of their actions, it’s worth thinking about some fundamental problems with censorship, both from the perspective of (potential) buyers and their business.
First, we’ll think about the buyers and why censorship is a problem. Assuming that the act is successful, what does it actually achieve? It might protect Montblanc’s internal marketing strategy but, from the perspective of buyers, it simply limits their ability to plan their future purchases. There’s no upside for buyers and, at least in my opinion, little upside for Montblanc. But it does make it crystal clear that the brand is willing to act in its own interest, even at the expense of their buyers.
That’s a fairly damaging signal for a brand to send out to their buyers. It signals that the brand is selfish, that they put themselves first, and quite rightly leads buyers to wonder if their trust in the brand is misplaced. Brands like Montblanc spend millions of dollars trying to build up trust, and they do it because it’s vital. If you’re asking someone to spend a thousand dollars or more on a pen, part of the pitch is that the product will last a lifetime (or even longer). A brand might point to products they manufactured fifty years ago as proof of their quality, but there’s no way for a buyer to know if they’ve started cutting corners recently, running down the quality to goose up profits. They need to take a brand’s claims about quality at face value — which means they need to be able to trust the brand. Without that trust, buyers aren’t going to be willing to pay a premium price for longevity and they will gravitate towards other brands, ones they know they can trust.
There are also problems with censorship from Montblanc’s internal perspective. First off is that a lot of their customers are, shall we say, part of a somewhat aged group which have memories of events and experiences which are evoked by the association of Germans and censorship. And while I’m not an expert in marketing, I’m fairly certain when you have a business which projects itself as elegant, luxurious, and professional, you really don’t want to be evoking those kinds of association in people’s minds.
On a more serious note, the business model for luxury brands is not particularly well-understand by the general public. Most people see luxury brands and think that they succeed by charging very high prices for products which are decent quality, but not spectacular. They see such businesses as succeeding only because of associations, image, or reputation — that a handbag is only worth tens of thousands of dollars because they’ve somehow tricked people into believing such products are worth that much money.
In reality, luxury brands succeed when they are able to identify a specific group or type of customer and develop products that directly appeal to those people: products designed the way these customers like things to look, of a quality that they expect, and offered at a price they are comfortable paying. These products aren’t necessarily the best quality or the most satisfying for everyone, instead they are designed to appeal to specific niches. Certainly there are aspirational buyers as well, people who associate the brand with success or believe it will earn them status, but these aren’t the core customers.
More than any other, luxury brands depend on having a very good relationship with their core customer base. The brand needs that relationship to know the desires and preferences of their buyers and how satisfied those buyers are with the products. If that relationship breaks down, the core business suffers — and if the core business suffers, it can bring down an entire company with it. I’m not saying that this act of censorship is going to bring down Montblanc, not at all, but I am saying that censoring your users does nothing to engender the trust and open communication that is necessary for building those relationships.
You might have seen a post I wrote about Montblanc last year, where I argued that their core customer base is literally dying and that they have struggled for years in trying to replace them. I argued that the shift into watches was an attempt to find a new base in a new market, and that products like the Montblanc M were an attempt to find a new base in the pen market. I’ll leave aside the watch market stuff as that’s well beyond my area of expertise, but my guess was the M was targeted at younger professional buyers, maybe people in their late 20s and 30s who are experiencing some success in their fields and have an income where they can indulge in the occasional luxury purchase. Now you have to ask yourself: how many of those kinds of buyers would respond positively to a brand that censors its buyers? Many members of this group would have used the internet in high school and been amongst the earliest users of Facebook: they have grown up in an increasingly digital age and brought with them values of authenticity and transparency. How much harder will it be for Montblanc to build a relationship with that group if they continue to operate in a way which contradicts some of the group’s core values?
Hopefully you can see why I think this is such an asinine approach to doing business. It isn’t just because it’s so hopelessly hypocritical but because it actively works against what the brand is trying to accomplish in other areas. Unless the right hand at Montblanc can figure out what the left hand is doing, then they will inevitably go the same way as Omas.
So as unpleasant as this whole episode has been, we have learned a few things. We’ve found out that FPN has all the conviction and backbone of a jellyfish. We’ve found out that Montblanc have a flawed business model, one which will give them more and more trouble as their buyers share information online, and that they have a penchant for censorship which works against their attempts to win over a new customer group. And we’ve learned that they still haven’t figured out the internet.
I’ve called them out for this before. Their Christmas 2014 campaign had a pitch-perfect concept with an utterly tone deaf execution: an uplifting Christmas story that was beautifully illustrated with paper cardboard cutouts, which was ruined by whoever thought a five-minute video was best released in short chunks across an entire month. Their Christmas 2015 campaign wasn’t much better and the decision to showcase new watch products on Snapchat made me wonder if they knew anything at all about their customers (hint: 14 year old girls use Snapchat, not folks who drop $20,000 on a watch).
Of course, they’re not alone in their ignorance of the internet and social media: quite a lot of pen brands have some kind of presence online (whether it’s a website, blog, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Periscope, etc) but there really aren’t many brands which are actively taking advantage of the opportunities that social media offer — opportunities to connect with their customers, to learn from them, and become better at what they do. I think we can all agree that firms like Goulet Pens and Twsbi lead the way when it comes to social media, and it’s telling that they don’t regard any channel as a one-way street. They actively engage with their users, not just promoting their products but actually build relationships.
Right now, I think most brands don’t feel like it’s important for them to have a strong online presence — establishing and maintaining a social media presence requires a lot of resources and it’s not worth investing those resources without some kind of return. And as long as a lot of their business is still being conducted through traditional channels, brick-and-mortar stores, then they don’t see much return. But it certainly seems obvious that sales are migrating online (even if those retailers still operate B&M stores) and brands will eventually need to have some presence.
Delaying might seem like a way to avoid having to make an expensive investment until it’s really necessary (which sometimes seems like the main way brands operate) but it also means delaying the learning curve. Social media isn’t something where you can just hire a staff or a couple of gurus and have an effective operation in a few weeks. You need time to build up an audience and get to know them, their expectations and preferences. You also need to make mistakes and learn from them. Delaying the investment means delaying the learning curve. Any manager considering an investment in this needs to ask themselves: would I rather make mistakes learning the ropes when 20% of my business is online, or should I wait until it’s 60% of my business?
Unlike a lot of the smaller brands, Montblanc has the resources to develop an effective social media operation and, perhaps more importantly, they also have an increasingly important need to reach those buyers. Not only do they need to start thinking seriously about how they can be effective in an online world, they need to figure out which of their current behaviours alienate those buyers and are ineffective at best and utterly stupid at worst.
So there you have it: my full read on why I think that censorship was a pretty stupid thing for Montblanc to have requested and an even stupider thing for FPN — which still calls itself the “number one and truly independent” (sic) FP site — to have enacted. My best guess is that this wasn’t really a deliberate action by Montblanc, but more likely the actions of a marketing manager who saw his or her marketing plan undermined by leaks and tried to contain it, without thinking of the wider implications. Which almost makes it understandable, though it continues to be an mind-numbingly stupid act.
Finally, you might have noticed that I’m not quite as feisty in this post as the first part. While this is an important topic, it’s also quite draining: most of my posts attract maybe 10-20 responses (either comments or emails) while this one had more than 100 comments on reddit alone. There were more in comments, emails, tweets, and the like, and I’ve been surprised at how much time and energy it takes just to keep up with the discussions. And just today, Brian Goulet has discussed things on his Q&A and it'll also be addressed in the new ep of Dowdy and the Doctor. My hope was to kick off a discussion about right and wrong, transparency and censorship, and I certainly think that the community went above and beyond in that, discussing it so far and wide that I couldn't even keep up with everything being said. Mission accomplished!
But before I sign off, there’s one last thing…
Below is a bunch of the products Montblanc will be launching over the course of this year. A lot of the information came from FPN and some of it came from people who contacted me after the first post on this issue. The confirmed products are those where some images or promotional materials have escaped into the wild or I've had corroboration from official sources.
I told MB on Monday that I planned to publish their upcoming product information. Unexpectedly, they didn’t raise any objections at all. Wim and the guys at FPN must be thrilled that they copped a bucketload of criticism and scorn for something which MB couldn't even be bothered addressing elsewhere.
- Montblanc Rouge et Noir (110th anniversary pen). A long, slim Simplo-style pen with a piston filler and snake clip available in black resin, coral resin, black hard rubber, and titanium options. The coral version looks like the lovechild of the Hemingway and Christie pens, with the former’s colours and the latter’s clip. The resin models are quite reasonably priced (by Montblanc standards) and come in under $1000. The rubber is nice but its 2-3x more expensive. The titanium version is $30,000, which means it’s unlikely to be purchased by anyone who spends much time on FPN (unless they’re running the site). April launch.
- 2016 Writers Edition: William Shakespeare. White guilloche barrel, octagonal wood cap, a thick band depicting scenes from the plays, a clip featuring the earring that Will supposedly wore, and the nib has a scene from Romeo and Juliet. The special edition model has the colour and style of a Tudor house, which isn’t exactly what I look for in a house, let alone a pen. The limited edition has a red barrel and blue piston knob (cone), looking more like the Globe Theatre, but is also quite gaudy and ornate. Both have the only known version of Shakespeare’s signature, which looks a lot like a seven year old’s crayon scrawl on a kitchen wall. SE $935, LE $3860. August launch.
- Sterling Silver Meisterstuck. It’s a 146 size and a piston filler but the cap and barrel is hammered silver. Looks like the body of the Tolstoy SE and the thing is probably damned heavy. They decided to call it ‘Martele’, which is apparently the French word for hammered. I find that a bit poncey but I suppose just calling the pen ‘hammered Meisterstuck’ wouldn’t have been terribly appealing. No release date or price but I’m guessing it won’t be cheap. You could say buying one will mean your wallet will get martele-d.
- Ultra Black Meisterstuck. Your usual 146 (Legrand) and 144 (Classique) pens but with a matte finish, ruthenium trim and ruthenium-plated nib — even the piston knob is a dark metal (presumably ruthenium-plated). I think someone said it was like Montblanc were jumping on the stealth pens train and it’s hard to disagree. Personally I prefer it when MB do their own thing rather than following the trends set by other brands. Not sure when this one is being launched, but pre-orders are being taken so probably soon.
- Steel Montblanc M. Not much information on this, but I suppose the name gives it away. It would be nice if this one had a better filling system than the one on last year’s M — short international cartridges only? Get outta here. No release date but I’m guessing it will be about a year after the M was released, putting it around August/September.
- Starwalker Ceramics. Not sure when this will be released but it’s black, it’s metal, and it’s cartridge only. But it features a ‘dynamic pattern!’ so, you know, save your money and buy something else.
- Inks: Jazz Blue (October), Velvet Red, Lucky Orange (December). A fourth colour was shared on FPN but I wasn’t able to catch it before the post was censored.
- 2016 Patron of the Arts: Peggy Guggenheim. Other than being a ‘patron of the art’, I’m not really sure who Guggenheim is or why they even have a series of pens celebrating art funders than the art or artists themselves. No details, release date, or price but you can bet it’ll follow the standard PoA style and be both gaudy and expensive.
- There were some posts about a Miles Davis pen that contained a few specific details about the design and seemed quite credible. Not sure if this would be the 2016 Great Characters pen (due in November/December) or a Donation pen (following Brahms, Strauss, etc.)
- Another post suggested that a Wassily Kandinsky pen would be available this year. This would also seem like a contender for the 2016 Great Characters but there wasn’t much in the way of detail. I rather like Kandinsky’s early work, so I’m sure MB will end up choosing some horrible piece of his later work as the theme for this one.