Early on in this blog, I put together a taxonomy of FP brands, which sought to distinguish which companies and products were standing out. Six months later, I published an update and intended to make this an annual feature. Somehow, the 2016 update was missed but today we have the 2017 update.
Of course, brands can stand out in lots of ways, good and bad. This list is interested in their competitive standing: the quality and innovativeness of their products, along with the price they are charging. There’s more background available here but I’ll point out this can be a subjective topic. I’ve tried to take a broad perspective and put aside my own tastes, but you might feel differently. Feel free to leave a comment if you think a particular brand has been overrated or underrated.
In the last update, Twsbi was the only disruptive brand in our industry. Unfortunately, I don’t think any brands have distinguished themselves in the last two years. Certainly, there has been innovation and new developments, but disruption also requires an aggressive pricing strategy that reshapes the market. Hopefully, we’ll see more disruption in the next year than the previous one.
One of the surprises of the last year has been the emergence of Aurora as a more visible brand. Part of this is because they have put a lot of effort into developing their flexible nib and rolling it out in a series of limited edition pens over the course of 2017. If you follow the popular blogs and social media accounts, these pens have been everywhere (and credit to the marketers for this success). But it’s telling that Aurora is getting a lot less traction from everyday users: the people who actually have to pay for the pens they use. Aurora have certainly done well to get into their present position, but it’s going to take a lot of work to convert that into sales and enduring popular appeal. If they can pull that off, they may well dislodge Visconti as the premier Italian pen brand.
Pelikan has been one of the most creative brands over the last two years, consistently delivering new designs that have captured the community’s attention. I’m thinking particularly of the M120 Green-Black, M400 Tortoiseshell, M800 Grand Place, M800 Renaissance Brown, M800 Royal Gold, M805 VIbrant Blue, and M1000 Raden Sunrise. On top of this, the annual Pelikan Hubs event is becoming a fixture on the FP calendar and is a real success for their marketing team. I’ve been told to expect some really special things from Pelikan next year and I’m immensely curious about whether they can sustain their current pace and creativity – and whether this extends to a new pen model.
As much as I like Twsbi and the way they operate, there’s not been a lot of innovation coming out of Taiwan over these last two years, and I don’t think the company can still be described as disruptive. Apart from some special edition colours, their product lineup hasn’t changed since the launch of the Eco and their Facebook page – once a stream of products undergoing development – hasn’t teased us with anything new this year. Hopefully, they are quietly focussed on bringing out some new delights and can reclaim their mantle as the most innovative pen brand in the market.
In the original Taxonomy post, Diplomat languished in the uncompetitive category and I don’t think anybody expected them to jump into the limelight. But the zeppelin-styled Aero caught people’s attention and managed to build awareness of the brand and respect for their quality steel nibs. This has brought them into contention as a competitive brand but, so far, they haven’t capitalised on the Aero’s success. There is definitely an opportunity for them, hopefully one which they are able to capture before they slip back.
Last time, I reluctantly placed Faber-Castell (together with Graf von Faber-Castell, their upmarket sibling) in the competitive category even though I felt they were poised for big things. Two years later, I have to admit that they haven’t done much: a few new colours have been released but nothing spectacular, and no new models. While FC might have the best design aesthetic in the market, they haven’t been able to leverage this into creating innovative products that consistently excite and delight the community. It’s almost like all the pieces are there and the brand is just waiting for a leader who can make it all happen. I’m still hopeful they can make the leap – and their bold, summer releases are a step in the right direction – but now I’m more sceptical about their ability to deliver.
Back in January, I was excited about Montblanc’s lineup for this year. Last year featured the M and the Rouge et Noir, and there were all sorts of rumours about what we could expect in 2017. Unfortunately, most of their releases have fallen well short of the hype: the Unicef range and the new Rouge et Noir colours (platinum and brown) haven’t generated much excitement and the much-anticipated Saint-Exupery Writers Edition ink has proven far more interesting than the pens. Unfortunately, the upcoming Beatles release looks likely to share the same fate. Hopefully, 2018 will be a better vintage than 2017.
If this list had been updated a year ago, Visconti would have easily retained their position in the innovative category. They were bringing out products like the Dark Age Homo Sapiens, Florentine Hills, and London Fog, which created a lot of anticipation and excitement beyond their usual enthusiasts. In comparison, the last 12 months have been pretty underwhelming: a green model was added to the Divina line, the Chiantishire demonstrator, the Medici, and the Elegance. The Elegance seems emblematic of the brand today: it is a basic, plain product that comes with a hefty price-tag. It seems that the old quality control issues seem to be improving, but the new leadership team is going to have to do a lot more than put out reliable products if they want to stay in contention.
When news came out that Cross were going to use Sailor nibs, there was a lot of excitement and hope that the company was embarking on real change. That lifted them into the competitive category, but it doesn’t seem to have led to any further developments. My worry is that Cross have drifted back to resting on their laurels.
Can you believe these guys aren’t dead yet? They’ve brought out a couple of new models in the last year and they’re somehow uglier than the old ones. I’ve also heard that old mate is pulling the same ‘revival’ with a golf club brand now. I wonder how long until golf bloggers begin enjoying his ‘pleasant’ phone calls.
I’ll have more to say on Lamy’s anniversary disaster in a later post, but they haven’t put out a genuinely exciting new product in some years. I wonder if they still have the capability and what needs to happen for them to jump back into the limelight.
Over the past year, Parker have revamped their entire product range and it generated plenty of excitement. The new designs are certainly nicer but, in essence, they are the same basic converter/cartridge pens as before – with the same drawback that they are still considerably expensive relative to the competition.
Some might quibble and say that Delta hasn’t actually kicked the bucket just yet, but it’s only a matter of time. They’ve been circling the drain for ages and their lifeline – manufacturing low-quality, cut-rate products for the Italian retailer Marte Modena, some of which were suspiciously similar to designs from the major German brands – has been cut off, and I’ve heard regional distributors are no longer able to get stock or send items for repair. Not long ago, Delta’s loss would be a painful hit for the community but, after the things they've pulled in the last year, I won’t be shedding any tears.
Easily the worst thing to happen to the community in the last two years was the loss of Omas. I discussed their demise in a lengthy post last year. At least in my opinion, nobody has come to fill their shoes (including ASC, who have shown potential but have a long way to go before they’re an established brand, let alone a contender).