Was the bauhaus a hit or a miss?

One of the few nice things about being (mildly) sick is that I have the opportunity to get through a backlog of reading, including pen blogs. That means finally getting to see some reviews and commentary on the Lamy 2000 Bauhaus. I’ll admit that I was tempted but the price and limited availability gave me pause, then work got busy and I missed the whole thing. Nonetheless, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about the Bauhaus.

From what I’ve read online, it seems like Lamy has handled this one a whole lot better than the Black Amber model a few years back — the colour seems to have been well-received and many retailers didn’t bother listing the pen online as they sold out from pre-orders alone. 

On the other hand, it’s also obvious that Lamy’s execution still isn’t perfect. The Bauhaus had a release of 1,919 units priced at US$500 a pop and, even at this relatively high price, it seems there were plenty of Lamy fans who weren’t able to secure a purchase. To an economist, this outcome suggests either the price or quantity was too low. 

It’s interesting to compare with the Black Amber release, which had 5,000 units at $590. It looks like Lamy have reacted to that experience by improving the design of LEs, reducing the size of the production run, and dropping the price. But rather than finding the sweet spot where price and quantity are balanced, maybe they’ve gone too far in the other direction.

Profit maximisation and brand identity

The popular view of businesses is that they are out there to maximise their profits and, well, there’s a good reason why people have that view. But one of the main differences between successful and stagnant businesses is how they do that: stagnant businesses opportunistically try to suck money out of everything they can. Successful businesses generally have a more strategic approach where, if the strategy and execution are sound, they will be profitable and sustainable. Being strategic means saying no to opportunities which might be lucrative but don’t align with the firm’s mission, values, or resources. 

For example, a company like Twsbi has a pretty clear focus — fun, good quality pens at low prices — and their whole operation is built around that. They might see a gap in the market for, say, a super-premium demonstrator with precious metals and realise they could make out like bandits from selling that. The question is should they pursue that opportunity?

While that project could maximise profitability (at least in the short run), it really doesn’t align with their focus, their expertise, their resources, their brand identity, or any other part of their business. And pouring limited resources into a project like that could even harm their core business. So a business with a strategic focus would say no. 

The Gentleman Stationer had a bit of commentary on Lamy’s special and limited editions where he made the point that it’s a bit inconsistent to have a stream of unlimited special editions and then an ultra-limited release.* On Twitter, Ionsomnia made a related point:

It just feels very antithetical to their brand. What's the point of gatekeeping when you make pens for the masses?

Now, Lamy might feel a little singled out here. They might wonder why they’re being slammed while brands like Pelikan and Montblanc go nuts with the LEs, at prices far above the Bauhaus, without the same kind of criticism. 

I think the difference here is one of brand identity. A company’s branding — the sum of all customer experiences with a company — creates some anchors and expectations in the minds of buyers. We’ve probably all had the experience of being a regular customer somewhere only for the business to take a sudden turn: deciding to go upmarket, cutting back on service standards, or moving into a different space. That experience has some emotional weight to it — some measure of disappointment or frustration — because the business formed expectations and then failed to meet those expectations.

I think that Gentleman Stationer and Ionsomnia make the point is that Lamy have created expectations about who they are and the products they sell. More than most brands, you know exactly what you are getting with a Lamy. More than anything else, I would say that Lamy is defined by their accessibility: even here in the fountain pen desert that is Australia, I still see Lamy pens for sale on a fairly regular basis. They are everywhere and they are affordable. 

Yet the Bauhaus violates that expectation of accessibility by being exclusive in quantity and in pricing. This exclusivity doesn’t align with what Lamy does with the rest of their business. It doesn’t fit with who we know them to be.

And, as a celebration of Lamy’s heritage and the 50th anniversary of the 2000, I feel like this one is a failure on some level. Which is a real shame because a year-long run of blue Lamy 2000s, maybe priced in the middle of the standard 2000 and the Bauhaus price, could have been something really special.

* Also, I can’t help but point out that this isn’t an example of artificial scarcity. Sure, the scarcity is manufactured but that doesn’t make it any less real!