Culture | The little black book

How Moleskine cashes in on the cultural capital of history

Correction amended Friday, September 17.

Over the years, Moleskine notebooks have gained an almost religious consumer following. On Moleskine’s website, thousands of devoted fans send in pictures of their artworks and write in comments offering their praise for the product. Illinois-based photographer Armand Frasco represents a more extreme brand of fanaticism. In 2004, he started a fan blog for Moleskines, where he explains: “Not all notebooks are created equal. … Moleskine is not my obsession; it’s an attitude.”

At McGill, a similar kind of dedication can be found among staff and students. In the Faculty of Architecture, at least five professors require that their students use Moleskine sketchbooks, while come September the majority of McGill students who buy their writing supplies at Papeterie Nota Bene (3416 Parc) choose Moleskine’s daily planner.

Given the notebooks’ visual simplicity and exorbitant price, this type of devotion among students and creative types (often among the most financially hard-up members of society) is surprising. No-name hardcover notebooks, perfectly suitable for the average scribbler, are available at any drug store for well under ten dollars. Retailing at as much as $23 for the regular large hardcover, Moleskine notebooks are overpriced and lack the tinsel and flare that typically adorn generic products sold at non-generic prices. The notebook’s smooth black cover and wrap around elastic speak to a very simple function: helping you store personal information, ideas, and sketches in an easy and portable fashion.

Why, then, all the brouhaha?
Originally nameless, Moleskine-style notebooks were invented over a century ago by small French bookbinders who supplied the notebooks to various stationary shops in Paris. One supplier’s version in particular became the favourite notebook of English travel writer, Bruce Chatwin, who gave the generic product its legendary name in 1986. By the mid-1980s Chatwin’s small manufacturer had gone out of business, but the brand was appropriated by a publisher in Milan in 1997. Now known as Moleskine SRL, the company markets its notebook to consumers by obsessively boasting its  connection to an impressive literary and artistic history. On the small pamphlet tucked away inside every notebook, the company states that its product is the “heir and successor” to the notebook that once belonged to such renowned creative figures as Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, and Ernest Hemingway. This statement – which makes the implicit claim that if you scribble in a Moleskine notebook, you’ll become a part of this creative legacy – is the main thrust of Moleskine’s extremely successful campaign.

A passage about Hemingway’s  use of the Moleskine featured on the company’s website illustrates this point vividly. By recounting Hemingway’s  reflections in A Moveable Feast on writing in his notebook at a Parisian café, Moleskine lays an explicit claim to Hemingway’s creative talent. In addition to referring to Hemingway’s comment that he “belong[ed] to [his] pencil and notebook” elsewhere on the website, Moleskine emphasizes that Hemingway was hard at work on his most famous novel, The Sun Also Rises, at the same time he wrote A Moveable Feast in Paris. Using these details, Moleskine mounts the far-stretching claim that the notebook itself played an active role in making The Sun Also Rises a great piece of literature. This notion, it later claims, should be “unsurprising” to “those that have come to know and love Moleskine.”

At McGill, those students who have come to know and love Moleskine, self-consciously admit to being influenced by the spellbinding effects of its absurd marketing claims. After intelligently explaining the way Moleskine manipulates the aspirations of its users by advertising its connections to great artists and writers of the past, former McGill grad student, Jacob Siefring, sheepishly admitted that at the time he bought his Moleskine address book, he was endeared by the product’s romantic mythology: “I immediately read that history and was taken in with it. … They market it that way. Spend 20 bucks and you’re like Hemingway.”

Anne Haldane, a U3 science student, also acknowledged the sway of Moleskine’s historical argument: “I got my Moleskine planner because it’s a really specific format…[But] typically I wouldn’t spend 20 bucks on a notebook. … I think Moleskine is definitely for a certain subculture.”

Marketing itself as a product for ambitious students and members of the creative classes, Moleskine’s empire is built on the willing gullibility of its consumers. In 2009, Forbes writer Helen Coster reported that Moleskine was recession-proof. In her article, Coster writes that Moleskine – which Marco Beghin, president of Moleskine America, describes as “strongly profitable” – increased its global sales by 14 per cent in 2008, to reach a total of $210 million. “There’s no price for unlocking creativity,” Behin explained to Coster in the article, “we always positioned the product as a book you write in yourself.”

But describing Moleskine as “a book that you write in yourself” hardly explains the fanatical appeal of the notebooks to young creative types.

“Brands are these interesting and fascinating high-minded people that you want to assign to who you are,” said Lee Chow, the man behind Apple Computer’s marketing campaign in Doug Pray’s award-winning documentary on advertising, Art & Copy (2009). Using Chow’s logic, college students can choose Moleskines as a way to assign Hemingway and Picasso’s successes to themselves – and hence,  perhaps as a way to block out the terrifying possibility that they may not achieve the goals they set out for themselves at age 20. 
At its most basic psychology, then, choosing Moleskines over generic brands can be considered another way of telling ourselves that it’s all going to work out okay. And given the choice between envisioning myself as Picasso or an uncertain and under-accomplished 22-year-old,  I’d definitely choose Picasso.

In an earlier version of this article, Armand Frasco’s name was misspelled as Armand Franco. His blog was started in 2004, not 2009. The Daily regrets the errors.