Monday, 2 March 2015

Launching a new brand

How to do it - those Kaweco Sports!
It's been interesting to see a few new launches recently in the fountain pen world. Although the death of the fountain pen has often been announced (from the 1940s onwards!) and some of the old stalwarts have fallen by the wayside, that hasn't stopped new rivals entering the market.

Most recently, the Esterbrook name has been revived - not particularly successfully as far as the collecting community is concerned, since lovers of the vintage Esterbrook designs don't see the new pens as looking anything like the Esterbrook they love. It's actually a pity that this particular brand was chosen by Harpen to relaunch, because the Esterbrook J is absolutely iconic, with its shiny, shimmering celluloid and its bright colours.

Les Plumes de l'ange in Belgium offers nice looking pens, though nothing new; Manu Propria, relatively recently established by watchmaker Martin Pauli, offers fine urushi hand-made pens (I'm a huge fan of his Facebook posts - featuring not only his own work, but exhibitions of suiseki and bonsai). Then there are the various Kickstarter launches, including Karas Kustoms. There are also individual makers like Pierre Miller of Desiderata.

I'm not going to talk about the top of the market. I think different factors are at play there. But for a mid-market pen, say in the £20-80 range, what are the factors making for success?

  • Identity. One of the difficulties with the new Esterbrooks is that frankly they don't have that strong a character. They could quite easily sit among a collection of Monteverdes or perhaps Jinhaos and you wouldn't spot the difference. On the other hand, Karas Kustoms has a very strong branding - massive metal pens, angular, featuring an engineering-heavy design that is functional and butch. Desiderata - very simple shapes, in rich materials, particularly wood: again very recognisable.
  •  Offer me some proper functionality. Pierre has evolved his pens to address what everyone inside the fountain pen community knows is a yawning gap - the modern flex pen. That's the same idea as Noodler's with the Ahab, a pen that conquered copperplate writers' hearts (or at least some of them). Offer me a range of nibs including italic options, stubs, fine (TWSBI is good at this). Don't (and Esterbrook, this is you!) offer me a medium nib and no choice.
  • Don't be afraid of controversy! Noodlers and TWSBI are loved and hated in equal measure.But it's very clear what they stand for: user-tweakable pens, at a certain price point, with a certain style. (Incidentally, I wonder whether Noodlers' move up-market is the right way to go: the Konrad and Neponset are a lot more expensive than the Ahab and Creaper, and while Neponset does offer a music nib for quite a bit less than Platinum or Sailor, it's no longer cheap.) A successful brand is more likely to result if you strike out for a particular idea of what a pen should be - even if not everyone agrees with you.
  • Target your market. Yes, Cross and Parker do well out of the corporate market and stationery shops. If you're a new fountain pen brand you won't be selling into those markets. If you're lucky you'll get distributed via Goulet Pens, Couronne du Comte, and other specialised retailers, or you'll be going through Etsy, Kickstarter, or your own online contacts (including FPN classifieds). Which means you're marketing to people who know how much Jinhao they can get for twenty quid, who want flex, or Japanese extra fine, or stubs, who want to know whether they can swap the nibs, who want fun filling systems or at least know the difference between vac-fillers and squeeze converters. You're not in a mass market any more. TWSBI goes one further, using social media to get its target market to comment on prototypes and make suggestions. Get your potential customers to design your pens, and they might even buy one or two.
  • Give me modularity or give me death... If all you're offering me is one pen, then another pen, you have no advantage when I'm looking at my next purchase. If, on the other hand, you can offer me extra nibs, range extensions, swappable units... you might be on to a winner. 
  • ... or give me customisation. Of course, you can do both at the same time - a pen with nib options, clip options, extra this and that and the other. It's amazing that there are no options at all on some quite expensive pens, while I can buy a $40 pen from India and be asked what nib, what filling system, and what clip (or clipless) I'd like. 
There's my ha'porth on new product launches, for what it's worth. Other bloggers have other insights: