Luxury Branding

Moleskine Limbers up as a Lifestyle Brand

BY Vanessa De Nardi

Brand extensions have become a tried and tested method of leveraging brand equity to sell new products, services and experiences. However, the key to effective brand stretch is to ensure that new ventures are not only congruent with the mother brand but are truly independent children of the parent, not merely ugly stepsisters of existing lines.

In the context of an innovation exercise, a brand should be considered as a ‘generative idea’, which may be encapsulated in different forms – a vision, purpose and guiding values, say, or a promise and beliefs. However they are codified, generative ideas demonstrate the potential to be activated through a deep and varied portfolio of products and services, which are artefacts of the idea. Although these expressions may come and go as demand shifts and markets evolve, the idea itself, which is bigger than any product or service by which the brand is presently known, endures.

I consider myself a member of Moleskine’s creative class target market having been a loyal customer since my uni days. My interest was piqued, therefore, when the luxury stationer opened a stand-alone café, signalling its intention to move beyond black notebooks, the primary product artefact by which its brand is recognised.

The first Moleskine Café is located on the Corso Garibaldi in Milan and, according to the company’s press release, offers an environment “designed to deliver a mix of energising and soothing experiences, to boost creativity and spur deep conversations and thoughts”.

Founded in 1997, to resurrect the journals in which the sketches and muses of artists and writers such as Picasso, Matisse and Hemingway were immortalised, Moleskine is a young brand with access to a rich history. Known for its high quality products, it’s no surprise that the brand has become a favourite of creative types worldwide and as café culture has long been associated with creative endeavours, this feels like a natural diversification.

At the new venture’s launch, Arrigo Berni, Moleskine’s CEO, outlined the rationale: “The founders’ vision from the beginning was to leverage the incredible story behind Moleskine. Being associated with great artists and thinkers identifies the brand with a certain lifestyle and values: culture, memory, and exploration. The café is a way for us to provide a physical experience of the intangible dimension of the lifestyle brand we’ve been defining.”

Furthermore, we are told that the new retail format functions flexibly as a hybrid café, art gallery, store and library, a contemporary space that reimagines the concept of Parisian ‘café littéraire’.

Without doubt, the brand’s move into the experience economy is strategically sound and clearly signals Moleskine’s desire to position itself as a lifestyle vs. a product brand for the creative class. Once I’d seen the execution, however, my initial excitement was quelled because a basic principle of successful brand extension appears to have been ignored and Moleskine seems to have missed a golden opportunity to extend its franchise fundamentally.

At Luxury Branding, we sometimes find a sun and planets metaphor useful for modelling true brand extension. At the centre of the brand universe is the sun (our generative idea). The sun provides energy and enables life on the surrounding planets (the branded artefacts of the idea – its current commercial manifestations). While these planets are separate and distinct from one another, creating their own ecosystems and displaying their own peculiar forms and characteristics, they are held in the orbit of a common sun and benefit equally from a single source of energy.

When constructing a brand extension, it is vital to return to this point of origin and from it to derive new and original artefacts of the generative idea as opposed to borrowing equities from the current expressions. The objective must be to create standalone sibling planets not breakaways from existing matter.


The Moleskine Café, disappointingly looks and feels too much like a 3-D embodiment of the iconic notebook – a blank bi-dimensional space with “clean, contemporary interiors and a colour palette of neutral colours”. This is a café derived from the notebook rather than from the generative idea that gave rise to the products.

And as a café, surely everything is too conventional? Where’s the promised “creativity”, “culture” and sense of “exploration”? This is a conventional contemporary food and beverage outlet cum brand store. Such as they are, the branding elements – both graphics and interiors – are clearly designed to cue the minimalist design of the notebooks. But at the risk of stating the obvious, a café is not a notebook so why would its design conform so slavishly to that of an existing and entirely different product?

By drawing so heavily on a familiar artefact of the brand for inspiration rather than returning to the original energy source, the new concept doesn’t have an identity or planetary ecosystem of its own and fails to deliver a differentiated or ownable experience. In my opinion, the result is simply too generic and its association with brand Moleskine is at best superficial.

A largely positive review on TripAdvisor illustrates my point: “Coffee shop that meets 21st century requirements. Clean, comfortable, modern interior – easy to connect, sufficient wireless connection – helpful, smiling staff – clean, proper toilets with paper towels instead of air driers – the most important!!! All seats (not all tables) are equipped with USB and 220V connections.”

This customer rates the Moleskine Café 5/5 on all the ‘hygiene’ factors and their comments demonstrate that the café probably even over delivers on the basics, but so what? There are 1000s of Starbucks and local chains that can do the same. Tellingly, even in this glowing account, there is no mention of the brand, no hint of feeling the presence and power of Moleskine’s generative idea and certainly no mention of that “intangible dimension” about which Arrigo Berni waxes lyrical. Where are the surprising or immersive touchpoints that are going to “spur deep conversations and thoughts”?

Brand extensions are difficult and require strong strategic capabilities to successfully execute.

In 2012, we were faced with a challenge of how to originate a lifestyle and hospitality extension of the world-famous Paramount Pictures. Due to restrictions of the license, we were prevented from drawing on Paramount’s library of films – the most recognisable artefacts of their brand. Instead, we defined a concept that leveraged the essence of Paramount itself by invoking not the studio’s output but rather a creative process that had been honed over its 100-year history. We invited our client and their future guests to imagine luxury hospitality that had been ‘produced’ in the same way.

Similarly, when extending brand Armani into its hospitality variant, we drew on Giorgio Armani himself as the literal, living embodiment of the brand’s generative idea, as opposed to cloning any one of the sub-brands from Armani’s diverse stable of apparel and accessory lines. Our sibling concept was expressed in a dual brand platform: “Stay with Armani” for the hotels and “Live with Armani” for the residences.

Most recently, we have been engaged to help extend a global entertainment brand whose role and reputation as a creative producer is without peer but whose own generative idea remains at the service of and wholly subservient to its product artefacts, which are experienced as live performances in fixed and touring venues all over the world. Our challenge was how to harness the brand’s laboratory of creativity to produce a complementary artefact of its generative idea and apply that within the entirely alien world of hospitality. Again, the solution came by avoiding the temptation to exploit any equity or creative assets from the shows for which the brand is already famous and admired. Recognising that these spectacular performances are ultimately the product of an idea, we returned to its source – the company’s incredible global headquarters facility – and built our concept from the source code that resides there.

Moleskine are on to something with their new line of cafés but to better realise their potential, perhaps they should look inwards to their generative idea rather than sideways at their incumbent business as they consider future openings. By tapping deeper into the brand’s core values of culture, memory, and exploration and imagining a bespoke environment that genuinely stimulates creativity, I believe Moleskine could develop an exciting, differentiated and sustainable new expression of their highly romantic and evocative brand.

This article was first published by LuxurySociety on 13 October 2017

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