The Things That Define Us (Words and Work)

Genuinely Inauthentic

Since the recent recession, luxury goods companies have remained remarkably resilient, and have recovered at an astonishing rate compared to other sectors of the marketplace.  The top performers have been the brands that effuse the semblance of quality with a story of heritage.  Combining the ideal of the (sometimes) handcrafted object with a acknowledged lineage, the finest luxury goods producers are able to develop our desire to own, and our eagerness to spend, even in the most difficult of economies. 

It is this combination of craftsmanship (or design), and lineage (or pedigree) that creates authenticity.  It is the authentic good that survived the recession and flourished post-recession.  Luxury companies succeeded, because authenticity authorizes a premium price tag, and provides the shopper with emotional insurance against buyer’s remorse.  It offers a story the consumer can tell herself, as well as her social network.  In the world of consumer products, it’s better than one hundred thousand Instagram followers.    Authenticity is not an entirely new selling tool, of course.  Savvy marketers leveraged the combined face of quality and heritage for years.  Many of the European (and some American) luxury goods manufacturers are able to reasonably relate a true story for one or both guiding characteristics.  They charge their clients for the higher cost of manufacturing, and with the added margin, have stayed afloat for decades or centuries.  But what if you are a new company?  Or what if you want to reach a wider audience (e.g. anyone who cannot afford a $200 necktie)?  In these cases, something has to give, and a story must be crafted.    

Truthfully, the consumer wants to believe the tale.  We don’t care how accurate the story may be, as long as it is widely disseminated.  We want the marketers to succeed – not just with us, but also with everyone around us.  Cognitive dissonance then conveniently allows all of us to move forward.  We may ‘know’ that a$70 jean jacket can’t be made in America, but the company’s wild-west heritage allows us to see it as an all-American product.  And we ‘know’ Detroit has no historical-knowledge on how to produce luxury watches, but we’re willing to pay a premium for the story of Detroit, itself. 

As a further example, David Sax has detailed the rise and popularity of Moleskine notebooks for The New Yorker, and more recently in his book, “The Revenge of Analog.”  He tells of the stationary company’s unlikely resilience and expansion in spite of, and because of, our digital society.  As a favorite tool of Silicon Valley CEOs, Brooklyn authors, and Milanese fashion designers, the little notebooks have become unlikely commercial victors.  Much of Mr. Sax’s reporting relays our continued and renewed desire for the physical object in our increasingly online lives.  But as spiral-bound notebook can be purchased at your local drug store for under a dollar, Moleskin’s popularity goes beyond its physical function.  And while a $10 product may not be considered a luxury price, it is undeniably a premium. 

Moleskine has built its products’ success on two overlaid stories: their design (e.g. perceived quality) and their historic pedigree.  Of course, both are not entirely genuine. 

The small notebooks’ design is sleek, simple, and comfortable in hand.  In many ways they resemble early iPods in their desire to be touched.  But there are many notebooks on the market that could say the same.  In fact, Modo & Modo, Moleskine’s original producer, makes many such notebooks.  And who needs another black foreign-manufactured notebook, lying around, half-filled?

What the common notebook needed was a much bigger legend.  It needed to be a story that could be told and re-told, and that could then insert itself in the user’s own narrative.   It would bring a feeling of quality, and a feeling of lineage. 

Maria Sebregondi pitched the idea of these notebooks, and their story to her employer, Modo & Modo in 1997 (sorry, not 1897).  She told the story of the ‘famous’ notebooks one “used to find in Paris.”  Not that she was looking for these books herself, really it was Bruce Chatwin who mentioned them in his book The Songlines.  And while that might have been interesting to Ms. Sebregondi, it certainly wouldn’t be international legend..  But after looking into these “carnets moleskines” she found that Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, and Picasso might have used similar books.  Now she was onto something!   What writer doesn’t want to use Hemingway’s notebook?  And what artist would refuse a blank notebook of van Gogh or Picasso?  And for the rest of us, well, perhaps shopping list is a bit more creative when bound up in such a storied book. 

But as The New York Times reported back in 2004:

"It's an exaggeration," conceded Francesco Franceschi, who runs Modo & Modo's marketing department. "It's marketing, not science. It's not the absolute truth."

Conveniently, the legend also provides an assumed connection to being produced in France.  After all, this is where Mr. Chatwin reported purchasing the books, originally.  And, the name is French, right?  Or perhaps, we tell ourselves, they’re now made in Milan (where the company is based).  But, at $10, this is just not viable.    They primarily made in “East and South-East Asia,” with parts of each coming from around the globe – like most of today’s mass-produced products. 

More importantly, we don’t really care.  We just want the detailed story delivered to us consistently, and repeatedly – because we believe their story could be our story (with each new grocery list).  It allows us to take part in a tale of genuine artistry and craftsmanship.  The details of authenticity are not as important as the clarity of the narrative. 

Honestly, I love Moleskine notebooks.  I feel good writing in them.  My most mundane notes seem more important.  I am thankful to Ms. Sebregondi for this.  Sometimes, the myth of authenticity is as good as the genuine article.