GQ (South Africa) September 2001
It’s in the final scene of Bridget Jones’s Diary. Where the smokin’, drinkin’, swearin’ real-life heroine finally gets together with the stuffy and traditional Mark Darcy. It’s cold and she’s standing there in the snow in her skimpy ‘I want sex’ tiger-print knickers. He’s all suited up and looking a bit bemused after just coming out of a shop. So there they are, deciding whether to lock tongues, and he hands her a present – a Montblanc diary.
Now you won’t have been too interested in this while watching the film because it was near the end and you’ll have been waiting for the kissing bit, but the gift was symbolic not only for the movie but also for what is happening at Montblanc itself.In the movie it’s the token which brings together two very different characters (and opens the door to a sequel).In Montblanc’s Hamburg HQ (no, it’s not a Swiss company) the 96-year-old makers of quality pens also looking to combine the qualities of tradition (Mark Darcy) with a modern twist of fun (that’ll be Bridget) as it evolves into a fully fledged luxury goods company.
As CEO Norbert Platt says, ‘We have run a tight ship in recent years in making this brand a bear in terms of its power and respect. I think now we can let the bear dance a bit.’And the latest step to making this bear shake his thing is the launch of the men’s fragrance Presence, which arrived in South Africa in July (it was the best selling male fragrance in Europe in June). The fragrance is significant because the brand is taking a step outside the boardroom, and moving along from pens, paper, breifcases and cufflinks. It may not be the Full Bridget just yet but at least Darcy is starting tap his feet to the music.So have they succeeded?
Well, the fragrance is masculine, powerful and elegant (in line with existing characteristics) but it also adds a spark of sex. Just take a look at the woman featured in the adverts…The product is also significant because it is a rare licence agreement (with Cosmopolitan Cosmetics). In general Montblanc makes its own products because as Platt says ‘It is truth towards your brand. The customer complains and some other brands simply say “we do not make it”’.
Despite agreeing that the fragrance is a big move Platt still believes it is firmly a Montblanc product because of the message it sends out.‘We argued about the name. The licensee wanted to call it Mont Blanc Homme but what does it stand for? We needed a name that stands for what our customer wants to be. And people want to come into a room and have an aura. Which is why we called it Presence. It’s what the brand represents.’
So can the brand become more important than the product then?‘Yes. It is the carrier of the message and the carrier of a value system.’It’s something Naomi Klein’s recognises in her book No Logo (Flamingo) ‘The effect…of advanced branding is to nudge the hosting culture into the background and make the brand the star. And why shouldn’t it be? If brands are not products but ideas, attitudes, values and expriences, why can’t they be the culture too?’
It’s fair to say Montblanc has become a part of our culture? After years of producing top-notch pens who doesn’t associate them with intelligence, learning and self-expression? Pick up one of their pens or pencils and, you too my boy can be all these things.
Platt, of course, knows more than anyone that the famous white star which has been the company’s symbol from (almost) the beginning, offers more than just a way to put ink onto a piece of paper, however, smooth and comfortable the action may be. ‘Why do customers buy the key product? Not for functional reasons. You can buy a Bic for a couple of rands and still draw lines. It’s for expression – love, appreciation, gratitude, fidelity, power.’
Platt joined Montblanc in 1987 after 15 years with Rollei in both Singapore and Germany and was at the head as the company forged ahead with diversification. First it was with ‘safe’ associated products like paper and diaries, but watches, cufflinks and wallets followed, even more fashion-led products such as sunglasses and women’s bags.So is fragrance the first step into the fashion world? After all, it’s common knowledge that fragrance is the financial cornerstone of many a fashion label so why not the launch pad of a new one?
Apparently these are not the plans in Platt’s management generation.‘We would not become an extremely fashionable couture label. We would not get into fashion in the next five, not even ten years. We could do classic, stylish masculine lines, but not female. Of course we have had requests for licences. We could do that tomorrow. I don’t rule out making a few ties but the pillar of our communication is hard goods.’
Anyway, to a degree Montblanc are already in the fashion world through their accessories, and recent growth – leather goods were up 50 per cent last year and watches 40 per cent, albeit off a small base – show they are not afraid to encroach into other areas aggressively. But the steady careful approach built up over nearly a century appears to still be the cornerstone.‘We are the Lion King in our jungle,’ Platt says, ‘but when you move outside of your part of the jungle you have to be careful because there are other animals.’So not scraps between Montblanc and the king’s of the fashion jungle to look forward to then.
But there is one product that reveals Platt is serious about putting a smile onto that famous whitestar. It’s a 5.5 x 4.5cm, leather folder (R380) to hold those precious Post-It notes you carry around.Now all we need to do is wait for Bridget Jones II: the Montblanc Diary.