Betrayed by the brand: How Moleskine made enemies of the people who loved it most

These days, passionate brand advocates are hard won and easily lost. One of my favorite brands is learning this lesson right now.

For writers, designers, or anyone in a creative field, notebooks are your place to record inspiration and craft ideas. I’m rarely without one. My notebook collecting has bordered on the obsessive—and many of my notebooks are made by Moleskine.

Moleskine notebooks have long been a favorite tool for designers. I can’t imagine an audience that is more important and influential to their brand strategy. Which is why I was so disappointed to see Moleskine launch a contest to crowdsource a logo project.

As many designers will tell you, crowdsourcing is a seriously contentious term for the design community. Rather than hiring a professional designer and paying them for their work, a company asks many to do the work, rewards one winner with a token prize, and keeps all of the submissions to use as they wish. Since the designers aren’t able to work with the company to understand the business or their goals, they have to throw out the design equivalent of a hail mary.

These contests devalue the role of the designer and the client-designer relationship. When a company runs a contest like this, it sends a message that a brand is little more than a logo, and a logo is little more than an image and type that can be designed by anyone regardless of their level of knowledge of you and your brand.

Design organizations like AIGA have been very vocal against these contests for this reason. Recently the Obama campaign decided to crowdsource a poster contest—for its support of jobs creation, of all things. Here was AIGA’s response.

One glance at Moleskine’s Facebook page will tell you what their fans think of their contest.

Moleskine certainly isn’t the only organization to try to launch a design project as a contest. But the reason Moleskine has received such an incredible backlash is because we’re so passionate about their brand. We’re not just consumers of these products—in a way, they’re part of who we are. It’s our brand, too.

Which means this is more than just a case of a brand gone bad, it’s a betrayal.

Moleskine could certainly be considered what my colleague Chris Grams would call an Ad-Free Brand. In fact, before this incident, I think they could have been a great example in his book. Their brand was crafted around an irresistible story of artists and writers like Van Gogh and Hemingway creating with notebooks just like these.

Moleskine owes much of its success to a passionate creative community who have carried their notebooks into coffeeshops and client meetings—helping them share the story of the brand. Now they’re sharing a different story.

The events that have followed in the past few days are a case study for anyone building a brand and a community.

So what should Moleskine have done differently, and what can they do to fix it now?

1. Pay attention to your most passionate audience.

They are your most frequent customers, your most enthusiastic advertisers, your strongest advocates, and if you screw up—your worst enemies. They are the reason you’re in business. Take the time to engage with your community and understand what they’re passionate about.

Moleskine clearly made a mistake not knowing how the design community would feel about a crowdsourced contest. It’s also clear by looking at Facebook and Twitter from the last few days, Moleskine has no shortage of people in their community who care and would be willing to offer them advice. One guy even offered free brand consulting and left his phone number.

2. When you make a mistake, listen and engage.

When your most passionate and profitable audience is angry, you need to listen. And show you’re listening. This is not the time to be defensive, as was Moleskine’s first response on Facebook. It was along the lines of “Other companies are doing this.” and “You’re free not to enter.” The tone was all wrong. Of course this only fanned the flames.

Create a dialogue instead. The word “dialogue” comes from the Greek words dia or “through,” and logos, or “meaning.” Now would be a good time to make some.

This doesn’t mean you have to surrender your brand to mob rule. But you do have to engage in the conversation and show you’re listening. Even if you can’t make everyone happy, you can still help make things right.

3. Work with your community to correct the problem—and while the conversation is still happening.

Here’s where Moleskine failed again. Their second response was certainly more apologetic, but it didn’t correct the problem or show a true understanding of the issue. In the response, Moleskine said they would change one of the contest rules so the company wouldn’t retain the rights to the non-winning entries.

Most designers would still consider it spec since only one designer is rewarded for their work. It doesn’t solve the problem of devaluing the role of design or the designer.

Even now, it’s still not too late. The conversation is still active. Some tend to think when the passionate voices go silent, it means they’ve accepted your decision—when really it just means they’ve given up on you.

That hasn’t happened yet. I hope it won’t. I need a new notebook.

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