Moleskine, the Italian maker of notebooks modeled on those used by famous artists, goes public in attempt to both buck -- and embrace -- the digital age.
Moleskine, the Italian maker of notebooks modeled on those used by famous artists, goes public in attempt to both buck -- and embrace -- the digital age. - 

What's the future of a paper company in the digital age? For Italian notebook maker Moleskine, it's bright enough to raise $300 million from investors. Moleskine has built a profitable niche-selling notebooks modeled on the ones used by artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Ernest Hemingway. But once the company's stock begins trading publicly on Wednesday, Moleskine will have to keep growing to keep shareholders happy. It has a plan.

You can see the company’s strategy on display at the Time Warner Center in midtown Manhattan. There, alongside high-end stores like Coach and Hugo Boss, is Moleskine’s first American store. It’s in a kiosk just inside the main entrance of the shopping center. Eager staffers show off Moleskine notebooks in every size and color, not just the best-known black ones. Some have themes: style, music, restaurants, pets.

Recently, Erick Growcock shopped there with his girlfriend. He’s a huge fan of the brand, typically carrying several Moleskine notebooks at a time.

“The colored ones are usually the ones that I put supposedly better ideas into and then the black ones are more just like, notes in general,” Growcock says.

For just over $14, he picks up a green notebook to replace red one he lost. Growcock is an IT professional with an entrepreneurial bent, who likes to jot down ideas for startup businesses.

As a technology professional, he may seem like an unlikely notebook enthusiast. But some of Moleskine’s most enthusiastic fans are digital natives. It’s something Scott Galloway, a marketing professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, has noticed. Galloway has founded companies and meets often with tech execs. He says the older ones brandish iPads, perhaps hoping to look hip.

“The younger digital executives oftentimes show up with a notebook similar to the ones that this company is selling,” Galloway says.

Those notebooks account for nearly all of Moleskine’s $100 million in sales last year. But the company is branching out into digital products, like its app, and notebooks linked with smartphones. Moleskine isn’t selling itself to investors as a stationary company. It wants to be known as a luxury brand.

That’s how Deb Johnson thinks of it. She’s the executive director of the Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation. Her office there has dozens of sketch-filled black Moleskine notebooks shelved above her desk.

“It is something that’s very desirable,” she explains. “It may be a little bit more expensive, but it’s something that becomes more precious, not only because it’s a beautiful object, but because it’s capturing parts of your life.”

That beauty comes with a high price tag compared to a typical notebook sold at an office supply store. The company evokes a rich history of writers and artists who used such notebooks in the past. Namechecks of Hemingway, Van Gogh and Picasso are all over the company’s website and inside many of Moleskine’s products, even though all three men were long dead before the company’s 1997 founding. The company is selling an image, not a piece of stationery.

“The brand should be appealing closer to a customer’s sense of identity rather than looking at this as a functional product where you take a notebook and write something down,” says P.K. Kannan, marketing professor at University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business.

Owning a Moleskine sends the message that you’re the type of person who owns a Moleskine. And it transmits that message with elegant subtlety.

“It’s so consistent in its execution that people know it’s a Moleskine without even seeing the brand name,” says Barbara Kahn, a professor specializing in brand loyalty at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “It’s kind of a status symbol.”

For all its consistent design execution, there’s one thing that’s entirely inconsistent: It’s pronunciation. The company invites people to say it however they like: mole-SKEEN, MOLE-skin, mo-LESS-kuh-nee. And it hopes to hear its name said in a host of global accents, particularly in Asia, as it aims for more growth beyond Europe and North America.

Follow Mark Garrison at @GarrisonMark