From Obsolete Commodity to Status Symbol

Traditional Pencil
Old fashioned wood and graphite pencils were once how we all wrote, but hit their popularity peak decades ago. They are high maintenance – as soon as you start using a sharpened pencil, its point begins to dull and the thickness of the line starts to change. Too sharp a point, and it will break or poke through the writing surface. Too dull, and it’s sloppy-looking. Above all, to maintain a good point you need to have a sharpener at hand. Sharpening itself can be messy, with shavings and graphite dust sometimes escaping the sharpener, which itself needs to be periodically emptied. Technology has delivered far more elegant solutions for those applications where pencil is preferred to pen, notably the great variety of mechanical pencils that maintain a constant point thickness and hold a reservoir of refills.

Can you think of a less likely candidate for a status symbol than a wood pencil?

Old Technology as Luxury

Montblanc Fountain PenA product with less than current technology can sometimes be turned into a status symbol or luxury item. The finest watches don’t use reliable and highly accurate quartz innards; rather, they rely on complex mechanical systems for winding and time-keeping. Their very complexity is a key part of their attraction! (See When Complicated Is Good.) Similarly, liquid-ink fountain pens have been completely replaced for everyday use by newer types, but are still offered by luxury brands like Montblanc. These and other products don’t focus on convenience and reliability; rather, they emphasize tradition, manufacturing quality, appearance, and the timeless nature of their products.

Disposable Status?

The challenge to creating a luxury wood pencil brand is that the product itself is, to all appearances, cheap and disposable. Unlike a watch or fountain pen, a wood pencil is consumed as it is used, and eventually tossed. It doesn’t convey “status” to those around you, either, as it looks like what it is: a wood pencil, more or less indistinguishable from its peers.

The Blackwing Pencil

Blackwing PencilI’m fairly dubious about Klout.com and their influence rating system, but I’ve peeked in now and then and have, very rarely, received a “perk.” The last one was an interesting package from California Cedar Products Company, now maker of the Blackwing pencil. While the product itself was a pair of pencils and a small sharpener, the packaging was an over-the-top attempt to signal exclusivity. A velvet bag, a simulated wax seal, a “limited edition” tag suggesting that I was #93 of 602 lucky recipients, and, best of all, a letter from the CEO.

The letter was written by hand, although reproduced in quantity. (Oddly, the lettering looked more pen-like to my untrained eye, but it was a pleasing reminder of when people actually wrote letters by hand. The nostalgia of a page-long handwritten letter ties in well with the product.) In the letter, Charles “Woodchuck” Berolzheimer invokes the names of past Blackwing users, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Steven Sondheim, and John Steinbeck. He refers to these luminaries as “legendary Blackwing artists,” and tells the recipient, “to create your own legacy of greatness.”

Apparently, there is some truth to the exclusivity of the product, in part because Blackwing pencils were discontinued by their original maker in 1998. Back in 2010, BoingBoing reported that an unused Blackwing “can sell for $40 on eBay.”

One of the sample pencils includes, foil-stamped on the pencil itself, a performance claim made for the original Blackwing, “Half the pressure, twice the speed.”

Appearance Differentiation

Palomino Blackwing EraserIt’s difficult to make a wood pencil look different than other wood pencils, but these had a replaceable rectangular eraser instead of the usual permanent round button most pencils sport. The eraser can even be pulled out a bit as it is used, giving the user a sort of “eraser reservoir.” That differentiates the appearance slightly, and also addresses the problem of the eraser being consumed while there’s still half a pencil remaining. Mistake-prone writers will find this a great asset, but I think the key advantage is that it’s the one Blackwing feature that can be spotted without careful inspection of the pencil.

Creativity Boost?

Purveyors of all kinds of products love to invoke the names of famous owners of the past, implying that some of their status is conveyed to current owners of the product. While I’m sure the letter was crafted entirely by marketers, the idea that an association with a creative genius could boost your own creativity isn’t totally absurd. If an image of a lightbulb can make you more creative (see 25-Cent Creativity Booster), why couldn’t writing with John Steinbeck’s pencil do the same thing for a struggling author? (Since the effect is in the mind of the user, it goes without saying that for the pencil to have that effect the user would have to know it was the same kind used by Steinbeck and Frank Lloyd Wright.)

Will Blackwing 2.0 Succeed?

I’m sure the world of pencil aficionados will delight in the renewed availability of the “legendary” Blackwing (but will no doubt complain bitterly about any minor changes in the new version). If California Cedar wants to succeed in a larger market, though, they face a real challenge: most people don’t think of a wood pencil with a rectangular eraser as a legend in its own time, or as a status symbol, or as a creativity tool. They haven’t heard of the brand, and don’t know of its history and association with famous personalities. And, even if the company succeeds in creating greater brand recognition, will average consumers decide to go back to pencils that need sharpening?

The price of the product is both good news and bad news. The good news is that the barrier to purchasing is low: a dozen costs about $20. That’s about ten times what a dozen Dixon Ticonderoga wood pencils cost, but it’s hardly a big hurdle if someone perceives that the product has a high cool factor. And, it’s a tiny fraction of the cost of an entry-level Montblanc fountain pen. The bad news is that even though the margins may be great when you sell a dozen pencils for $20 at retail, you need to convince a lot of customers to spend that $20 if you plan to build a sizable business. A dozen would last me for years, though I’m sure artists and writers (the few who don’t work electronically) would consume them more quickly. (Steinbeck, according to the CEO’s letter, could use 60 in a day. They were likely a lot cheaper then.)

What do you think? Can a social media push turn these pencils into a hot seller?

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This post was written by:

— who has written 957 posts on Neuromarketing.

Roger Dooley writes and speaks about marketing, and in particular the use of neuroscience and behavioral research to make advertising, marketing, and products better. He is the primary author at Neuromarketing, and founder of Dooley Direct LLC, a marketing consultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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15 responses to "From Obsolete Commodity to Status Symbol" — Your Turn

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Alan 3. January 2012 at 8:45 am

A compromise between “old” appearance and “new” technology:

http://www.itoya.com/Catalogs/Itoya_Pen/Itoya_Pen_html/PK100.htm

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Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
3. January 2012 at 9:14 am

Very interesting, Alan. More or less the opposite of the Blackwing approach, in that the ITOYA Pointkeeper Pencil LOOKS like a commodity wood pencil but actually performs like a modern mechanical pencil. A different market target, but I can see it appealing to traditionalists who don’t want to fuss with sharpening, wood shavings, and inconsistent point widths.

Roger

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Jason B. 4. January 2012 at 3:59 am

This is a great post, thank you! It’s got me thinking back to my school days and my trusty #2 pencil.

Their pencils seem very nice, and from what I read they’re pretty close to the original. But it appears to me, and I may be wrong about this, that it’s more about the *name* than the product — because it’s not the same pencil apparently, it’s something akin to a copy that looks and writes as much as possible like the original one. Blogs like penciltalk have a great deal of debate about some of the claims and the marketing the company is doing, but that might just be the fallout from “pencil purists.”

There is a site that deals more with the history of the original version, called Blackwingpages, if you haven’t seen it. I don’t think it’s affiliated with the same company though. There’s at least one post challenging whether some of those people actually used those pencils like they claim.

But either way, I just don’t think I’d be swayed by knowing who might have used the original version of this pencil (celebrity pencil endorsers now?). I’d much rather hear about why their pencil is so great, and if it would suit *my* needs. It’s almost as if they prefer trying to sell to people who already know about the original one rather than trying to ingratiate themselves to a new audience. I never heard of a blackwing pencil before a friend recently told me about them.

Jason

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Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
4. January 2012 at 8:34 am

Jason, I’m not a pencil expert and I don’t doubt that the original Blackwing users who paid $40 for one on eBay would be critical of the smallest changes. (I wonder how many of those folks are also Apple fanatics?) And I can’t speak to the accuracy of the claims about famous writers/artists. I would hope the links to Steinbeck et al weren’t entirely fabricated.

From both a marketing and creativity standpoint, it’s all about what the customers believe. I seriously doubt that in a blind writing test casual pencil users could tell the difference between the Blackwing and other pencils of the same grade. But, if they find the assertion that the Blackwing writes twice as fast with half the pressure at all believable, they will likely have a better experience with the branded product. And, if they make the connection with the famous artists, their creativity might be bumped a bit (in a similar way that it might get boosted by a higher ceiling or Edison-style light bulb.

Roger

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Jason B. 4. January 2012 at 4:34 am

Just one other quick thing… I was just looking at a pack of Ticonderoga pencils, which says “The World’s Best Pencil” on it. It seems so preposterous to even say something like that, I wonder if anyone takes that at all seriously. I suppose anyone who is picky enough about what pencils they use would be willing to pay $20 for a pack.

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Anna 4. January 2012 at 9:39 am

This product seems very commode and the price is good. Is it available in Europe, too?

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Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
4. January 2012 at 9:51 am

Good question, Anna. I’d suggest some Google searching in your region to see what comes up in ads/organic listings. You could also contact California Cedar Products. Good luck!

Roger

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FiG Advertising: Denver Ad Agency
Twitter: FiGadvertising
4. January 2012 at 2:10 pm

Great article. There is a perception barrier that needs to be overcome for high end items. Often times, as you note, the product is not quantifiably better but the way it is marketed and positioned makes all the difference. The high quality accessories and the mystique around it are what one is ultimately paying for. High concept marketing creative can also put a luxury item in to that category where as low concept marketing could sell the same exact product, just at a lower price point and to a different audience.

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Andy @ Woodclinched
Twitter: awelfle
4. January 2012 at 4:04 pm

Roger — this is a really interesting post! I had a great time reading it.

First, full disclosure — I used to work for Pencils.com. I no longer do, but I’m still a fan. I currently operate a blog about wooden pencils, “Woodclinched” — I’m a collector, a user, and started blogging about them before I even know what an original Blackwing pencil was, let alone Pencil.com’s Palomino Blackwing.

These pencils are a lot like my MacBook — it’s a hot seller and a status symbol because it’s well designed and performs well. Of course, whenever I whip out my Blackwing, it’s not so much a status symbol as a conversation piece. And rather than be suitable impressed by my fine writing instrument, I get a laugh and a shake of the head — It’s just another quirk of mine to them.

So, did you actually try either of the pencils, in a line-up against a Ticonderoga or an Office-Depot-branded pencil? You don’t have to take Pencils.com’s word that it’s fine quality — Google “Palomino Blackwing review” and check out many of the reviews you fine there. The wooden-pencil community online is *very* meticulous, and is not easily fooled by marketing-speak. While there are details decried by some bloggers, most will admit it’s significantly better than a pencil a fraction of its cost.

A lot of people don’t like pencils. That’s fine; they’re not for everyone. They don’t respect them, so if they’re faced with a brand that isn’t just another faceless commodity on the store shelf, a brand that touts quality, design, status, etc., they’re trying to pull wool over the eyes of the consumers. The eraser that advances out of the ferrule (the metal band connecting the eraser with the barrel) is one improvement of many in this pencil. Another is the quality of the wood, the superior grade of graphite mixed with clay in the core, the lacquer of the paint — it all adds up to a pencil that was designed intentionally, not to be cheap. And since these were manufactured in a relatively small quantity a fraction of the size of, say, Dixon’s Ticonderogas, they’re quite a bit more expensive. We’re not looking at a knockoff with a fresh coat of paint here. Admittedly I don’t know what the margin is (and if I did, I probably wouldn’t be at liberty to say), but I don’t think even a wildly successful selling would make Charles filthy rich.

Sure, there’s some over-the-top presentation with this Klout Perk (which, I agree, is suspect in their methods of determining influences, but it’s fun to get free stuff, no?), but I think that shows the dedication to the art of pencils Pencils.com holds, not a ploy to deceive you into thinking they’re of a greater quality than they are. Make no mistake, they want you to buy it, but this thing delivers.

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Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
4. January 2012 at 4:38 pm

Thanks for the insights, Andy! I did try the pencils. They were fine, but the sharpener was problematic. It was a hand-held, two-step sharpener. The wood side that did the gross trimming seemed fine (though starting a brand-new pencil from a flat end was time consuming). The part that was supposed to put the point on the lead, though, had no effect at light pressure and, with more pressure, often snapped the exposed lead off. Annoying, although perhaps it was user error. I used to have a wall-mounted rotary unit, but have no idea where it is now. Haven’t missed it in a couple of years, which I guess reflects the degree to which I use wood pencils. I’m probably not the target market, though I do find the creativity boost aspect a possible attraction.

Roger

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joe 5. January 2012 at 10:54 am

Roger,
Thanks for the post, I gained something entirely different from post, have been talking to colleagues about moving into 21st century with marketing, social media, content creation etc…I have been using a fax machine as an example of being obsolete.

Think I’ll change to the pencil, more people can relate and they can grab one and we can discuss where we are and the point in marketing time that the pencil signifies. Didn’t mean to go obtuse but it helped me a lot.

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Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
5. January 2012 at 10:58 am

Just don’t let the pencil makers (or serious pencil fans) catch you saying that, Joe!

Roger

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joe 5. January 2012 at 1:30 pm

Shoot there can’t be more than a dozen or so,…right..??

Pencil lovers should embrace their obsolescence like typewriters and look on them as quaint and worthy of collecting…

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Andy @ Woodclinched
Twitter: awelfle
5. January 2012 at 11:08 am

Haha, oh man, Joe, I won’t even go there. :-P

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Robert 7. January 2012 at 1:12 am

Though it’s easy to put some of the criticism directed at CalCedar for their versions of the Blackwing down to nuanced differences, there is some legitimate dishonesty involved in the whole endeavor. The company did not intend their initial Blackwing release to be a “revival”, but rather a successor, of sorts, given that they were not at all reproducing anything but the name, vaguely trying to score points with the typeface and the rectangular ferrule. The graphite mix was in no way intended to imitate that of the Eberhard Faber model that earned its fame, and the result was an altogether very different kind of pencil that shared almost nothing in common with the one it was taking the name from. When the feedback regarding the initial model carried some ambivalence to it, CalCedar decided to try to approximate the appearance of the original a little more, taking cues from some of the online commentary. The lead was shifted to something approximating their pre-existing Palomino HB lead (for writers, of course), and the initial name “Palomino Blackwing Classic” somewhere along the line got shifted to “Palomino Blackwing 602″, apparently to give a stronger suggestion that they were “reviving” the pencil.

While it looked like they at first wanted to make a “next generation” Blackwing completely independent of the EF Blackwing’s legacy, the aesthetic adjustments with the second version apparently gave them confidence to assume the legacy of the original product as if there was some form of genuine product continuity. I’ve commented elsewhere that this smelled strongly of Moleskine’s appropriation of the history of products that they never produced and invocation of names of famous people who never actually used their wares.

The product quality is generally fine (though I agree, the KUM sharpener is rubbish–a good Japanese rotary sharpener is far superior), but the way it is promoted as an honest or serious revival of the Eberhard Faber product is a bit on the slimy side for me. I don’t have any particular love for the old Blackwings, and I am not especially nostalgic, but to see a company blatantly abuse it is kind of disappointing (though not entirely unexpected, given some of the underhanded stuff CalCedar tried to pull on blogs in the wake of the original Palomino Blackwing release).

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