Montblanc is a complicated company producing luxury goods as part of complicated luxury group (Richemont). They are among a select group of brands that produce high-end products mean to appeal to a wide segment of the luxury market. This can be a challenge given the diversity of their products as well as customers. The top tiered item of one category might be priced far below the bottom tiered product of another. Montblanc’s goal is to be a strong luxury brand to as many classes of luxury customers as possible, while still retaining a prominent public image.
At the helm of Montblanc is CEO Lutz Bethge. I was curious how he maintained this strong image across products that range from pens and watches to leather goods and fragrances, while still offering something for customers as the very top. Here is what Mr. Bethge had to say:
Ariel Adams (AA): For luxury brands like Montblanc, perception and customer trust is so important in their decision to own something from your brand. How is the perception of luxury created and strong customer trust nurtured?
Lutz Bethge (LB): What luxury is, is naturally a very personal perception. For me luxury products are a promise. A promise that the product you buy from Montblanc is of highest esteem, based on its timeless, elegant design and the high quality, which is derived from the excellence of our craftsmen. It’s a promise that you will still love the product in 10, 20 or 30 years, like in many times where you received a Montblanc item as a gift, you still will appreciate and love the person who gave it to you to show how much this person respects, appreciate or loves you. It is our most important task to nurture this trust in our brand and our products. Sustainable value, highest quality, excellence in craftsmanship, and creativity make our products elegant and refined objects, which enrich the individual style of our customers. A Montblanc product is luxury because it’s a lifetime companion that is worth to be handed down to the next generation.
AA: Montblanc for many people is a maker of writing instruments, but of course the brand has branched out into other areas such as leather goods and timepieces. How has Montblanc kept an equally high level of consumer respect and interest for these relatively new products to the brand?
LB: When we started with new categories such as leather goods and timepieces, we could rely on the trust of our customers, who believed in Montblanc as a brand that provides excellence in its core category writing instruments based on its philosophy of manufacturing competence, highest quality, sustainable value and creativity. The challenge was how to keep or earn the trust. This is why Montblanc had invested in own manufacturing facilities and ateliers for our new categories. We knew our customers would want us to demonstrate to them the same excellence in the new categories that we possess in writing instruments. We believe that you need to be able to understand in depth your metier. This is why we have our manufactures and ateliers in those areas, which have a long tradition in these metiers, where people since generations have accumulated know how and excellence. This is why we are in Switzerland with our watch manufacture, and in Florence, Italywith our leather competence center. To ask somebody to produce e.g. the watches for us instead of building up our own know how would certainly have resulted in a failure in this category. Instead the watch business has become a huge success for Montblanc and is our fastest growing category since more than 10 years.
AA: It seems that many luxury brands focus on a particular demographic of person who they most see wearing or using their products. Montblanc however has both entry-level priced and very high-end luxury products. How do you communicate who your products are intended for?
LB: Montblanc is a Maison that offers to confident and determined people products that enrich their individual, cultural lifestyle and reflect their creativity and passionate personality. Our brand speaks to people who lead a cultured and refined lifestyle. In many ways they are successful and a reference for others. This is why a lot of our marketing initiatives are referring to cultural projects. Our Montblanc de la Culture Arts Patronage Award, which is given to modern patrons of the art in 12 countries, our PRIX Montblanc supporting young classical musicians, the Young Directors Project in Salzburg supporting young theatre directors and their ensembles or our Young Artist World Patronage Program that is a testament of creativity of young contemporary artists giving them a stage for their works in our boutiques, all this represents the Montblanc philosophy shared by our customers. Based on our roots in writing culture we support UNICEF in their strive to give each child access to a quality education. Our short-film contest “The Beauty of a Second” and our unique app-based worldwide photo contest “Montblanc Worldsecond” demonstrated the creativity of our customers and made them enjoy our watches in a very contemporary and digital way. And there are many more occasions, where we can invite our customers to join Montblanc in initiatives that are part of their lifestyle.
AA: When the Montblanc Villeret manufacture was announced it heralded in a new level of “high-end” for your timepiece division with products much more exclusive and expensive than many customers were accustomed to the company. What was the strategy to make the Villeret watches “Montblanc” and make sense to the consumer?
LB: Our traditional writing instrument customers are used to choose between our iconic Montblanc Meisterstück, StarWalker and Solitaire products as well as enjoying the creativity in our Limited Editions. We even offer our customers to create together with our designers and craftsmen their own writing instrument – a bespoke piece – at prices starting at 200,000 €. The experience and joy, which they receive from these writing editions was something our customers longed for as well in our watches. When I first visited the atelier in Villeret it reminded me immediately on our writing instruments atelier in Hamburg. Since then we have made Villeret our Artisan Atelier for Montblanc watches, where traditional watch making is safeguarded and further developed with exciting innovation. Since then it is not only writing instrument customers who enjoy these special editions or even made to order pieces but we have now as well a number of watch collectors who were enthused by these exciting Montblanc watches created in Villeret and have become writing instrument collectors too.
AA: Is there a hoped for “trickle down” effect where halo products like your most high-end watches and writing instruments will be perceived to increase the quality of your more entry-level products?
LB: You may compare this to the car industry: you learn and develop innovations in Formula 1. These innovations will never 1:1 be realized in the industrial production, but you grow your competence and know how in general, of which all product lines will benefit. Both in our Montblanc ateliers for writing instruments and for watches we have to date seen a number of developments, which one way or another found its way in our serial production.
AA: Many ultra-high-end luxury customers are interested in exclusivity – namely that what they are buying is rare and unattainable by most people. How does Montblanc cater to these customers while at the same time offering higher-volume products to a wider consumer base?
LB: Montblanc has the unique benefit that our most iconic product the Montblanc Meisterstück both symbolizes exclusivity, as it is a writing instrument, which is at the desk of the most important decision makers in the world, and at the same time is in terms of RSP still an affordable luxury product. The myth of the Meisterstück as the Power Pen (signifying your power when signing important documents) and as a true lifetime companion, which you have received or bought at an important junction in your life (graduation, becoming a partner in a company, your first corner office, documenting your marriage, etc.) has kept the exclusivity of this unique writing instrument alive with our customers for more than 89 years. It has inspired our customers and made our brand relevant in the mind of luxury customers. For those requiring more exclusivity we provide Limited Editions or even Made to Order pieces. A unique treat, which only a brand can offer that is deeply rooted in artisanery and craftsmanship, the origin of true luxury.
AA: Do you think that the average person interested in Montblanc products is aware of your most high-end and bespoke products? Should they or is there value to keeping these products on a “you need to ask for them basis?
LB: No, the awareness is certainly not on a broad scale. In the end, these high end products are targeting a smaller group of customers and we are able to reach out to them in our own boutiques and through special interest magazines and digital media. Once a customer has set foot in one of our Montblanc ateliers she/he is won over immediately by the passion and the excellence of our craftsmen.
AA: We’ve talked about the entry-level luxury consumer as well as the ultra-high-end, but there is a strong middle as well that Montblanc serves. What tactic does the brand use to attract that segment of the luxury buying population interested in something more exclusive than mainstream, but also more accessible than “if you have the ask the price you can’t afford it?”
LB: I disagree with the wording entry price products. Montblanc offers no entry price products. Montblanc has in terms of price a strong middle segment, which is well priced as it combines our craftsmanship, quality and creativity with a very good price level. Say for watches 2000 -5000 €. The new Montblanc Star Quantième Complet or the Montblanc TimeWalker Worldtime Traveller are very good examples. Attractive and creative complications at around 3000-4000€. In writing instruments the Montblanc Meisterstück is at an affordable price level, but of course it is not entry price level if you compare this to more than 80% of the premium writing instruments market, which is priced well below. Quality, sustainable value and timeless elegance have their price.
AA: There are perhaps only a few brands in the world like Montblanc that are able to successfully attract such a breadth of the luxury buying market. One is sister company Cartier. Why are companies like this so rare? Is it difficult to foster the right image or are consumers most comfortable with brands that have a more narrow focus when it comes to their image and products?
LB: Brands that offer successfully products at different price points always have a long tradition. The products they offer at different price points are authentic, like our Montblanc Meisterstück versus our Limited Editions. In the end it is the myth of the brand, the product combined with the trust of the customer in her/his brand.