CEO interview

‘Born from innovation’

Montblanc CEO Nicolas Baretzki on why innovation remains at the heart of the company’s growth drive.

The story of Montblanc’s rise as a luxury brand began 113 years ago, when Hamburg merchant Alfred Nehemias and Berlin engineer August Eberstein teamed up with trader Claus Voss to lay the foundations for a company to produce a non-leaking fountain pen. In 1909, Voss took over the company, and with partners Wilhelm Dziambor and Christian Lausen released the first in a new series. It was in 1924 though that the fledgling business really took off, with the launch of the Montblanc Meisterstück. The move became the foundation of one of the world’s most prestigious fine writing maisons.

Throughout the years, Montblanc has constantly redefined itself with its innovations and a cross-category approach to luxury, with a presence in luxury time pieces, leathergoods, accessories and even smart devices.

Montblanc CEO Nicolas Baretzki has a grand vision for the maison, which he recently shared with The Moodie Davitt Report Fashion, Beauty and Social Media Editor Hannah Tan-Gillies. Here, Baretzki discusses Montblanc’s ‘business-lifestyle’ positioning, his ‘best-in-class’ approach to product categories, and the importance of travel retail as a strategic platform. In the face of a changing luxury landscape, Baretzki looks to unite Montblanc’s carefully defined product categories under one umbrella. He also stresses the importance of reimagining the business because according to Baretzki, “Montblanc was born from innovation – and so innovation will always be at the heart of the maison”.

Nicolas Baretzki: “Our brand awareness is there, but brand desirability is much more powerful than awareness, and that’s where our focus will be in the coming months”

It’s been a little over two years since you took over as Montblanc CEO. What is your vision and strategy for the brand?

I was promoted to the CEO role two years ago, but I’ve actually been with Montblanc for six and a half years. In those years, I realised that to be successful at Montblanc, we simply couldn’t stand still. The world is full of opportunities, so our vision had to be clear and long term.

In the past two years we’ve been extremely proactive in executing that vision. We entered into a completely new business, launched smart devices, expanded into travel, revamped the stores, and so on. It’s a constant journey of improvement, and we’ve also worked on our long-term strategy. Because we’ve reached a certain level with the vision, we’re now asking what we should do to take it further. That’s basically what we want to implement in the years to come.

What makes Montblanc stand out? What have been the biggest changes you have enacted since taking over as CEO?

Montblanc has a very interesting business-lifestyle positioning, which makes us very different from our competitors. We’re not too trendy, but we’re not just classic and traditional too. This ‘in-between’ gives us an opportunity to present the maison differently, and on a larger spectrum as compared to other brands.

I realised that we may have been working too much per category in the last decade or so. We’ve successfully built a very legitimate watchmaking category, a core writing instrument category, a successful leather category, and are now venturing into smart devices. Now I believe it’s time to concentrate on the brand itself. I think this umbrella is necessary today to elevate brand desirability. Our brand awareness is there, but brand desirability is much more powerful than awareness, and that’s where our focus will be in the coming months.

The new boutique concept is extremely important. Even though it’s sold by category, the boutiques invite customers to enter the Montblanc universe. This is why we’ve completely reinvented the advertising campaign, and we’re launching a completely new way of communicating next fiscal year too. It would really highlight that we’re doing a brand campaign, and not a product campaign. It will be global and across digital, advertising, points of sale, and so on.

On the move: Luggage is big business for Montblanc but the company says it would never compromise on technology and quality; “the Montblanc design codes are clear”

How are you marrying tradition with modernity at Montblanc and what challenges does this represent? 

Almost 100 years ago, Montblanc was founded by three young entrepreneurs, who had very different profiles. It was really about innovation, and the starting point was always travel. That was the spirit of the maison. Our founders went to New York, discovered this new patent, and that’s how our writing instrument business began. All these years later and I see the same innovative philosophy in the maison. So, for us, it’s easy to combine heritage with modernity, because we’ve been modern since the beginning. We’ve kept this modernity with us throughout the years.

Whenever we launch anything, it’s because we are giving it a little twist or innovation. That’s how we approach every new category and every new major launch. Like when we launched the new Montblanc Extreme collection, it’s because we’ve developed a new leather material that’s resistant to the elements. It’s the same with smart watches and fine-writing instruments. We are born from innovation, so innovation has to be a part of the process.

Baretzki’s chief aim is to understand the lifestyle and needs of the Montblanc customer. “Our cross-category offer helps Montblanc become a real companion for the modern business traveller,” he says.

Where is the diversification of the range leading the brand today – and what are your priority investments by category? 

Our first priority would be travel. We want to be a strong player in travel, and this is why travel retail is so important for us as a network. Luggage may be big business for us, but we are not opportunistic. If we do something we’re always going to strive to be ‘best-in-class’. If we’re developing luggage, we want to make sure we don’t compromise on technology and quality, and the Montblanc design codes are clear.

Smart devices are also important in terms of category. I believe that this segment will be extremely important in the years to come. For us, smart watches belong in its own category, because the way you approach it is completely different to luxury timepieces. We want to position ourselves as a leader in the luxury smart devices segment. Next year, we’ll be entering new and unexpected segments within that category.

The third biggest priority has more to do with Montblanc’s roots of fine writing instruments. We’ve got a very important base of collectors in the watches and fine writing instruments categories, and I believe we can create an exclusive high-end offer for them. We’re exploring high jewellery in writing instruments, with pieces that can go up to €2 million. It could potentially be very successful – because we can behave like the high-jewellers but have our own category.

What role does travel retail play for Montblanc? Is it more of a showcase or a sales driver?

There is no doubt that travel retail is more than a showcase – but a strategic business network for Montblanc. We’re different from every other brand, because we are very local in a way. One of the big successes of Montblanc is that we were the first in many countries. We were one of the first maisons to import luxury products in India, and one of the first to have a subsidiary in China more than 20 years ago. We’re very local – but our customers travel a lot. I believe that we need to have a harmonised image, and I think travel retail is the best way today to approach customers who are travelling around the world.

Travel retail has been a part of our strategy for many years, and now it is accelerating more than ever before. We are investing heavily in the renovations of our key travel retail doors, and on our partnerships with the big players. I also feel like we can integrate more experience into this network. It’s also a great channel for us to test new things and interact with our clients. I’m a big believer in the future of travel retail.

How do you see this product assortment evolving in the coming years?

Today, the world is constantly changing. The business lifestyle is more about feeling at ease with the product no matter what you’re doing or where you’re going. Our cross-category offer helps Montblanc become a real companion for the modern business traveller. Our customers grab our luggage, and put their backpack on top, put on a Montblanc smart watch, and bring a Montblanc fountain pen because he still believes it’s important to his lifestyle. That’s how I see Montblanc evolving. It’s not just about one category, but about understanding the lifestyle and needs of the Montblanc customer.

Is Montblanc a writing instrument brand, a watchmaker, or a leather brand? Or all of those things?

Could you elaborate on how Montblanc’s ‘fully vertically integrated approach’ to each product category? How has this approach affected operations and distribution – particularly in travel retail? 

When we enter into a category, we want to be ‘best-in-class’ in that category. For luxury timepieces, we have a head of category, and a dedicated design team, whose only job is to think about watches. It’s the same for writing, leather, and technology, where we have whole teams taking care of each individual category.

This is why it’s impossible to say whether Montblanc a watchmaker, writing instrument, or leather brand; because if you think like that, then we’re all of those things. This emphasises the importance of having a brand umbrella. A singular message that can communicate what Montblanc is about, and we’re about quality, craftsmanship, heritage, value for money, innovation, and experience.

In 2017, Montblanc launched its first smart watch. How do you see Montblanc adapting more broadly to an increasingly digital world? 

I think when discussing digital, it’s important to differentiate between product and distribution/interactivity. When it comes to product, it’s quite simple. A few years ago, smart devices were all about having a watch on your wrist that would replicate your phone, but now we want a smart watch that would be independent of your phone. Afterwards, we will develop smart watches that would be part of a new ecosystem, where we can provide added value in health or security (to name a few).

In the next five to ten years, it is my belief that 60-70% of us will have a connected device on their hands. I think that a decent share of the population will want something that’s both technologically advanced, but also elegant and refined. This is where the opportunity lies for us to inspire customers to veer away from the mainstream and opt for a more refined offer.

I’m a strong believer in the digital world, and so today we need to truly embrace omnichannel. It's a step by step process, but we are focused on enhancing the experience in our boutiques. For example, we’ve launched a dropship model and have developed some exciting in-store experiential initiatives too.

“Whenever we launch anything, it’s because we are giving it a little twist or innovation,” says Baretzki

How are you embracing omnichannel in 2019? Could you give us a few examples of your investments and partnerships into this approach?

Omnichannel is a very detailed strategy for us. It’s everything from dropship, the in-store experience, home deliveries, and how we follow our customers from a CRM (customer relationship management) approach. The more successful the digital side becomes, the more the brick and mortar stores make sense, and that is crucial for the development of the maison.

Because we are a volume maison, we recruit a lot of new clients every year. However, I want to serve our existing clients better, and CRM is an important part of that. I think people need to have a good reason to visit the boutiques. This is why we’re developing the ink bar experience for example — which is fully dedicated to writing instruments. You can come and discover the latest colours, nibs, and calligraphic tools. It’s a really cool approach to promoting the relevance of writing instruments in today’s digital world.

We’re also working on new ways to personalise leather and create new digital experiences with sunglasses. Everything is linked to digital interactivity within our boutiques. For me, omnichannel is about changing perspectives. It’s about making sure our client tells us what he wants and not us telling him how he should interact with the maison. That’s a game changer for us, and in an organisational sense it has completely changed the way we think.

What are your priorities for the year ahead?

We’re not opportunistic. When we enter into a category, we want to be ‘best-in-class’ in that category. For luxury timepieces, we have a head of category, and a dedicated design team, whose only job is to think about watches. It’s the same for writing, leather, and technology, where we have whole teams taking care of each individual category.

Our biggest priority will be the complete revamp and launch of our new brand campaign. It's a completely new global approach for us that will launch in the first quarter of 2020. Our second priority is a major launch in our leather products, and there will be a big focus on that category.

The Moodie Davitt eZine

Issue 273 | 12 December 2019

The Moodie Davitt eZine is published 20 times per year by The Moodie Davitt Report (Moodie International Ltd).

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