Can you be a great brand but a bad business proposition?
There is much talk today about the business being the brand and the brand being the business, but for me these are not exactly the same thing. Rather they are the yin and the yang of an organisation and the story of the Blackwing 602 highlights that there is a difference.
Introduced by the Eberhard Faber Company during the Great Depression, the Blackwing 602 had a graphite-grey lacquer finish, a distinctive shape, an iconic foil-stamped logo, and an adjustable eraser housed in an extended ferrule. The pencils initially sold for 50 cents each.
Now, it wasn’t only what the pencilt looked like that really made it different. It was also what was on the inside and how that affected its performance in use. The Blackwing had an unusually smooth, soft-yet-durable lead, which allowed Faber to claim: “Half The Pressure, Twice The Speed.”
The Blackwing 602 has a devoted following and a cult-like status. It had a list of celebrity endorsements any brand would be proud of including Nobelprize-winning authors, Oscar-winning animators and Grammy-winning songwriters.
“I have found a new kind of pencil—the best I have ever had. Of course, it costs three times as much too but it is black and soft but doesn’t break off. I think I will always use these. They are called Blackwings and they really glide over the paper,” said John Steinbeck talking about his working habits in the Paris Review.
Asked in an interview with the Academy of Achievement in 2005 whether he used any special kind of paper or pencils, Stephen Sondheim replied; “I use Blackwing pencils. They don’t make ‘em any more, and luckily, I bought a lot of boxes of ‘em. They’re very soft lead. They’re not round, so they don’t fall off the table, and they have removable erasers, which unfortunately dry out.”
During a television interview with Charlie Rose, legendary animator Chuck Jones of Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes characters was asked about the “pen” he was using. Jones gently corrected him and then added: “A pen is full of ink. This [Blackwing] is full of ideas”.
Despite this following of famous people and thousands of other users, the Blackwing was discontinued in 1998.
The problem stemmed from one of those distinctive features – the extended eraser ferrule. It required special clips that were only produced on a custom-made machine. When Eberhard Faber was acquired and became part of Faber-Castell in 1994, they discovered that the machine was broken.
There were however sufficient clips that enabled production to continue until 1998. At this point, the company withdrew the Blackwing, claiming it was not commercially viable.
There was an immediate outcry and the pencils still in the supply chain were quickly boughtup and stockpiled. They began to appear on eBay and in the classified ads and prices skyrocketed up to $55 for a single pencil.
Other fans started looking for alternatives and interest focused on the Palomino’s range of premium pencils, which many felt provided a comparable performance to the Blackwing. Palomino were soon being asked to consider reviving the iconic brand, reviving the old unique look. Luckily Palomino founder and CEO, Charles Berolzheimer, whose family’s roots in the pencil industry date back to the mid 19th century, was able to use his unique supply relationships to get permission to re-introduce the Blackwing pencil. They introduced their new Blackwing both in its original form (the “602”) for true devotees, writers and everyday users, as well as a slightly modified version with a slightly softer lead for artists. The new “Palomino Blackwing 602” sold in packets of 12 for about $20.
So perhaps the moral of this story is that the brand is mightier than the business.