For many years I settled with a Lamy Safari but, even though the Lamy is an exquisite writer, I was in the market for a family heirloom to hand down to one of my sons.

Lamy’s top-of-the-range pens didn’t strike me as sufficiently ‘heirloomy’ and, having tried out a Montblanc Meisterstück (picture, above, by Freimut) once or twice, I’d set my heart on it.

The trouble is that Montblanc pens are expensive, so I waited and waited and squirreled away money until I could justify the expense.

Meanwhile, whenever I found myself close by a jewellers which stocked Montblanc, I would take a couple of minutes to gaze wistfully at the distinctive Meisterstück’s black resin and platinum shell oozing gravitas while it twinkled away behind the glass in a pristine window display.

By now, I was investing more than simply money in this writing instrument: I was lapping up all the visual and written communication cues conveyed by the branding, and assigning the object with a kind of significance and meaning that Montblanc could only dream of.

(But, then, what else should I expect from an object that’s been ‘hand-crafted in the European tradition’ and is ‘meticulously crafted from the finest materials. Every single part is subjected to scrupulous inspections. Montblanc guarantees the quality of materials, faultless workmanship and flawless operation’?)

The day finally came when I’d saved up enough to part with a good deal of cash for my very own Meisterstück.

But, within a matter of hours of purchasing it (and following years of patiently waiting of course), I was irretrievably disappointed with my investment.

The nib wasn’t as responsive as the Lamy Safari and, either because the flow of ink was erratic or the nib actually leaked, my fingers were smothered with ink. (I even have ink on my fingers from writing those three lines that appear in the image at the top of this post.)

Knowing that nibs can take a while to adapt to the writer, I gave the pen a few weeks.

Still no joy.

So I followed all the suggested methods offered in the exquisitely produced Montblanc booklet, which came with the pen, and sought advice from the people in the shop where I bought it. But nothing seemed to work.

Of course, it would be entirely reasonable for you to point out to me at this stage that, more likely than not, I was simply unlucky. The pen I bought had slipped through the net. I could send it back to Montblanc to be repaired. Or get a refund.

And you’d be right.

What’s more, Montblanc do promise to remedy any problems with their pens at no charge at all within the first couple of years of purchase.

But an antipathy towards Montblanc has kicked in; all the trust and goodwill I placed in the brand in order to buy the pen in the first place has evaporated.

Both you and I know that, sooner or later, I’ll send the pen off to be fixed because:

a) I still don’t possess what I set out to obtain: an object worthy of the stature of heirloom; and
b) I realise that I’ve just been unlucky and feel sure that Montblanc will be able to remedy the problem.

But, at the moment, I’m too disappointed with my experience of the brand to seek another encounter with them anytime soon.

It’s not the branding that’ll kill you

I’ll admit that Montblanc are unlucky to be the subject of this post but my purpose is to illustrate the distinction between brand and branding, and not to vent frustration at Montblanc.

I’ve used it as an example because it helps to demonstrate that, no matter how expensive a brand’s product or service may be, each of us invests more than just cash in the veracity of a brand’s claims; we place enormous trust in them.

For instance, you trust a brand to ensure that the ingredients in its baked beans contain ingredients that are good for you and not harmful, you trust a car manufacturer to build a vehicle that’s mechanically safe to drive on the roads, you trust an electrician’s knowledge, experience and expertise about wiring to avoid the risk of electrocution the moment that you flick a light switch on and you trust water companies to refine sewage so that it’s fit to drink again.

In the case of a fountain pen, I trust Montblanc to know how to manufacture a pen that works.

Once a brand’s got over that utility hurdle, its branding has to help me reach a transactional point by persuading me to spend money on their brand of product or service rather than a competitor’s.

In Montblanc’s case, the consequence of using a pen is the same whether you’re using a Bic biro or a Montblanc. But, since a Bic biro isn’t much of a family heirloom, this is where Montblanc’s beautifully executed approach to branding kicks in; without question Montblanc’s brand communication helps convey ideas of a hand-crafted, meticulous, scrupulous, faultless and flawless operation.

In the case of a fountain pen, I trust Montblanc to know how to manufacture a pen that works.

Montblanc’s branding persuasively conveys the idea that each pen is lavished with the personal attention of craftspeople at each stage in the process of its manufacture.

The videos detailing the stages of production at Montblanc’s site, for instance, seek to underline the ideas of meticulous, scrupulous, faultless and flawless operation. The video production values themselves even suggest this: big close up shots of the process conveying the idea of meticulous attention, the flawless elegance of the fading in and out of frames; the fact that each frame bathed in soft-focused golds, silvers and black.

So Montblanc’s branding is brilliant (in fact, it’s a meticulous, scrupulous, faultless and flawless operation). It plays an essential role in the brand’s architecture of persuasion; it carries implicit promises that are intended to support the explicitly stated claims made by a business. It helps mould perception and serves to set expectations.

It’s just that — well — my pen doesn’t work properly.

Brand = (Perception + Expectation) — Experience

In the second post in this series, I argued that part of the confusion between the distinction between brand and branding probably lay in the fact that businesses lean so heavily on branding to do the legwork.

But the problem is that branding is a passive element of brand experience: it performs a functional role and helps convey ideas but it can’t answer back. Most of the the other elements, on the other hand, are active; they involve people or interaction.

So, while a brand’s visual identity and branding can contribute to a positive brand experience, it can neither fulfil the promises that it conveys or moderate the expectations that consumers set for its goods or services. Only the active elements of the brand — the bits in which people and products play a role — can do that.

And, wherever people are involved, there’s a risk to the equilibrium between your expectations of a brand and your experience of it (which is why, in general, creating a great service brand experience is arguably a good deal tougher than a product one).

That’s because branding is simply a component of one of the four elements that comprise a brand — its communication. And only alongside what the brand offers (its product), how it enables you to obtain it (its environment) and the way you go about doing what you do (its culture) can a business successfully convey a core idea which makes its brand’s goods and services distinct from another brand’s.

I’ve illustrated the dynamics affecting Montblanc’s brand reputation as a Venn diagram below.

So it’s not that Montblanc’s branding is intentionally misleading because it isn’t. The brand’s problem is that its branding conveys a promise of meticulous, scrupulous, faultless and flawless operation. That brand idea can’t be sustained by branding and communications alone; it must be consistently expressed within the manufacturing of it products, within its retail presence and by the people representing its brand.

In other words, every facet of its operation must be meticulous, scrupulous, faultless and flawless if it is to match the expectations conveyed by its branding.

Those are dizzyingly high standards for any kind of business operation, especially when you consider that most Montblanc pens are probably not sold by Montblanc people. The brand operates a number of its own retail outlets but most of its retail distribution is through authorised retailers over whom Montblanc has no direct control.

But, as a consumer, none of that matters to me.

No matter how many hands my pen passed through, it was faulty.

In my case, Montblanc’s branding made promises that its brand was unable to fulfil.

And that’s the difference between brand and branding.