Marketing the Allure of the Legendary Blackwing Pencil
The Right Tools
My history crush, Benjamin Franklin, would have had no hesitation about spending hard-earned money on a quality pencil or the perfect pen. He did, after all, believe that
‘The best investment is the tools of one’s own trade.”
The more I write, the more I want to experiment with “tools of the trade,” including expanding my implement arsenal from my beloved Tul blue gel ink pens to include different kinds of pencils, and the allure of the Blackwing pencil is pulling me in. Who knows? Different jobs may go faster with different instruments. Maybe developing a social media set would go faster with a pencil. A case study might be better if I outlined first in dark, bold strokes of lead.
Finding the tools that work for you is an essential part of your getting your groove, finding your flow, and pushing past procrastination.
If you want to get out of your writing rut, try something new. For me, that means wandering into the world of lead and erasers, experimenting with the previously unexplored world of Blackwing pencils.
Writers Making the Grade
Writers get to make their mark in any of shade of gray they like. Not “50 Shades,” but “20 Grades” of pencils exist, rated by two distinct systems for pencil grading.
Most American pencil makers use a numerical scale to identify the properties of each pencil. Numbers grade the hardness of the core. The harder the core of the pencil, the lighter the mark. The softer the pencil, the darker the mark because more of the graphite is left on the paper. Softer pencils (#1, #2, #3) dull faster than harder pencils (#7, #8, #9) and need more sharpening. The popular #2 pencil has a softer core and a darker mark than a #9 pencil which would be a hard lead with a light mark.
The system used in other countries throughout the world is an HB grading scale, based on the Hardness and the Blackness of the pencil mark. Many manufacturers have added a number at the front, but it doesn’t correspond to the American system. No standards for grading pencils exist in the industry, so a #2 pencil purchased from a manufacturer overseas may look completely different from the one you’re used to from your school days.
But all those choices of color and hardness are a marketer’s dream. Because everyone loves options.
Famous Writers Loved the Process of Pencil-Writing
Why do so many writers choose to write with pencils?
Maybe it’s because one pencil writes approximately 45,000 words, and wearing it down to a nub is a visible show of the progress of your work.
Possibly it’s because one pencil will draw a single line that is 35 miles long, suggesting endurance and adventure into unexplored territory.
Perhaps it’s because the various shades of gray are appealing to the eyes, easier to look at for long periods of time, not loud blue or bold black ink, but with softer lines and less contrast.
Or, it could be the whispery scratching sound the pencils make as your hand pours the worlds through it to the paper.
John Steinbeck started each day with 24 sharpened Blackwing pencils. Truman Capote wrote all his first drafts longhand — in pencil. Judy Blume, American author of children’s and Young Adult novels believed that her best work occurs during the editing process when she takes her typed notes and marks all over them with a pencil. Blume commented,
“Whatever it is that happens between the brain and the pencil in my hand, that’s really important to my process.”
Whatever your process, a pencil might improve it. Consider these Blackwing pencils that — if you’re like me — you didn’t know about and now need to investigate.
The Rise and Fall of the “Blackwing” Pencil:
Lots of writers talk about Blackwing Pencils. Blackwing Pencils were manufactured by the Eberhard-Faber Pencil Company, founded in 1761 in Germany. After the company moved to New York more than a century after its founding, Eberhard began manufacturing rubber bands and rubber erasers in 1878 to add to their pencil line. By the 1920s, Eberhard-Faber Pencil Company had offices in seven major American cities. In 1956, they moved their production facility to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania before the Eberhard-Faber Pencil Company was sold to A.B. Faber-Castell in 1987.
What many artists and writers consider to be the quintessential pencils, the Blackwing 602, was introduced in 1934, with the tag line, “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed.” Popular though it was, the Blackwing 602 was discontinued in 1998 because of new ownership of the company and the fact that the special machine needed to make the flat ferrules was broken and never got fixed.
But the legend of the Blackwing pencil lived on, causing people to find them on eBay and purchase them for $40.00 — $200.00 per pencil.
(If they’re that good, surely I ought to try one. The marketing trick of “perceived value” at work.)
The Resurrection of the Blackwing Pencil
In 2003, Charles Berolzheimer, a guy whose family had once owned Eagle Pencil Company, understood the appeal of a quality pencil, so he bought the rights to the Blackwing name and opened a new company.
Their goal was to recreate the mastery, the mystique, and the allure of the Blackwing.
In 2007, The Blackwing 602 Pencil (beloved by John Steinbeck) was re-introduced to the world with the brand name Palomino. Nobody had to pay high dollar for the vintage pencils they found on eBay anymore. Artists, writers, and musicians everywhere rejoiced. The company soon followed the launch of the Blackwing 602 with the Blackwing Pearl, followed by the Blackwing Natural, all done with marketing panache.
Marketing a Culture, Not a Pencil
How do you bring a once-revered, but long gone pencil, back to the forefront of modern commerce, in an era where speed is everything, where computers, texts, and communication at the speed of light is preferred?
The new Blackwing Company is marketing their pencils, not just as writing utensils, but as membership in a special culture. If you belong, you care about creating art. You care about thoughtful craftsmanship. You care about “living mindfully lnd finding balance in our fast-paced lives.”
The new Palomino Blackwing Brand knows that taking time to enjoy the process of “creation” matters.
Blackwing also understands — and promotes — the uniqueness of its famed pencils. This is not the standard #2 yellow pencil that you had in grade school. The Blackwing 602 is, aptly named, a sleek, ebony-colored implement, sure to make creativity flow like oil from a Texas gusher. Blackwings are precisely made with high-quality Japanese graphite, encased in genuine incense cedar. (Now, who doesn’t want to sniff fragrant wood as they’re writing?)
Blackwings aren’t perfectly round. They’re hexagonal and have a flat, rectangular ferrule and color-coordinated eraser, different from other pencils.
And since Blackwing pencils aren’t like other pencils, they don’t conform to the same standard number-system grading. Instead, each Blackwing pencil fits into a category of “Firm,” “Extra Firm,” “Balanced,” or “Soft.”
Marketing to Loyal Fans
If you’ want to revive interest in a legendary product to old audiences, and if you want to create new markets for your updated version, how do you do it?
You create a new logo.
You create a new webpage.
You create new blogs.
You create a distinct culture, and then you feed it.
Blackwing feeds its culture and its loyal fans, both users and collectors, with a quarterly subscription service called “Volumes,” a release of a new group of pencils creatively packaged with other ephemera, gifts, or novelty items.
One more way to build a following of loyal fans?
Create interesting products that connect with your targeted audience of artists and visionaries. Then write copy that gets the attention of that particular group.
Take, for instance, the new release of “Neon” red and blue Blackwings honoring small businesses and their “Open” signs. The product description explains that Neon lights were first flaunted above a barbershop in Paris in 1912 and that red and blue neon signs are still found in “urban cities and rural towns, bookstores and coffee shops, boutiques, and restaurants.” (Places that definitely appeal to the target audience.)
Another Example of Marketing That Works?
Writer and book nerd that I am, I got hooked by the backstory of a special series of pencil, just because I love studying and reading in libraries. Now, I’m coveting the Blackwing 811 because of how it’s marketed:
“The Blackwing 811 is a tribute to libraries and the hope they represent. It features an emerald gradient finish and gold ferrule inspired by the iconic green lamps that light the halls of libraries around the world. Each pencil is coated with a special phosphorescent topcoat, so it can be a literal light in the dark. The model number 811 is a reference to the American poetry section of the Dewey Decimal System that contains the works of countless inspirational writers.”
I mean, who doesn’t want a “light in the dark?”
See how easy that was?
Marketing targeted directly to readers, writers, and thinkers, like me.
What Is a Quality Pencil and Necessary Tool of Your Trade Worth To You?
Would I, a writer who hasn’t yet reached monetary success, pay more than two dollars for a pencil?
I’ll think of it like old Ben Franklin did, as an investment in the tools of my trade.
I’ll side with Mary Norris, a copy editor for The New Yorker and the author of Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.
“I have a lot of nerve, as a non-artist, being so precious about pencils,” Norris says. “But when I copy-edit with Blackwings I think of something a friend’s mother once said as she bought underwear for her daughter who was going off to nursing school: ‘As long as you have to wear that uniform, you might as well feel fancy underneath.’”
Would I, a full-time, working writer, get so attached to my Blackwing pencil that, like Shamus Culhane, a Disney animator, I ask to be buried with it?
I’ll let you know after I’ve tried them.