Monocle brand: a lesson in tastemaking

13 avril 2018

This article sees us exploring the many iterations of the Monocle brand, from its iconic magazine to its radio, cafés, shops and even luxury residences.

Images of a changing world

Do you really remember the world before Monocle? The magazine launched back in spring 2007, a fascinating time before smartphones and lifestyle publications, a time of global economic growth and fervour towards globalisation. A new elite of time-poor, cash-rich globetrotters, 30 and 40-somethings working in finance or design, entrepreneurs and marketers, was rapidly becoming the trendsetting caste. But every preacher needs its scripture, and Monocle magazine, with its auspicious black cover and reassuring weight, soon appeared to take that spot. A parallel reinforced by the personality of Monocle founder Tyler Brûlé, the creative polymath and unapologetic tastemaker behind design staple Wallpaper* magazine, the Winkreative branding agency, and now Monocle. While the Western print media industry was busy lamenting about its impending doom, Monocle quickly grew to a readership of around 85,000 per issue, opening new bureaus around the world.  As financial markets crashed and populism grew, the magazine was joined by a network of Monocle shops and cafés, a 24/7 Monocle radio station, Monocle conferences and, in the future, Monocle-branded residences. The original tagline, “A briefing on global affairs, business, culture & design” captures the holistic approach of the brand, securing both content and lifestyle touchpoints like no other brand.


The Monocle Brand Cocoon

When it comes to successful brand strategies, Monocle represents a case study in how to elevate the concept of the lifestyle brand to an art form. The loyal Monocle subscriber not only reads the magazine, he also watches the crisp videos about nation-branding or independent Romanian retail on the website and listens to the Monocle 24 radio station to hear the latest – and oh so curated – world news and music. When he travels, which is often, he makes it a point to visit the local Monocle café or shop, where he will be able to complete his selection of co-branded tote bags and Welsh lavender foot cream (true story). Not only that, he will also buy the brands showcased in the magazine, whether it’s in an ad, an article or, more often, a combination of the two. He will visit the hotels and restaurants listed in the growing line of Monocle city guides, and maybe relocate his business to a city that ranks high on the annual Monocle Quality of Life index. All this creates a very positive – and lucrative – feedback loop that continually reinforces the brand identity while rewarding followers who feel they are part of a high-rolling yet alternative lifestyle. The model has been so successful the privately-held company was valued as high as $115m in 2014, and inspired traditional media companies like the New York Times Company to diversify their revenue streams and integrate paid editorial content in their traditional newspaper and magazine offering.


Lessons in tastemaking

Considering he founded design magazine Wallpaper* and currently runs a brand design agency (Winkreative), you would think Tyler Brûlé knows a thing or two about good design. You would be right, as evidenced by the longevity and portability of the brand aesthetics. The large, bold “MONOCLE” logo features prominently across the glossy black magazine cover, making it instantly recognisable on newsstand racks and posh coffee tables around the world. It rehabilitates Plantin, an early 20th century font, which is used for the logo and the magazine text (with font icon Helvetica for titles), crafting a distinct identity. The minimalistic monogram with its looped M is also a success, appearing discreetly on most company products. That’s only part of what makes the Monocle brand identity though. The company produces almost all of its pictorial and video content, which helps achieve coherence across media and time. Illustrations are omnipresent, whether it’s a depiction of the ideal neighbourhood or a manga-inspired mascot. The grid is dense, hosting a variety of content formats but very little blank space, which also adds an impression of value to the magazine. The magazine and radio shows alternate between high-brow and more mundane articles, jumping from country to city to shop to product in a handful of pages, smartly placing Monocle as a complement to traditional news outlets, and with a decidedly optimist, globalist vibe. And if that sounds a bit messy to you, it is, albeit in an elegant, highly curated way. A 2017 redesign slightly streamlined the aesthetics and grid, but the overall experience is still very much a love-hate thing.


The Monocle crowd

The Monocle reader/listener/consumer belongs – or aspires to belong – to the “global nomads”. The phrase, coined by Brûlé, refers less to a group with certain traits (in the case of Monocle, mostly male 30 and 40-somethings with high disposable income and a taste for Scandinavian design and Japanese Wabi-sabi) than to a specific mindset. The Monocle person is a globalist, a self-styled citizen of the world that can work, shop and even live anywhere they serve a decent flat white. He or she has little loyalty for queen and country, but will fight to defend local craftsmanship and the merits of globalisation. In this context, Monocle has little to do to engage with their followers. The company is largely absent from social media, preferring real-life interactions such as the yearly Christmas market at their London HQ, a Monocle booth at Paris’s Maison & Objet or the occasional subscriber event somewhere in the world. Most of the engagement is actually left to the follower, who is happy to oblige by casually toting his subscriber tote bag everywhere he goes, wearing Monocle co-branded clothes and generally signalling to fellow insiders “We are part of the same club”.

New world, same rules?

In a 2017 article in The New Republic, journalist Kyle Chayka wonders at how Monocle can remain such a beacon of optimist globalism in our current age of rising populism (and happily lambasts the publication for its alleged consumerism). In truth, reading a copy of Monocle and an issue of, say, The Economist can be a schizophrenic experience. The world depicted in the former is not perfect, but it’s always “on the up”, brimming with “new solutions”, and impeccably dressed. And issues like global warming, human rights abuse or terrorism, which cannot be dressed-up, are side-lined or downright absent. For all that, Monocle is not immune to changing global tides, as shown by its recent decision to move part of its HQ from London to Zurich, in what feels like a rebuttal by the British of the “global nomads” loved by Brûlé. This increasing sense of disconnection is also fuelled by Monocle’s business model.  The feedback loop created by controlling all touchpoints around the customer leaves little room for outside innovation. The latest Monocle project, luxury residences designed by Monocle and built by Thai property group –  and new Monocle investor – Sansiri, feels like it may accentuate that divide. Finally, it remains to be seen how younger readers will catch on to Brûlé’s brilliant but mostly static vision and tastes. Will it still be relevant in 10 years? And, more importantly for the brand’s future: can Monocle survive without Brûlé?

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Image credit: © Monocle

Brand Activation, Brand Strategy, Consumer goods