Promotional Writing Instruments: Trends, Sales Challenges and Opportunities
In a world filled with nonstop advances in technology and the feeling of always needing the newest device, it can be hard to remember the days when all we needed was a pen and paper. But no matter how advanced technology gets, the feeling of physically writing something down can’t be perfectly replicated. The grip, the color, the weight, the feel of actual paper—none of that can be done virtually through an app. And every end-user has that one favorite writing instrument they gravitate toward.
With so many available options to choose from, how do you go about selecting winning writing instruments that end-users will love? According to Brian Porter, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Starline, the supplier based in Grand Island, N.Y., it’s all about finding a product that resonates with end-users and something they will use for the long run.
“Right now, people want something trustworthy and comfortable,” he said. “Finding a pen that people connect with is almost like finding the perfect pair of jeans or shoes—when you find that brand, you never switch. With the current climate, companies are trending more toward pens that they can give to a client as more than just a throwaway.”
To get more info, we spoke to Porter and three other industry experts. Here, they discussed what end-users are looking for in their writing instruments, updated trends and products, sales challenges and more.
As with any product category, it’s crucial to know what end-users want out of a writing instrument. For example, you don’t want to suggest a pen that writes in black ink if the end-users typically prefer blue. So you’ll want to pay attention to trends, user needs and what’s popular in different verticals.
“First and foremost, people want their pens to write well and last,” said Parker Melvin, national sales manager for Goldstar, San Diego. “Black ink outsells blue ink, but blue is popular in certain verticals such as legal and financial. Darker barrel colors generally outsell lighter/brighter, and barrels with soft-touch coating are still all the rage (and have been for going on four years now). Beyond that, personal preferences are all over the map and difficult to predict. The worst thing we can do is to sell writing instruments according to personal preferences.”
Melvin had another great piece of advice: Showcase how a pen can make a brand truly shine. In other words, don’t just focus on a writing instrument’s features, but on how those features can help end-buyers accomplish their marketing goals.
“If we assume that a good pen from a good company is going to write well and last, then the next/most important consideration is what style/color/size/decoration method is going to deliver the brand the best,” he said. “I’ve seen it time and time again at end-user shows: Give a group of end-users a particular pen, and the ‘I like this and I don’t like that’ comments start flying. But turn the conversation toward the advantages of the pen in delivering their particular brand and messaging, and personal preferences quickly fade away.”
At Montreal-based Spector & Co., Jackie Goldhar, regional sales manager, and Victoria Mitchell, director of business development, are seeing strong sales for modern and minimalist writing instrument styles. Stylus pens and rubberized finishes also remain popular, as do retail-like options.
“Something more unique that we’ve seen lately are multipacks of pens with a custom backer card,” Goldhar and Mitchell said. “This not only feels more ‘retail,’ but also gives us the opportunity to upsell and add more value to the overall branding story.”
Melvin agreed that stylus pens remain strong sellers. Eco-friendly options and metal pens with rose gold accents are trending too, he said, as well as full-color decoration—though he noted that writing instrument decoration can be as much a challenge as an opportunity due to the smaller imprint size. That’s why product research is key.
“Know your stuff,” Melvin said. “Be as well-versed in the different decoration methods available on plastic versus metal pens as you are with different [decoration] methods on apparel.”
And while many customers order writing instruments in bulk, that isn’t always the best option.
“Quality over quantity,” said Porter. “It comes down to brand equity. Do you want your logo attached to a product that will be inferior and, thus, project your company to be inferior? Absolutely not. Quality always wins.”
Because of their small size and low weight, writing instruments are fantastic add-ons for a kitting project. As Goldhar and Mitchell put it, “Just about anything pairs well with writing instruments because everyone needs and uses them.”
The pair recalled a few recent kitting projects, including one that combined a personalized pen and journal, a branded Bluetooth speaker, and a snack item packaged together using Spector & Co.’s Combo Crates.
“We printed the box with the company’s logo, which finished off the presentation perfectly,” they said. “Employee engagement is at an all-time high, and we were able to execute and deliver impact on many levels for the recipient.”
Porter, too, said that writing instruments are a great item to add to any kitting project. He shared an example of a recent order that incorporated one of Starline’s top-selling pen brands into a fun and effective kit.
“Obviously, [kitting has] increased quite a bit in the past year, and we have kitted writing instruments with everything—even our cast iron skillets,” Porter said. “It was an entire campaign about eating at home (as many of us did for the majority of 2020). They took a cookbook and a uni-ball pen and put that in a cast iron skillet. The concept was to write down new recipes in the back of the book. [It was] very well received!”