Every company strives to achieve brand equity. But, too often, money gets tossed at over-priced, one-off ad campaigns that fail to generate a measurable return on investment. Similarly, companies also talk about establishing top-of-mind awareness in their target markets. But even the most loyal customers can’t think about one brand every day. Or can they?
Perhaps the better marketing method is to think strategically rather than expensively – in other words, to keep top-of-mind by getting the brand into the hands of customers and prospects, literally. The simplest and most direct route to that goal is through the products of National Pen Corporation.
In the $18 billion promotional products industry – which includes calendars, mugs, paper cubes, magnets, T-shirts, hats, mouse pads and tote bags – pens top the chart. National Pen is a leading manufacturer in that leading category, as well as an innovative direct-mail company. “Our mission is to create a customer-focused environment that provides excellent service on high-value products designed with dynamic quality graphics to earn above-average profits,” says Paul Pickard, the company’s chief operating officer.
Founded by Al Liguori in 1948, National Pen had its humble beginning as a tool and die company in the Bronx, New York, known as Modern Mold and Tool. A machinist by trade, Liguori made some of the first ball-point pens ever produced in the United States and supplied a number of specialty companies in the early years. His innovative designs were very popular, and the company grew rapidly. Eventually, Tom Liguori, Al’s son, led the company into mail order — hence the development of National Pen as both a pen manufacturer and a mail-order company.
Today, with roughly 500,000 square feet of manufacturing space and more than 1,000 employees at its in locations in Shelbyville, Tenn., Tijuana, Mexico, and Dundalk, Ireland, as well as its headquarters location in San Diego, National Pen is a leader in the promotional products industry. The company has won the Ad Specialities Institute’s Top Distributor award every year the award has been offered.
At the Pen-nacle
The past 10 years have seen strong and steady growth in the promotional products industry. Since 1990, overall sales volume has more than doubled, which by any metric means that promotional products work. The industries that rely on promotional products include financial, health-care, non-profit, education, manufacturing, insurance, automotive, government, entertainment and sporting events and media, among many others. Pens have always held a special place in the industry because they can be either relatively low in cost, allowing for broad distribution, or very expensive, carrying elements of prestige. In either case, they tend to have a long life.
“Virtually every industry uses promotional products in a variety of different ways,” says Pickard. “National Pen sells mainly through mail order and telemarketing, mailing via a number of mailing lists that we rent. We also call our better customers, who we know well and order our product regularly. It’s a great company to be part of because our business is all about helping other companies to grow their business.”
According to Pickard, companies use National Pen products for new-product introductions (especially pharmaceutical and banking), distributor giveaways (especially awards for achievement of certain goals), team-building events, trade shows, internal event promotions (especially quality or total customer satisfaction events), gifts (especially Christmas/end of year), vendor appreciation and customer incentives. Wearables, shirts, caps, jackets and so on are often used as brand-awareness builders and as uniforms in retail establishments.
Compared to other products, the engineering and technical challenges behind pen manufacturing are relatively simple. According to Pickard, the huge challenge for National Pen comes in getting a relatively small order (less than 100 pens) with someone’s name, address and phone number on the item. National Pen must make the pens in less than 48 hours and get them to the customer free of mistakes in order to make money, since such small orders leave little margin for error or customer dissatisfaction. In addition to this order-by-order level of mass customization, every piece of direct mail sent to every potential customer contains a fully personalized offer just for that customer.
National Pen’s patented decorating processes allow the company to economically create fully customized pens in single-unit quantities. The decoration can be as simple as a name in text, or as complicated as an extremely colorful photograph with text and other graphics. “The more colorful the better,” Pickard says, “because color catches people’s eye and attracts more attention and interest, people are more likely to hold on to the pen if it is colorful. Believe me, color sells.” If you can get it into a computer, National Pen can get it onto a pen and produce it in very low order quantities, a capability unmatched in an industry in which full color is usually available only in orders of 10,000 or more. “Decorating technology is really important to National Pen,” says Pickard. “Similarly, anything National Pen can do to reduce our order-entry or handling costs is all critical.”
One technical marketing method National Pen is exploring is the Internet. National Pen has been very pleased with its initial successes in working to drive traffic to www.pens.com. While this new virtual medium is not the lion’s share of the market today, Internet sales are a rapidly growing segment of the marketplace. This is especially so for highly customized products like promotional products.
“We are selling some product over the Internet and we see it as a growth market for our future. Although, it’s not a major part of our revenue today, we believe that at some point in the future the Internet will be a major source of our business, and we expect to lead the industry in that transition.” Still, as the leader of an industry that understands the value in personalization, National Pen is looking to lead the tactics that leverage the unique, customization potential inherent in the Internet. “Every order we process is a custom order with someone’s name, address and phone number on it,” says Pickard. “We believe that the Internet really plays into that kind of customization.”
National Pen’s evolution into a direct-mail powerhouse gives the company a strategic advantage over its competitors. The company’s ability to capitalize on the profits to be made from personalized promotions and dimensional mailings position it at the forefront of an industry whose growth seems assured. Furthermore, National Pen has just established a co-marketing relationship with Pitney Bowes on its “Pitney Works” Web site. This unique e-commerce relationship should lead to more strategic alliances.
“National Pen has more than five decades of experience helping its clients put their brands into the hands of their customers,” says Pickard. “Promotional products work for all industries, and National Pen is here to create optimal, customized solutions for any company that seeks a smart, effective way to build brand awareness and, ultimately, revenue.”