Over a dozen years since debuting a tongue-in-cheek marketing campaign built around “freeing” pens that had been tethered to the teller counters in its branches, Huntington Bancshares has handed out more than 79 million.
Julie Tutkovics, the $183 billion-asset Huntington’s chief marketing and communications officer, says the bank has no plans to stop.
A similar program at TD Bank has been going on for even longer — dating back to the New Jersey-based Commerce Bancorp, which Toronto-Dominion Bank bought in 2008 — and was recently updated to ensure that the 20 million pens it gives away each year are made primarily from recycled plastics.
But these are the outliers. While pen giveaways are hardly novel, many banks pulled back on this practice during the financial crisis. And pens of this quality aren’t cheap, even when purchased in bulk.
Vernon Hill, who helped pioneer the mass pen giveaway when he headed Commerce, acknowledged that it’s difficult to calculate a return on the marketing dollars spent. “There’s no math” to prove giving away pens helps business, Hill said in an interview.
But that could be said of almost any marketing.
“As a marketer, you look at staying power and you look at distinctiveness, and you look at a way to proliferate the brand in a different and unique way from the competition,” Tutkovics said. “When you think about the pen, it checks all those boxes.”
Indeed, the pen giveaway has grown into one of the Columbus, Ohio-based Huntington’s signature marketing tools, according to Tutkovics, who joined the bank in August 2016, following its acquisition of FirstMerit Corp.
Ironically, Huntington’s pen giveaway was originally intended as a short-term promotion to set the company apart in the wake of the financial crisis, when many banks had suspended similar efforts.
“We as an organization were kind of zigging while others zagged,” Tutkovics said.
At what cost?
Absent any discounts, promotional pens can cost about 50 cents each, according to Mark Jackson, founder of SwagDrop, a Pittsburgh-based promotions firm.
Banks like Huntington or TD that give pens away in such high numbers have to strike a balance between cost and quality, Jackson said. Whatever discount they get for buying in bulk may be offset by the cost of making sure the pens are durable.
“You want [each pen] to last,” Jackson said. “You don’t want them to run out of ink quickly or break. The danger is you’ve got your logo on them.”
Huntington reported spending $91 million on marketing in 2022. Tutkovics declined to say how much of that total was spent purchasing pens, though she did note the bank receives a volume discount from its supplier.
And Hill remains convinced that pen giveaways played a role in Commerce’s growth from a one-branch startup in 1973 to a $50 billion regional powerhouse in 2007, when he stepped down as chairman and CEO.
So much so that Hill continued giving away pens at Metro Bank, the British bank he co-founded in 2010, and at Philadelphia-based Republic First Bancorp, where he served as chairman from 2016 to 2022.
“In my last years at Commerce, we were giving away 21 million pens a year and we were trying to get the numbers up,” Hill said. “We used to joke, `Would you rather have customers walk over to the counter and find a pen that was tied up, or would you rather have every customer take as many branded pens as they wanted?'”
TD recently renewed its pen push, aiming to retain the promotional power of its pens while limiting the harm that such plastic products can have on the environment. As of January 2022, its pens are made from recycled water bottles, which contribute 72% of the plastic content of the pen, according to a case study on TD’s website. The bank estimated at the time that 100 million bottles will be used to make its pens over the next five years.
Small pen, big reach
Huntington says its pens have been spotted in all 50 states, as well as Costa Rica, India, France, Italy, Spain, China, Africa and Afghanistan. In addition to its more than 1,000 branches, Huntington gives pens away at homeless shelters, polling stations, Junior Achievement events and to anyone who asks for them.
“The answer is always ‘yes,'” Tutkovics said.
At Huntington, every employee is encouraged to pitch in and give away pens, including senior management. “As for myself, I always have a dozen pens in my purse,” Tutkovics said. “Every restaurant I go to, when I sign the bill, I leave a pen.”
Chairman and CEO Steve Steinour, too, does his part. “If I go to a restaurant or the doctor’s office, I always drop a pen,” Steinour, American Banker’s Banker of the Year in 2012, said in an interview earlier this month. “If I go on vacation, I grab a little baggie of pens.”
TD employees also treat their pens as travel companions. One even brought a pen on a trip to Antarctica.
Even though these banks may not have a presence in every country — or continent — where their pens have been spotted, they are getting a good promotional value for what they spend, according to Martha Bartlett Piland, founder of Banktastic, a bank marketing firm in Topeka, Kansas.
“The cost of [getting] a pen with a logo on it in someone’s hand is probably pretty inexpensive,” Piland said. “Every time they pick that up, over and over again, they’re having this reinforcement of the [bank’s] brand. That becomes a very low cost per impression.”
SwagDrop’s Jackson said the best promotions are typically the most useful. And everybody has a use for a pen.
“The more utility, the more value you’re providing the client,” Jackson said. Pens “keep people thinking about the brand every time they use it,” he said.
When Steinour joined Huntington as chairman and CEO in 2009, it was a $54 billion-asset bank operating in six states that had just reported a $113 million annual loss. Over the past 14 years, Huntington has returned to profitability. It has completed two major acquisitions, doubling the size of its footprint, all while growing assets more than three times. The bank also recently announced a reorganization, shuttering 30 branches this quarter and unveiling a plan to consolidate several major business lines into a single unit.
Amid growth, tumult and change, the pen giveaway has been a constant — though an unlikely one.
When the pen giveaway started, Huntington was “looking for some way to extend the brand into something that consumers and business might find of use,” Steinour said. “We looked at several things, but we decided to do these pens — and I’m glad we did.”
The company anticipated giving away “a couple of million pens,” Steinour said. “But they went out like hotcakes. I remember our marketing director saying, ‘We really have to order a much bigger amount.’ “
Steinour is careful to keep Huntington’s pen promotion in perspective. He termed it a differentiator, but a minor one. At the same time, it’s clear the pens have evolved into a kind of talisman for the company.
Giving them away is “an easy way to leave a piece of Huntington behind,” Tutkovics said. “It creates a warmth and a feeling that I think represents who we are as an organization.”
Initially, its pens featured the Huntington name along with “Welcome,” the company tagline. Over time, Huntington introduced pens with the Spanish translation, “Bienvenido.” It plans to add Polish and Arabic translations as well.
The idea is “welcome to all,” Tutkovics said. “We have rainbow pens for Pride Month, and we’ve got American flag pens. Again, same pen, just a different design with the ‘Welcome’ logo on it. So, they really have grown a life of their own.”
For noncustomers who end up with a Huntington pen, that reinforcement could prove important down the line, according to Piland.
“If they’re ready to make a change, or if they’re ready to adopt a new loan or some other product, Huntington has built awareness as a choice to be considered,” Piland said.
Piland has worked with clients on numerous promotional giveaway initiatives, from pens and coffee cups, which she termed “standard fallbacks,” to more sophisticated “corporate swag.” None of those projects proved to be as enduring as the pen giveaway, Piland said.
“Sometimes an institution might buy 10 boxes of koozies that they plan to give away at a race,” Piland said. “Whatever they have leftover, they’re going to give out over time. And when they’re gone, they’re gone. Those leave lingering brand touchpoints, too — but not of the magnitude of Huntington’s pens.”