Nonprofit Branding: Cost, Impact and Use of Logo-Pens

(A short essay about a boring topic – but enhanced by some husband/wife disagreement.  In sorting out this disagreement the reader will be assisted by Justin Timberlake, who supports the author by sporting one of our favorite branding products.)

There is no doubt – logo-Pens are the most popular promotional product in the USA. Consequently, they are offered by every vendor, including VisABILITY (

Despite their popularity, I think pens are an unproductive and ill-advised branding product.

In this post I’ll give you the market data reflecting the use of logo-pens, followed by my opinion that logo-pens are a waste of money for a nonprofit – even though everybody else loves them.

This has become a personal issue because my wife, Janice Gavan, disagrees with me. I am older. She is wiser. She is also the president of our company, VisABILITY. So she will get her say after I explain my views.

Then I will have the last word. Between us, you will be prepared to make your own decision…..

DATA: At any time 46% of Americans own at least one logo-pen. (In Great Britain the ownership is 63% and in Australia it is 74%!)

The average pen will generate 2005 impressions during the 5.5 months it is in use. Keep that figure in mind. I am going to come back to it with a challenge.

NOTE: A tab at the top of this page takes you to a glossary of terms you need to understand when buying or using branding products – and when reading this blog. Here is its definition of IMPRESSIONS:

the number of times your logo is exposed to individual observers.   For branding products this is one of the three critical factors in measuring the impact of an imprinted item. The other two are Frequency and Reach.”

NOTE: Market research, based on a $3.00 pen, produces an astonishing cost per impression. We believe $3.00 is excessive – that many truly fine pens can be purchased for $1.00 or even less. At the lower unit cost they would generate an even more extraordinary cost per impression. Nevertheless, as I am about to argue, the low cost per impression for pens is a deceptive metric.

Cost per impression: This is the pivotal calculation generated by the market research: the average pen, which costs $3.00 and generates 2005 impressions in its lifetime, produces those impressions at an astonishingly efficient cost of $00.001 per impression – a hundredth of a cent for each time the pen is seen.

That is the lowest cost per impression of any imprinted promotional product available in the known universe!

Compare it with other mass media that might keep your nonprofit in front of the public. Cost per impression of a billboard is twice as high and an internet ad is three times more expensive. Prime time TV is 18 times more costly. A national magazine advertisement costs 45 times more per impression than a pen.

When measured by cost per impression, a logo-pen would appear to be a great bargain. WRONG!

OBSERVATIONS: This is my objection. I believe the highly affirmative market research data is deceptive. Pens carry little dinky logos. The logos are hidden by a hand when the pen is used. When not in use the observer must be a few feet from the pen to identify the logo. We once produced a round pencil with an 8-color logo for the PBS program Thomas the Tank Engine. That was a unique and expensive exception: nearly all pens (and pencils, too) require a less-noticeable one color logo.

So, what are those incredibly low-cost impressions actually measuring? A tiny logo, too small to be identified on a ubiquitous, unimaginative product too common to be noticed. They measure the times the pen is seen – not the times the logo is observed!

DISAGREEMENT: Janice rejects my point. Here are her words: Several clients have used pens effectively. Public broadcasting stations and producers hand them out at local, regional and even national events. The American Association for Cancer Research Foundation uses thousands of a flat pen that can double as a bookmark, be carried in a wallet and can be easily mailed. A favorite pen of my own is one we produced for a station years ago. If I misplace that pen I track it down because it is the best one I own.

REBUTTAL: This is a pretty mild subject for husband/wife disagreement. I believe Janice is neglecting two points – utility and user dynamics.

Utility: Janice makes three points. First, many nonprofits use pens. True – but that doesn’t make them an effective branding product. Second – she cites the flat pen used by the AACR Foundation. But it is the unique functionality of that pen that makes it an effective branding product – and other pens don’t have that level of uniqueness. Third, while it is true that Janice has a favorite pen – it is her favorite because of the way it fits her hand and the smoothness of the roller-ball – not because of its association with the organization whose brand we imprinted on it.

User Dynamics: This is the second issue Janice I think overlooked in her disagreement with my comments. Your supporters want to own products with your logo because they spotlight affiliation with your cause – thus enabling supporters to brand themselves with evidence of commitment to your mission.

Using a branding product with your logo is a public demonstration of affinity. Because it spotlights affiliation with your cause, your branding product allows supporters to brand themselves with evidence of commitment to your mission.

When I cover my bald head I reach for a cap with a Car Talk logo – and think of it as the “Car Talk” hat. My sister-in-law talks about the wonderful totebag we gave her and refers to it as the “PBS bag.” When Justin Timberlake selects an NPR T-shirt to wear, we can assume he does so because of the logo. The identity of these branding products is based on the logo that was imprinted on them. That logo  creates perceived value for to the owner and return-on-investment for the nonprofit.

The logo on a pen is too small to be noticed by anyone but the user. So it is not sufficient to give the pen an identity. To its owner that pen’s identity will remain the “blue pen” or the “roller-ball pen” or the “pen with green ink.”  There is little chance the owner will identify the pen by its logo – and less chance the casual observer will do so. Consequently, the impressive cost per impression is based on the frequency the pen is observed – not the times its logo is noticed.

COMING UP: These dynamics are too important to ignore when considering how branding products enhance the marketing of a nonprofit. So in the next post we will examine why the Lord of Logos rules the marketplace! And we’ll identify other resources that help explain the branding power of the well-used logo.

3 thoughts on “Nonprofit Branding: Cost, Impact and Use of Logo-Pens

  1. You are wrong , Janice is right! if you pick the right pen for the job and given the number of writing instruments out there.. how can you not pick the right pen? You can’t pick a better item.

    There are:
    “Sharpies” permanent ink markers which I was informed was like ‘gold’ to a hotel concierge.

    Pens that can tell you if a dollar bill is fake.

    High end pens if you’re feeling high end!

    Pens that right great but don’t cost much (Uni-Balls are my favorites)

    Pens with a rubber grip if you’re becoming arthritic.

    Pens with room for 6 messages!

    and I rarely sell a pen that costs more than $1 let alone $3! So divide your cost per impression by .66% to get the true cost.

    Suck it up John and admit you are wrong!

    • Rob, a top-flight promotional products salesperson, raises some interesting points. As you already know, My wife, Janice Gavan, agrees with him. So, we will discuss the conflicting views in a full blog post in early 2013. This will be a test to see if I can hold my ground against the VisABILITY president and the professional salesman. Whether I win or lose – you will be the beneficiary. The information we present, even the different viewpoints, will be a great boost for your own decision-making as you decide where to invest your marketing budget.


  2. Pingback: NONPROFIT BRANDING: Reader Rebuttal to My Logo-Pen Rant | Nonprofit Branding Blog

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