Huntington Lends Money (but Gives Pens Away)

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Not only are the ballpoint pens chained to a small counter when you visit a bank, they’re almost always out of ink. Or so it seems.

Sometime in 2009, the chief marketing officer at Huntington National Bank, Executive Vice President David Clifton, saw an opportunity and seized it.

Beginning the next year, Huntington Bank no longer chained its pens to small counters. Today it urges its customers (and visitors) to help themselves to one of the green ballpoint pens with the bank logo and name on the side that faces a right-handed writer, “Welcome” on the side that faces a left-hander.

“Our customers shouldn’t feel guilty about taking a pen,” Clifton declares.

One who doesn’t is Chet Cooper, a professor of biology at Youngstown State University, who helps himself every time he visits the Giant Eagle supermarket close to where he lives. Huntington has offices in most area Giant Eagles.

“I love them,” Cooper says, “And every time I go to Giant Eagle, I try to pick up one or two more. They write real smooth. They’re superior to these Youngstown State pens. I’m a little addicted to them.”

The bank has distributed or offered 20 million pens since 2010, a bank spokesman says, through its 415 branches throughout Ohio, 51 in western Pennsylvania, 31 in West Virginia, 158 in Michigan, 45 in Indiana and 12 in northern Kentucky.

Its goal is to distribute 34 million, or one for each household in its Midwestern footprint, Clifton says. The bank sets out 600,000 a month for people to pick up.

These aren’t just any ballpoint pens, Clifton points out. The marketing department at Huntington “spent a lot of time on the pen shape,” he relates, “and how it felt to hold it.” The color, obviously, would be the same green as the Huntington logo and cylindrical handles on the doors to the bank branches.

Each pen measures 5½ inches in length, has a black rubber grip 1¼ to 1½ inches above the half-inch silver metal tip, a black plastic clip to keep it securely in a shirt pocket, and above that a silver-colored button to push out and retract the nib. Three in every five have black ink, the other two blue ink.

Another fan of Huntington pens is Pam Conti, office manager of the Northern Ohio chapter of the National Safety Council (and a bank customer). She endorses the features Clifton cites. “I like Huntington pens,” she begins. “I’ve used several. I like the gripper. I like the way they work every time I push the button. … It has a nice clip. I keep one on my Bible at home. And they’re easy to see in my purse.”

No one interviewed reported his Huntington pen exhausting its ink supply but several reported mislaying or losing them. Many suspect someone else simply helped himself to their pens instead of going to a Huntington branch.

One can find them nearly everywhere, it seems. Since he was pitched this story, this reporter has noticed them in offices, on the counters of stores and restaurants (dine-ins and carry-outs) – he’s signed restaurant tabs with Huntington pens – and in this paper’s offices.

One carry-out this reporter patronizes has a bin with eight ballpoints, five of them Huntington pens, next to the cash register and POS terminal.

Many retail outlets have the pens because they bank with Huntington but a surprisingly large sample does not, he learned. He cannot confirm Huntington’s claim that its pens have been spotted in the offices of its competitors.

“A Huntington [lending officer] had lunch at a table beside a competitor who was selling his bank’s services while taking notes with a Huntington pen,” the bank reports. It also says, “Huntington [employees] have seen employees at the drive-thrus of other banks insert Huntington pens in the tubes sent to customers with instructions to sign the back of the check in the tube.”

Ballpoint pens remain a “preferred item” for companies to give away in hopes of raising brand awareness, says Bruce Sherman, president and co-owner of Sherman Creative Promotions Inc., Boardman. “They cost less than a dollar each and politicians and businesses use them a lot.”

Huntington declined to say how much the pens it gives away cost or identify the company that makes them.

The average pen given away as a promotional item changes hands as many as 10 times, Sherman says, before it’s lost, stuck in a drawer or forgotten. “People tend not to throw them away,” Sherman has found. “Most like ballpoint pens.”

They also like roller ball and gel pens as well as pens with nylon points.

The quality of the Huntington pens is such, Sherman reports, that “People come in with a Huntington pen and say, ‘Can you make me something like this?’ ”

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the July edition of The Business Journal.

Copyright 2014 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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