Special Report: Pens - Pen problems - and how to solve them

Blotching, leaking, staining ... the pen may be a buyers' favourite but it has its drawbacks. Gemma O'Reilly comes up with solutions. Legend has it that the production of the first practical, business-friendly pens grew out of the annoyance and frustration of one Lewis Edson Waterman in 1884. The insurance broker was set to sign a vital contract on a building site with a new fountain pen he had bought for the occasion.

But in signing the contract, first the pen wouldn't write and then the ink blotted on the important paperwork.

While Waterman returned to his office for a new contract, a rival broker jumped in on the act and sealed the business for himself. As it turns out, the turn of events was no bad thing, and an international brand was born that still exists today.

Much less fortunately, the problems that blighted Waterman are just as prevalent today. Pens that won't write, or that blotch, leak, stain because of bad logo imprints, or are faulty in 101 other ways are still being used as premiums. These not only annoy the recipient, but also adversely have an impact on the brand that distributes them.

As Wendy Vickery, marketing manager at Pentel, points out: "If the pen doesn't impress it is a false economy. It's better to spend more and distribute fewer pens. That way you will impress rather than annoy recipients with a cheap pen that may not work efficiently."

While buyers can't control every element of how their premiums are made, they can demand that suppliers inform them of, and indeed deliver to, certain specifications. Ink and build quality, branding options, comfort and ease of use, style, cost and safety considerations should all be on the checklist.

Branding options are obviously important because brands don't want to leave their logo colours on the palms and fingers of recipients. According to Martin Herman, sales director at Promo Pen, the sweat, oils and chemicals from soap etc on skin can "cause certain print techniques on pens to dissolve over time" especially with plastic pens.

This no doubt affects how long logos will last and a possible solution, according to Herman, is to source metal bodies from Asia. "The inks used in factories in the Far East are stronger and are imprinted before assembly, which means that there is greater bonding due to the higher temperatures used when constructed than in the UK," says Promo Pen's Herman. "They are able to offer guaranteed ink adhesion that cannot happen with plastic pens because they begin to melt in high temperatures."

Herman adds that the printing times that buyers expect suppliers to adhere to can also affect the longevity of the design. "The rules are stricter in the UK. Metal pens ideally need 10 days to dry and often don't have that time because buyers need the pens quickly. As a result, the printing may not last as long as the buyer would have liked," he says.

Different print techniques have also emerged to offer more choice for buyers. Along with existing screen printing and laser engraving options, Senator can offer 360deg printing, and photo-realistic printing that allows the supplier to print a photo directly onto a pen.

But for some buyers, the thought of sourcing abroad is a deterrent. One reason is that the lead times can vary from four weeks up to as many as 14 depending on the quantity and style chosen. Another is the worry of less-than-robust adherence to the ISO Standards, which need to be met for inks used in any pen in Europe. This is particularly significant when it comes to refills. "Some Far East refills are sub-standard," warns Prodir managing director Rod Duncan. "Technology today means that ballpoint pens should no longer blob, but there is the risk that those sourced abroad will not be of the same quality." Herman concurs and adds: "Blobbing comes down to the quality and cost of the pen."

And if budget is a major factor, refills are available half full to cut costs, suggests Herman. "It is important to specify what you want and make sure that you only get half full refills if you asked for them. For some buyers, including charities that need to keep costs at a minimum, just the amount of ink needed to complete the application form is required," he says.

Quality control

Having an idea of how long the ink will last is a key consideration and suppliers should be able to give an indication. Liz Williams, new donor acquisition manager at the Red Cross, revised the charity's pen specifications because recipients "complained that the pens ran out too quickly", she says.

When it comes to build quality, Mitreprize's UK sales co-ordinator Paul Mason believes things have improved. "The industry is definitely moving forward technically, and pens are becoming more solid in strength. Buyers are getting more for their money now than they did two or three years ago," he believes.

Pentel's Vickery agrees: "Techniques are improving all the time. A greater awareness of drying times, improvements in materials and the manufacture of the barrel have been seen in the industry. The choice of products on offer is also giving buyers a greater variety from which to choose."

Recyclable options are also becoming more popular, with companies wanting to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility agendas.

For the pen to stay in suit pockets and briefcases, it not only has to work but it must be comfortable to use. Rubber grips are not new to the market but developments include silicone grips, which are relatively new.

"They are softer than rubber and therefore more comfortable," says Herman.

However, he warns that it is advisable to ask for a sample first before committing to order. "In my experience, these types of grips come off very easily when writing and will then have to be thrown away because it is difficult to write without the grip."

Multi-functionality is also giving pens refreshed desirability. "Dual-use pens are now popular," says Mitreprize's Mason. "Ballpoints can now come with a stylus nib for use as a PDA. There are also highlighter options, USBs, torches and sticky notelets. They have become multi-functional as technology has evolved."

Ease of use

The mechanisms involved are also evolving. Twist and push buttons are still the most popular, according to Mason, but new designs are appearing on the market every few months. Prodir's DS4 has a patented Pushtwist mechanism with a push button to write and a twist cap to retract. Coles Pen Company has also developed the Usus and Yoropen designs. The Usus uses a SupraSpin system, which is a new mechanism that holds the pen together using magnetic power, dispensing with the need for loose parts and springs.

The Yoropen is designed to make writing easier and more comfortable with an adjustable grip that rotates for the preferred writing position, a finger support that changes the angle and reduces writing strain, and with visual space to make it easier to see what you are writing.

Desktop Business Gifts has also launched its Sostanza range, which has been designed with the specific intention of being branded. A logo can be etched or marked on so that it does not fade, and its capless quality refill stops ink from evaporating and the nib from drying out when the pen is not in use.

Ultimately, budget versus quality is the main consideration when choosing a pen, but it is the buyer's responsibility to ensure that any premiums meet the appropriate safety standards. Pens must pass the pen cap safety test, whereby the caps are either too big to be inhaled or have ventilation holes. Ink toxicity must also be tested to make sure that the inks used pass the appropriate safety levels.

Although pens may appear to be a quick and easy promotional tool, the purchasing decision is clearly complex. As Prodir's Duncan points out: "Remember, you get what you pay for." Which is as true today as it was for Waterman in 1884.


- Check that pen caps and small parts meet safety standards

- Ensure that the pen has passed safe ink toxicity levels

- Work out your budget before looking for pen suppliers so that you have a clear idea in mind of what you can reasonably afford

- Find out how long the pen will write for and how much ink is supplied

- Make sure that the design reflects what you want to achieve, as well as your brand/company values - do you want to choose a designer pen and, if so, what type would be best

- Ask for a sample before committing to an order

- Find out about colour-matching techniques from suppliers so that you can marry the pen with brand/company colours

- Consider dual-use pens to increase the perceived value of the pen

- Decide what type of packaging you want and if it also requires branding

- Find out about delivery times and if this will work with your schedule

- Find out about recyclable options, if CSR is important to your company.

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