CAMPAIGNS: Product PR - Pilot pens survey that draws big ink

Client: Pilot Pen Corporation of America (Trumbull, CT)
PR Team: In-house, with Jeff Barge (New York)
Campaign: The Psychology of the Pen
Time Frame: April - May 2002
Budget: Less than $15,000

Everybody needs pens, but as Sallie Mitchell, PR director at Pilot Pen Corporation of America, says, it's always a challenge capturing publicity for writing instruments. Pens aren't exactly the most glamorous pieces of office equipment, and though people are buying them more than ever, it's a low-interest category.

Holiday-themed campaigns had not worked well for Pilot in years past, so Mitchell needed to work quickly, before the back-to-school season.

Strategy

Hoping that a news hole had opened up, Pilot looked to put some comic relief in the workplace and in the post-September-11 media.

"We wanted to see how people think and feel about their pens, Mitchell says. "We like to come up with creative, wacky ways to grab attention."

Mitchell called independent PR consultant Jeff Barge, whose specialty lies in publicizing quirky promotional surveys. Together, they developed a plan for getting media attention, as well as a looking inside consumers' heads.

Tactics

Working with data showing that pens with purple and green ink were becoming more common in offices, Barge developed "Pen Psychology, a survey that correlated pen color to various workplace behaviors. "We wanted to see if you could predict how an office worker would perform by looking at the color of their pens, Barge says.

In conjunction with Princeton, NJ-based Opinion Research, Barge developed and conducted a survey of 645 American office workers. Results showed, among other things, that purple-pen users are most likely to be helpful to their bosses, and that men who use green pens are most likely to intentionally steal pens from coworkers. Conveniently, the survey also showed that the happiest workers were the ones with the most pens.

"We used scientific methods, but the questions and results were not at all scientific, says Mitchell.

In fact, Pilot's original press release featured a quote from CEO (and former stand-up comedian Ron Shaw) in which he said that the company was "quite flummoxed about the practical application of the study's results - a comment that one journalist called "one of the funniest and most refreshing quotes to come from corporate America in a long time."

Promoting the survey proved easier than expected because the results were open to interpretation. "The key is to always have a punch line, add some bells and whistles, Barge says, "so a writer can super-size it."

Barge reached out to print journalists he had worked with in the past to get the survey published, pitching workplace editors and feature editors.

Mitchell mailed cover letters along with a free pen, and offered a PDF of the entire survey.

Results

"I thought it would be a nice, small item, Barge says, "but it went out on the Knight-Ridder wire. Indeed, the media coverage was far greater than expected, with an estimated 56 million media impressions generated to date. Five of the top-10 newspapers in the country covered the survey, and media monitoring revealed that the survey had won TV and radio spots in Houston, Tampa, Phoenix, Minneapolis, the UK, and even China, among others.

It's too early to see what the effects are on sales, as Pilot's customers order three months in advance. But the company is optimistic heading into the back-to-school sales period.

Future

Mitchell and Barge hope to make the survey an annual event. Next year, Barge says, he will add more funny questions. "We'll add one to see if pen color can predict who is after the boss' job."

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