How marketers should think about about stationery and branded swag

Fountain pens

Personally, I’ve always liked nice stationery made of thick paper. It goes back to when I was a teenager, when I was pretending to be an adult and wrote regularly in newsstand technology magazines. In those days, when most people weren’t on email, Conqueror and a fountain pen signature helped me get access to the right people.

Yet, now that I’m actually an adult, I’m usually the guy advocating cost-saving around written correspondence, encouraging email or, if needs must, using so-called “hybrid mail”. This is where a postal company takes a letter in electronic form, and prints it on photocopy paper before using a machine to insert it into a low-cost, white C6 envelope, and then gives it to Royal Mail for the “last mile” of delivery.

Is there a conflict going on there? And is there a conflict between me being a marketer, who surely cares about the brand, and being relentlessly sceptical of branded promotional products?

Here’s how I think about the subject.

1. Personal correspondence vs transactional correspondence

Personal correspondence is different from “transactional” correspondence. When I send someone a letter on 160gsm A5 wove paper, it’s generally to express appreciation and sometimes to get noticed. It’s never “transactional”, which is what hybrid mail is for, and which ideally would be sent by email.

Likewise, at work, if a colleague suffered a personal tragedy, I wouldn’t want to send a hybrid mail letter – but send some flowers. So the medium should be tailored to the message.

2. Customer value proposition

The decision about stationery type should be thought of in terms of the customer value proposition. If you’re a luxury hotel in central London charging £700 a night, your differentiation strategy is likely to include making everything luxurious in order to support the pricing. You probably want to use top-end 100% cotton paper with the Connoisseur watermark (and matching tissue-lined envelopes) for absolutely everything.

On the other hand, it is often the case that, even if you are going for a differentiation strategy (rather than a low cost one), you might want to be economical with printed material. That’s because your differentiation is, let’s say, about the technology you’ve investing in or speed of delivery. That creates a cost environment where you invest a lot in certain things but are looking for savings in others – which lets you increase the customer value proposition.

3. Delighting customers at touchpoints

Delighting people at every “touchpoint” is an idea that might seem to justify always going expensive on paper stock and giving out lots of branded promotional products. In fact, research by CEB/Gartner finds that “delighting” customers isn’t what drives loyalty. Instead, what’s important is “how well companies deliver on their basic, even plain-vanilla promises”. Issues like “can I get through on the phone?”, “did they resolve my problem quickly?” and “where they helpful?” are what companies should be fixing at every “touchpoint” rather than increasing the paper stock or giving out branded teddy bears.

4. Transactional vs direct mail

There is a difference between transactional mail and direct mail. In the former, recipients are expecting your communication. They know why you’re sending it. Therefore, you don’t have to spend money grabbing their attention.

If sending direct mail – that is to say, mail aimed at selling something – there is plenty of evidence around the effectiveness of messages on the outside of envelopes and the use of inserts. So I wouldn’t use hybrid mail in such a situation but, if sending in volume, a print house that’s more geared up to this sort of media.

5. Branded pens and teddy bears

I’m a sceptic of branded promotional products. They are a tick box for non-marketers, but we should be asking what they do commercially, how they sit with modern thinking on single-use plastic, and how they fit into the value proposition.

At conferences, B2B companies have stands with a couple of men in suits, a brand name that does who-knows-what, some attractive notebooks, and a bowl of sweets. The notebooks are great to pick up, but has the vendor communicated anything useful by being there? Thoughtful stands ought to be about interesting delegates in the vendor’s proposition, and gimmicks – like free coffee – should be about increasing dwell time.