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COST OF METAL PENS

Most people jump to cost as the first factor in their decision making, so we'll start there.

On a per pen basis, you can get a basic plastic pen for around $0.44 and a metal pen for about $1.22. The catch is that most companies only sell in bulk and insist on minimum order quantities. 100 pens is a fairly standard minimum order size.

So your base cost for 100 pens will run around $44 for plastic and $122 for metal ones. At close to three times the cost, metal loses this battle. That's assuming that price is the only concern.

Plastic makes sense if a business owner just wants something her employees can write with that has the business name on it. Shelling out three times the cost doesn't make any sense.

When cost isn't the primary concern, metal often makes more sense because the pens offer better durability. Say you're throwing a retirement party. Then you might opt for metal so your colleagues will have a keepsake to remember you by.

PURPOSE

The intended purpose of the pens also plays a role in the plastic vs metal pen decisions.

For example, pens make a good promotional object to send out in mailers. They're small, light and fit in most size envelopes. You can put your logo, business name and website address on it.

If you plan to send out 50-100 mailers to affluent leads, it's practical to pay the extra for economical metal pen. It creates a subliminal connection between your business and quality without putting a hurt on your wallet.

If you plan to send out 5000 mailers to promote a sale at a retail outlet, plastic pens are far more practical. There's no need to create the subliminal connection. Retail products are commodity products, so there's no prestige issue.

Using the per pen cost from above, metal would run you $6100 to plastic's $2200. Saving close to four grand on a retail sales promotion is the smart move.

A different scenario is if you're buying pens for your personal use. Most people develop preferences for particular styles and materials in their pens.

Some people prefer the heft of a fountain pen or a good metal one. Other people like cheap plastic ones they can lose without feeling bad. In those cases, comfort should drive your choice.

BRANDING

Strong businesses constantly seek ways to help cement their brands in customer minds. A brand is a strange combination of story, text, visual cues, and abstract ideas.

The text and visual cues often go hand-in-hand, such as pairing up brand specific colors and taglines or logos. You've probably seen this in action with promo items that slap a logo onto a brand-color coffee cup.

You can do the same thing using pens.

This can prove a little hit or miss. The company you want to buy from may not have the exact shade of blue you use or may not offer color combos. Your logo and slogan offer salvation here.

The whole point is to provide enough cues to trigger brand recall in the person. Pairing your logo and slogan with your business name a close color should prove enough to remind them of you.

The more often someone gets reminded of your business, the faster they'll recall it when they need your services.

The metal vs plastic pen debate comes up a draw here. It all boils down to which material you think sends the right brand message.

A store that sells magic tricks won't get much brand mileage out of metal pens. An investment firm might lose brand value from plastic pens.

IMPRESSION

An area of concern that's related to branding is impression building.

Let's say that you're a young lawyer. You got hired by a respectable, but unremarkable law firm. There are two levels of branding at work now.

The firm has a brand that it wants to support and largely expects you to support. Within reason, you need to operate inside those expectations.

Then there is your personal brand. It's entirely possible that you want your brand to be distinct from the firm's brand.

Let's say that the firm issues plastic pens with firm's name on it to everyone. Those send the message of practical and affordable.

A simple way to set your brand apart from firm's brand is to order metal pens with your name and the firm's name on it. That sends the impression that you offer a higher level of quality.

A tactic like that keeps you inside the bounds of the firm's branding. At the same time, it lets you start creating a separate brand identity of your own.

On the other hand, let's say you work at a business that doesn't use branded pens. Plastic pens that note your name, position and phone number set you apart without stepping on the business brand.

For impression building, the choice between metal pens and plastic pens is all about context. You want to offer something that makes you a little more memorable without stepping on toes.

PARTING THOUGHTS ON PLASTIC VS METAL PENS

The choice between plastic and metal pens doesn't offer many certain answers.

If the price is the final deciding factor, plastic pens will always be cheaper. If a feeling of quality is the deciding factor, metal typically wins. Beyond that, the decision becomes a matter evaluating the context.

You need to consider which material sends the right message for the audience. Does it support your personal branding effort? Does the perceived benefit of one material outweigh the difference in cost?

Once you can answer those questions, though, you should know which to buy.

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