An Antidote to Ordinary
Research Proves Pathogens Can Be Transferred By Pens
In a world of antibacterial consumer products, can a germ-fighting promotional item win over end-buyers? Suppliers say yes, but they realize challenges still lie ahead.
There it was, obscured and understated, but for the first time, at least, the word was out. In January of 1998, on page 213 of the medical journal The Lancet, researchers presented a case that pathogens – like viruses and bacteria – could easily be transferred in hospitals by pens.
"Pathogens might be spread between staff if they share or remove pens from the nurses' station, as is common, and pens might be the route of transmission of infection between wards," the authors of the study wrote. "These results re-emphasize the importance of staff hand-washing in the prevention of cross-infection, but we are not sure what to do about pens."
And that was the question that seemed to linger: What can be done about these sickly pens? Rub them with soap? Throw them in the trash? Stop writing stuff down? The best answer, it seems, didn't come from the medical community, but from innovative manufacturers. They figured, if the environment couldn't be changed, something about the pens would have to be different. That logic led to a real breakthrough – a pen that actually kills germs.
"Senator started researching antibacterial pens in 1999," says Melissa Ralston, director of product management at Camsing Global (43668), which now owns Senator Promotional Group. "Senator released its first antibacterial pens in 2001."
For Germany-based Senator, though, the work was just beginning. The company's first round of antibacterial pens remained on the European market for several years, but later had to be improved to overcome more aggressive bugs like MRSA. Senator's second-generation germ-fighting pen – the Antibac – now uses antimicrobial (a step up from antibacterial) technology that's spurred the most remarkable claim yet.
"These pens kill 99.9% of bacteria within 24 hours," Ralston says. "The properties also last the lifetime of the pen."
As impressive as it may sound to produce a pen that actually annihilates bacteria, viruses and fungi, Senator doesn't have the global market for antibacterial and antimicrobial pens cornered anymore. Far from it. Today, six other industry suppliers offer relatively similar, potent products. And, now, there's a serious race for market share in a category with great potential, but a fair share of hurdles as well.
So-called germ-killing pens don't rely on a surface coating for their special effects. Instead, before they're molded, components of the pens are infused with antimicrobial agents like silver, copper or zinc. The chemistry involved means the pens receive additives and not treatments.
"The ions don't release until they're activated by moisture, like the moisture in someone's fingertips," says Paul Ford, CEO of Agion Technologies, whose antimicrobial chemicals are used by several industry suppliers. "The trick is to get access to the surface. The silver is released at a low level, which is why it can last for the lifetime of the product. There's real functionality in the technology, and it's not a marketing claim."
Indeed, the benefits of these targeted-release additives are immeasurable, especially when you consider they can be applied to scores of products, from keyboards to furniture to activewear. In addition to Agion, large chemical companies play in the antimicrobial space. Among them are Dow and BASF, the latter of which was tapped by BIC Graphic (40480) to provide anti-microbial technology for its line of pens.
"We just launched antimicrobial Clic Stic and Round Stic pens on May 1," says Laura High, senior trade marketing manager for Norwood (asi/74400) & BIC Graphic. "We looked at the technology for a while and we weren't sure if there was a market there. But so far, over the first three months, the pens are doing very well for us."
One reason BIC is optimistic that its new pens will be successful is because its rollout includes basic antimicrobial education for end-buyers and end-users. BIC is offering a sleeve option for the pens, which packages the items around heavy card stock containing product details. The pens can also be imprinted with special "AZ" logo markings that illustrate the silver (symbolized in the periodic table as Ag) and zinc (Zn) chemical composition.
"We've sent out e-mail blasts to our entire customer base," High says. "We're also doing a lot of sampling right now and we're running industry ads."
With several pen suppliers searching for an antimicrobial marketing advantage, California-based All-In-One (34256) certainly earns extra credit for artistic effort. When it debuted its antimicrobial line several years ago, the company developed two videos featuring a pen-wielding superhero who saves unsuspecting doctors and chefs from horrible flesh-eating diseases.
"We created a series of cartoons with a germ-fighting main character," says Harris Cohen, president of All-In-One. "We're always looking for a bit of an edge."
In one of the videos, a big-muscled, cape-wearing All-In-One superhero fights off an angry, red-horned hospital germ that's wearing boxing gloves. The germ gets killed after it meets an onrushing All-In-One antimicrobial pen, and soon the little bugger evaporates into the air as a message flashes on the screen: "You don't have to worry about deadly bacteria stopping you in your tracks."
The clever videos, though, aren't just meant to be attention-grabbing advertisements. Instead, carefully placed within each cartoon sequence is specific information about how All-In-One's antimicrobial pens work. The product's three-step activation process prevents respiration by inhibiting transport functions in microbes; stopping microbe cell reproduction; and disrupting microbe metabolism. "We've been pretty successful with these pens over the last four or five years," Cohen says. "Our USA Guard Shield pens are certified made-in-the-USA. We use an additive that's mixed into all the exterior components of the pen – the barrel, the clip, the plunger and the tip."
Cohen believes All-In-One's antimicrobial line literally has a built-in advantage, because, he says, similar pens offered by other suppliers miss an important point. "We've seen competitors come out with pens that don't have silver in the grips of their pens," he says. "That's what people write with, the grips."
As suppliers continue to promote antimicrobial pens, distributors are starting to pitch them more frequently to clients. For example, D'Lee Mayberry, a senior account executive for Counselor Top 40 distributor Halo Branded Solutions (asi/356000), has won repeat orders with UCLA's housing services department. "They told me after using the pens that they noticed they didn't have as many colds," says Mayberry. "They've reordered three times now, and I expect them to reorder again soon."
Because so many students visit the department's main office, staff members keep a variety of antibacterial and antimicrobial products within easy reach. "They have a basket of antimicrobial pens," Mayberry says. "Students come in and have to sign paperwork, and the staff will give the students these pens to use."
With winter fast approaching, Mayberry is now targeting companies that offer wellness programs, thinking antimicrobial pens can help keep employees healthier. "I've made a pitch to human resource directors and I'm hopeful," she says.
Of course, selling antimicrobial pens to the education sector and as part of wellness campaigns are just two possible areas for distributors to pursue. Mark McGill, owner of Proforma Printed Images (asi/300094), has found regional events and trade shows can also provide opportunities for antimicrobial pen sales. "I pitched the pens for a convention that was tied to a medical association," he says. "I think it was around a thousand-member convention. I also think any place that has community pens can work for sales, like a local doctor's office."
Other distributors have found that antimicrobial pens don't have to be stand-alone products in a promotion. Reps at Counselor Top 40 distributor WorkflowOne (asi/333647) offer clients a host of antimicrobial products, including pens, towels, mouse pads and lanyards. "The majority of these products have been sold to our health-care customers," says Stephanie Friedman, director of branded merchandise marketing at WorkflowOne. "We also find these to be selling well in real estate, fitness centers, financial institutions and insurance companies."
Although antimicrobial technology appears to have clear benefits, not everyone is convinced the germ-fighting pens will lead to big sales. Consider, for example, the story of the aforementioned Agion. For a time, the Massachusetts-based firm was an ad specialty industry supplier, but left the market in 2008. That's when a Bay State law took effect that requires health-care professionals to report any gifts from pharmaceutical companies of more than $50. "We still have customers that use our technology for pens," says Ford. "We've just made the decision to concentrate on other markets."
Agion isn't the only supplier that's backed off antimicrobial pens. After offering the specialty items for about three years, Bankers Pens (asi/38285) stopped selling the antimicrobial products in 2010. "The concept of antimicrobial pens was wonderful in today's world," says Richard Danziger, president at Bankers. "They just didn't seem to catch on. We got some nominal interest, and we maybe did a total of 50 orders."
So what could be stopping antimicrobial pens from really generating sustained sales? Distributors – including those who've sold antimicrobial pens – believe there are two major stumbling blocks. First, for some time, antimicrobial pens were selling for more than $1.00 each, triple the cost of conventional plastic pens. "I thought it would be a slam dunk selling these pens, but it's been hard," says John Libby, a Halo rep who, like Mayberry, is based in Culver City, CA. "Agion was selling them for $1.30 apiece. Nobody was giving them away."
Libby knows that times have changed, though, and prices have come down. Suppliers now routinely offer antimicrobial pens for well under $1.00 – a price point that's improving, but one that still doesn't compare to that of regular pens. "Some people will say ‘I've got a budget' so they can't spend an extra 20 cents on an antimicrobial pen," Libby admits.
A second concern among end-buyers may be even more alarming. Some purchasers don't think antimicrobial agents actually work, believing the technology to be more gimmicky than anything else. "The risk is that large corporations do not want to expose themselves to associating with products that do not live up to the public's expectations," says Jennifer McNab, manager of vendor relations at Counselor Top 40 distributor Accolade Promotion Group (asi/102905). "The demand is shrinking, as many companies will no longer allow for their branding to be associated with the product."
McNab points to groups like the Canadian Nurses Association, which she says doesn't recognize antimicrobial pens as effective items. Adding to a perception problem, a growing number of researchers and infectious disease specialists argue antibacterial products – even hand soap – are overused and may not be efficient in reducing the spread of germs.
Despite a bit of market hesitation, suppliers insist antimicrobial products – including pens – will gain in popularity in the years ahead. Distributors may even be able to use the pens to win some new business from an old friend: the pharmaceutical sector. "If the pharma business recognizes these products can help with disease prevention and uses them to drive that education, this could certainly help them reignite the promo industry's relationship," says Friedman, of WorkflowOne.
Regardless of who's buying them, though, suppliers expect antimicrobial pens will soon ditch their relatively basic current designs and become much sleeker in the future. "I think the issue right now is the styling of the antimicrobial pens is not modern," says Anthony Katzenstein, president of supplier Mi Pen (asi/71033). "We're working now with an Italian manufacturer to offer a more modern look and more color. We'll be releasing these pens early in 2013. And we all know when Italians make pens, they're first-class." – E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @VagnoniASI