Nearly 32 million Huntington pens are out there and they're going beyond what's expected of a promotional product.

Nearly 32 million Huntington pens are out there and they're going beyond what's expected of a promotional product.

When Huntington Bank "unchained" the pen in 2010, no one at the Columbus-based bank imagined that they were launching a promotional campaign that would carry the brand around the world.

The company, which was rebranding to create a "welcoming" atmosphere in its branches, considered giving free pens to its customers a key component of the plan, says Mary Navarro, Huntington's senior executive vice president and retail and business banking director.

Looking to set itself apart from other banks, Huntington focused on developing more customer-friendly policies and making customers feel good about banking in its buildings. The company spent millions of dollars renovating its branches, started promoting its free checking accounts and unchained the pens.

Early in the branding process, employees suggested removing the chains that attached pens to the counters. Navarro explains customers find it annoying when the pen they're trying to use is attached to the counter. The leadership team decided "to take it a step further and give pens away," she says. "We encourage our customers to take a handful. It's fine."

When the campaign started, the company gave away about 331,000 pens each month. Today, it's more than double that. To date, Huntington has given away nearly 32 million pens.

"Taking the pens off the chain was a very unique thing," says Cris Wise, who manages the Downtown branch at Broad and High streets. "I know it's a small thing."

But it likely resonated with customers, adds Debra Pack, president of the executive board of the Columbus American Marketing Association.

"It's really smart to take the chain off," says Pack, who serves as the marketing manager for the Columbus Metropolitan Library. "What you're saying is, 'Go ahead and take it. We're trying to make it easier for you.'"

Product giveaways work best when the company finds a way to "weave it into the fabric of our world," which Huntington has definitely achieved, she says. She couldn't think of any other local company that had organized a campaign on the scope of the pens.

Promotional products continue to strike a chord with consumers, adds Paul Bellantone, president and CEO of the Irving, Texas-based Promotional Products Association International, the professional association for the promotional products industry.

"PPAI research demonstrates the power of promotional products as the most cost-effective way to reach a targeted audience in a tangible, long-lasting and memorable manner," he says. "In fact, 88 percent of people can recall the company and brand on their promotional product."

Huntington leaders believe that the pens can play a role in attracting new customers. Wise hopes that the pens spark customers' curiosity about the company and its brand. "We want them to come out and see that there's more behind it," he says. "It is bigger than the pen. That's the conversation starter."

When Wise makes client visits, he knows to carry lots of pens. "It's the first thing they ask about," he says. "They expect it." He and other bank managers like that when they call on new customers, the pen allows them "to leave a piece of ourselves behind."

A promotional item can help a company make a strong impression, Bellantone says. "Consumers love promotional products. It may be subtle, but the power of persuasion by advertisers shows levels of success that prove television, radio, mobile and digital can-and do-draw consumers to their brands. However, they must compete not only with each other across traditional media for the hearts, minds and dollars of the consumer, but also with outside stimuli once the consumer walks away from the television, shuts down the computer or drives past a billboard," he says. "Promotional products are different from those other forms of advertising in that they leave a lasting impression."

Huntington intended to flood the markets where the bank's more-than 700 branches operate with the signature green and black retractable pens-and it succeeded. In the six states where Huntington has banks, the pens are routinely spotted in restaurants, hair salons, medical buildings and a myriad of other places. Huntington employees purposely leave them behind at their favorite businesses.

But the pens' reach extends beyond Huntington's footprint. They have appeared in at least one movie and on a television show-without formal product placement. They've traveled overseas. Navarro has spotted them in Spain and Costa Rica. Other employees and customers have also reported seeing them around the world. The sightings have grown enough that the company has started collecting pen stories.

The pens often make their way into competitors' lobbies and drive-thru tubes, allowing Huntington to advertise to those customers.

"We think it's kind of funny," Navarro says. Obviously, other banks would not allow them to hang a sign or even "post a sticky note" in their branches, she says. Yet the pens slip through.

She wouldn't speculate on what the bank's return on investment is for the promotional campaign and says the bank has no plans to end the campaign.

"It's been very positive," she says. "We're not disappointed with the results of the pen."

Note-Taking Emergency

Karin Gosnell awoke with a racing heart a few years ago, and her husband rushed her to a local urgent care center. When doctors there couldn't address the problem, they called an ambulance to take Gosnell to the hospital.

Once she was settled in the ambulance, the paramedic began taking her medical history. Gosnell, a Huntington Bank employee, couldn't help herself; she started to chuckle.

The medic was using a Huntington pen to record her information. "I told him I called in sick today and now you're pulling out a Huntington pen," says the Cleveland-area resident.

The sight of the pen and the connection it created with the medic lessened her anxiety. "It definitely did," she said. "We both started laughing. We even talked about how they just seem to be everywhere."

When Gosnell returned to work, she shared the story of the pen with colleagues. Her story is one of many the bank's marketing team has collected. Here are others:

A member of the American military stationed in Afghanistan received a box of goodies from Ohio, which included Huntington pens. He gave a couple away within his troop and days later met with Afghan Nationals who were writing with them.

A Huntington customer flew to India and was greeted by a customs official using a Huntington pen.

A Huntington colleague had lunch at a restaurant table beside a competitor, who was selling his bank's services while taking notes with a Huntington pen.

Huntington colleagues have seen other banks put Huntington pens in the tubes sent out to customers in their drive-thrus.

During the funeral scene in the movie "Bad Grandpa," one of the extras is wearing a Huntington pen on a chain around his neck.

On A&E'sLachey's Bar, Nick Lachey and his brother, Drew, used Huntington pens while interviewing job candidates.

Melissa Kossler Dutton is a freelance writer.