Thought Leadership

Marketing fail

By Colin Walls

We are all subjected to marketing – all day every day. According to a book that I just read [The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz – a very interesting read] the average American sees around 3000 advertisements per day! [I guess that I avoid such exposure by not reading magazines or watching TV and not being American.] This is an inevitable consequence of the world that we live in. Everyone is vying for our attention and, ultimately, our money.

Marketing is an inexact science, but I find it curious how people can so easily get things wrong and miss the point …

Massive amounts of money is spent on marketing by charities. There are just so many of them – in the UK alone, there are nearly 200,000 registered charities. So it is not surprising that getting mindshare is a challenge. As you might expect, the charities use every type of marketing vehicle you can imagine and every trick in the book. But they can still surprise me with their ineptitude.

The Internet has reduced [for most of us anyway] the amount of direct mail marketing to which we are subjected. I certainly notice that the thud of arriving mail hitting the doormat [no going outside to fetch our own mail here!] has softened in recent years. Charities, however, still make significant use of it to send, what amounts to, begging letters and other campaign literature. Often, they are after a sign-up for a regular donation and want to make it easy, so they include a pen in the envelope.

Evernote Snapshot 20151028 101610

That is quite smart, as assuming that a potential customer is lazy always makes sense. If the pen is there, they might just use it. This is a less trivial decision than you might think. Pens cost money – not much, but, when you send out a million, the costs mount up. Also, because of the way mail is charged in the UK, the thickness of the envelope is increased and that notches up the postal cost. This is slightly odd, because very flat pens are available cheaply, but rarely used in this context.

Evernote Snapshot 20151028 145731Having concluded that the marketing guys at a charity decided to invest in pens for their mailing, it would be logical to assume that they would want to maximize the benefit that they would gain from this investment. We all need pens and, when someone gives us one, we tend to retain it. Indeed I have several fine pens with “Mentor Graphics” proudly printed on the side. They are widely recognized as a good item on which to place branding, as they have a good retention period. [Mugs and coasters work quite well too.]

But there is a mystery. The pens provided by the charities are sabotaged to ensure that they will not be retained! They invariably have a very small ink reservoir, so they would not write for very long. Armed with this knowledge, I tend to bin them immediately. Why do they do this? I can only assume that they save a tiny, tiny bit of money on each pen. But is that saving worth it, given the short retention time of the pens? I think not. It has all the trappings of an idea that has not been thought through.

BTW, I should say that I have no issue with the British Red Cross, who are, I am sure, a charity well deserving of your support. They just happen to be the latest organization to provide me with a useless pen.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at