“I love this business,” exults Robert Kaynes Jr., vice president of sales (and grandson of the founder) at Bron Shoe, the Columbus, Ohio-based company responsible for putting millions of pairs of bronzed baby shoes on bookshelves in the homes of loving parents across America for the past 75 years. “It may sound schmaltzy” Kaynes concedes, “but it’s a schmaltzy business. We’re selling sentiment.”
Still, how do you market a memory? For companies like Hallmark, FTD, Bron Shoe, and others in the “sentiment expression” industry, selling can be a daunting task. After all, its hard enough to describe sentiment, let alone market it.
Of course, its not all blue smoke and mirrors; there are products involved here. But even though you can “reach out and touch” things like flowers, cards, and bronze baby shoes, these aren’t your standard durable goods by any stretch of the imagination. The real function and purpose of such items is to act as a messenger–a vehicle of communication between sender and receiver designed to capture a moment in a way that’s both memorable “and affordable (in other words, not as constricting as vows or as expensive as diamonds), conveying the proper sentiment in a language and fashion that’s as close to universal as possible.
Naturally this requires using some highly creative sales and marketing techniques, and its a testament to the success of these three companies that many of the strategies they’ve developed over the years have since become standard operating procedure in areas like point-of-purchase, direct marketing, and distribution. And if you’re wondering whether prophets can also make profits, consider this: Hallmark, FTD, and Bron Shoe together generate sales of over $5 billion a year, a figure that’s guaranteed to make even the most hardened marketer a little misty- eyed.
Despite such an impressive record of innovation and achievement–both historically and financially–these companies aren’t content to rest on their laurels. For them, success in selling sentiment is an ongoing process: Hallmark introduced both the first mass-marketed greeting card and the first computerized card; FTD developed flowers-by- wire (and later flowers-by-phone), as well as the first catalog of standardized bouquets and, more recently, the first tie-ins between flowers and brand name products; Bron-shoe was the first company to bronze baby shoes and has continued to innovate by adding porcelainizing techniques and branching out into related areas of sentiment expression.
With more than 200 years of sales and marketing experience among them, these companies clearly bring a lot to the table when it comes to formulating strategies and tactics. The following stories of their individual successes provide irrefutable proof that–with the right combination of perseverance, positioning, and product–even the most nebulous concept can come up a winner.
“At Hallmark, we believe a greeting card has the ability to warm a heart, tickle a funny bone, toast a bride, blow a kiss, ease a pain and start a tradition,” says Donald J. Hall, chairman of Kansas City, Mo.-based Hallmark (and grandson of the founder).
The popularity of mass-produced greeting cards can be traced to 19th-century England and America, when the advent of cheap, efficient color printing methods and low postage rates suddenly made it easier and cheaper to produce these poignant purveyors of sentiment. By the 1880s, there were literally hundreds of varieties of mass- printed Christmas, New Year’s, and Valentines Day cards available at the neighborhood pharmacy, dry goods store, or print shop.
The only thing was, those cards were typically kept in drawers behind shop counters and brought out only at the customer’s request. That is, until 1910, when a clever marketer–one Joyce C. Hall–made what turned out to be a revolutionary observation: why not put those charming, inexpensive greeting cards out where people can see them?
Halls point-of-purchase display essentially transformed the greeting-card industry. Before long, cards were being proffered for every holiday, every faith, and every occasion. Today, roughly half of all greeting cards purchased each year are seasonal (holiday-related), the remainder being “everyday” cards for anniversaries, birthdays, and “just because.” Last year, Hallmark posted sales of approximately $2.4 billion, which translates to a whopping 3.2 billion cards in 20 languages in 100 countries.
Obviously, Hallmark’s marketing efforts have come a long way from the days when greeting cards were pulled out from behind the drugstore counter. As Donald J. Hall explains: “Retailing habits have changed ?since the days of drugstore sales!. Very often, shoppers are on a fast track–and we’re there.
As for where “there” is, E. Gray Glass III, a financial advisor at New York-based Prudential-Bache Securities, paints a more precise picture of Hallmark’s distribution strategy “Approximately ninety percent of all cards are purchased by women,” he says, citing a number Hallmark prefers to downplay “As a result, the industry’s leaders decided to put cards into the retail outlets most often shopped in by Women” (i.e., drugstores, gift shops, and malls).
WHEN You CARE ENOUGH…
Hallmark not only meets the demand for cards geared to conventional holidays (the average person receives 31 cards per year, seven of which are birthday cards), it has even manufactured its own holidays. who would have thought, for instance, that an occasion like Sweetest Day (a Valentines Day look-alike that this year falls on Saturday, October 16) was hatched in the halls of corporate America rather than in the hearts of lovestruck Americans? of course, Sweetest Day still has a way to go before it cracks the venerable Top Five: (in descending order) Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, and Graduation.
The company has been equally fearless in experimenting with new marketing techniques over the years. For example, Hallmark continues to innovate in the area of point-of- purchase and has won innumerable awards form the Point-of-Purchase Advertising Institute (POPAI), an industry association based in Englewood, N.J. It also sponsors the longest continuously running (albeit sporadic) dramatic series on TV: the Hallmark Hall of Fame. The bottom line: Hallmark isn’t afraid to tinker with its basic franchise, as long as it has something–anything–to do with sentiment.
“Sentiment has never really gone out of style in the social-expression business,” says Hall, although he notes that “It’s simplified now. There’s not as much iambic pentameter and such. Its much more conversational in form. Of course, the use of our card is a sentiment in itself. Hardly anybody sends a greeting card in anger.”
And even if they do, that anger is usually carefully couched in comedic context, something Hall admits has become more prevalent in all types of cards these days. “That’s because greeting cards mirror the times,” he says. “People enjoy humor more today. Also, people are looking for more humor because life has become so serious and competitive.”
The Greeting Card Association in Washington, D.C., has this to say about the “new honesty” in greeting cards: “While you can certainly find verse that drips with sentiment, a new style of communicating emotions has emerged. The new breed of romantic greeting cards contains sincere statements of the heart. The words are often direct and candid, allowing the sender to relay feelings that are often difficult to phrase.”
Hall agrees, but offers that it’s not always easy to find just the right card a particular occasion. “Its actually a complex purchase,” he notes. “A person must take into account the message he wants to send to someone else. In doing so, he has to represent his own taste and what the recipient might want.”
Sounds complicated. Still, Hallmark admits that. the greetings they offer aren’t the result of a terribly scientific process. In fact, they rely more on a random blast of staffer intuition than on national surveys, focus groups, or consumer interviews.
Despite the fact that its business is devoted to deciphering the American psyche, Hallmark doesn’t employ batteries of psychologists or other so-called experts. “We try to hire all types of people–old, young, single parents, and married couples–to write cards that express the way people live and communicate,” says Sally Groves, Hallmarks creative director.
Like they say: If it ain’t broke…
YOU’VE GOT PERSONALITY
Even though it sits atop the heap in the greeting card biz, Hallmark is constantly on the lookout for new ways to increase its market share. One way it does this is to recruit new customers among males and younger people–two groups that typically buy the fewest cards. Asked how it plans to capture the video generation, Donald Farquharson, Hallmark’s vice president of product discovery and development, notes that the company recently entered the electronic arena with a kiosk-style effort called personalize It!
Containing a collection of more than 200 Hallmark greeting cards programmed into in- store computers, these space-age P-O-P displays allow consumers to incorporate personal information–a nickname, shared joke, or special message–into prewritten verses. First introduced in 1986, the company currently has 900 computer kiosks in its stores, and plans to more than triple that number by mid-1993.
“We’re getting nice play from men, which is encouraging to us,” says Farquharson. He estimates that 20% of Personalize It! users are men, compared with only 10% of regular greeting card buyers. Of course, all this new technology costs a little more: A kiosk- created greeting will run you $3.50–about double what consumers are accustomed to paying for a standard card. So far, however, indications are that people are willing to pay for the personal touch.
When asked how long Hallmark can keep going, Donald Hall put it like this: “As long as people’s similarities–birth, marriage, bereavement, love–outweigh their differences, Hallmark International will continue to expand.”
Not a particularly sentimental assessment, but the message seems pretty clear.
FLORIST TRANSWORLD DELIVERY
FTD is another organization that makes its money on products and services that exist only to enrich people’s lives and enhance their relationships. Like Hallmark, FTD makes a lot of money helping people celebrate life’s many occasions $678 million year in flowers alone (that’s 20.1 million wire orders) and about $900 million altogether when you throw in products that are sent along with the flowers, like gourmet food baskets, special vases, toys, etc.
Roger Gullickson, FTDs group marketing director and the person responsible for the company’s $41 million ad budget, explains the Southfield, Mich.-based company’s marketing niche: “Fundamentally, we see flowers as one of the most popular gifts–especially in expressing sentiment.”
FTD, as we now know it, was founded in 1910 by 15 retail florists who agreed to exchange orders for out-of-town deliveries via a relatively new medium–the telegraph. Prior to the formation of FTD, out-of-town floral orders were shipped by parcel post or train. A little more than 80 years later, FTD is made up of more than 24,000 independent retail florist members in North America, all of them linked–by state-of-the-art technology–to florists in 142 countries.
Also like Hallmark, FTD is responsible for a number of “firsts” that, although they seem simple in hindsight, have revolutionized the industry For example, it was the first floral wire service to create special bouquets that were standardized in advance of order placement, and it has led the way in developing cooperative partnerships with firms whose products are tied in with FTDs offerings.
Today the company markets a Birthday Party Bouquet, as well as selections for Christmas, Mother’s Day Valentines Day, and most other major holidays. It was also the first wire service to publish a selection guide with pictures of hundreds of floral arrangements to help consumers make appropriate choices. As Gullickson puts it, “FTD is consistent and deliverable. We make it easy for consumers to express their feelings to anyone, anywhere in the world.”
As with greeting cards, the primary purchasers of flowers are women. “Even on Mother’s Day,” says Gullickson, “most women buy the flowers. Valentines Day is the only time we see a significant male shift.” Also like Hallmark, FTD takes great pains to see to it that its members and logo are visible in locations women frequent. As a result, FTD is practically omnipresent; its one of Americas most enduring and successful small business enterprises, with more retail outlets than any other branded store– including Amoco gas stations, General Motors dealerships, McDonalds and Burger King restaurants, 7-11 franchises, and Dominos Pizza parlors.
SAY IT WITH FLOWERS
FTD has invested considerable time and effort in researching the market, delving into the reasons why consumers buy flowers. It recently published its most current research revelations in a document called the Caring Survey, which catalogs what it terms “Americas Caring Moments.”
Here’s just a small sample of the report’s findings: The most popular flower-giving “occasions” are birthdays, get well, and new baby. The high volume days for buying flowers locally are Valentines Day and Mother’s Day For sending flowers to out-of-town locales, the high volume seasons are the week preceeding Mother’s Day and Christmas. The most successful “nonholiday product” is FTDs infamous “Pick-Me-Up” bouquet, inaugurated in 1984.
In addition to marketing simple flower arrangements for generic occasions, FTD’s marketing department recently began creating “branded bouquets” marketed in association with major companies such as Campbells, M&M Mars, and Gerber. The Gerber tie-in for example, is called the “Bundle of Joy” bouquet; it celebrates a new baby’s arrival with flowers and baby products. For Halloween, FTD customers can send a “BOOquet,” which comes with a selection of Mars candy. The Campbell’s tie-in is a “get well soon” theme and (naturally) includes a sample of Campbell’s chicken soup. “We create new reasons to send flowers,” notes Gullickson.
Given today’s marketing clutter FTD’s association with other recognized brands gives its products an added push. “Selling a product that’s not a household word is like rowing a boat upstream,” says Frank Delano, chairman of Delano Goldman & Young, a corporate and brand image consultant in New York. Gullickson, for one, agrees with Delanos assessment, adding that FTD sees nothing contradictory in pairing nonfloral products with its bouquets. “Rather than the flowers being the medium to express the sentiment,” he says, “we want the experience to be the medium.
To accomplish this, FTD has created separate “collections” of flowers that include the Affection Collection (the philosophy here being that you’d send your sweetheart a different type of bouquet than you would your mother), as well as numerous groupings of holiday-oriented products. When asked if the strategy has been successful, Gullickson notes that FTD sells four times as many bouquets with a prepackaged message than without.
FTD has also stayed ahead of the curve (and ahead of its competition) through its use of catalogs, direct mail, and print and TV ad campaigns. The decision to use spokesperson Merlin Olsen was, according to Gullickson, a watershed event in FTD’s history “It was really different having a male sports figure talk to consumers about flowers,” he says. On the other hand, FTD lost some of its marketing edge recently by waiting too long to jump into the toll-free arena. Companies like 800-FLOWERS have already made strong inroads in this new niche, although FTD’s 800- SEND-FTD is scheduled to debut in mid-1993, supported by a $14 million ad campaign.
Still, such temporary setbacks haven’t discouraged FTD’s megamarketing mania. In fact, the company recently entered the greeting card business with its acquisition of Renaissance Greeting Cards of Sanford, Me. “Renaissance,” notes Gullickson, “is the first acquisition of a holding company created by FTD to expand its scope into the growing sentiment expression business.”
Hallmark is hereby put on notice.
Like other midwestern cities hit hard by the Great Depression, Cleveland, Ohio, in 1929 wasn’t the best place to be if you were looking for work. Still, Violet Shinback needed a way to support her family, and she decided to try her hand at bronzing baby shoes after seeing some painted shoes at a neighbor’s home. After learning how to do her own electroplating (a relatively new technique at the time) at a local job shop, she moved her fledgling business to Columbus and began selling her wares door-to-door, approaching houses that had children’s toys strewn in the front yard.
Before long, Shinbacks new business had become a lot more than Just a way to put bread on the family table. Today, the company Violet dubbed Bron-Shoe earns well over $8 million in sales a year, proving once again that sentiment–in all its many forms and functions–sells.
According to her grandson, Robert Kaynes Jr., vice president of sales at Bron-Shoe, Violet Shinback (still living) created an American fad. “Before her, people used to stuff shoes with tissue paper and put them in a box,” he explains.
Why on earth did she consider bronzing in the first place? No doubt practicality and price were part of the equation, although the company’s sales literature would have us believe that it was at least partly a sentimental decision: “It’s over too quickly. The special time that begins when you count your newborn’s tiny toes. A flurry of fast- paced months later your baby takes the first halting steps into childhood. A time you want to always remember is gone forever.” Thus, having planted the seeds of sentiment, the brochure then urges you to “Capture that memory in a way that can’t dim.”
It obviously works. Even though bronzed shoes represent only a tiny fraction of the sentiment expression industry, this niche has maintained an impressive growth rate of between 10% and 15% a year, says Kaynes.
WE SELL MEMORIES
In addition to footwear (which these days isn’t limited to baby shoes, but includes sneakers, cowboy boots, and other historically significant foot fashions), Bron- Shoe uses its electroplating process to bond just about any metal (gold, silver, bronze, etc.–and even porcelain) onto virtually any object.
what kinds of things are people preserving for posterity? A short list provided by Kaynes included desk sets, bookends, household items, paper-weights, bottles, balls, gloves, skates, footballs, golf balls, baseball caps, NFL helmets–even athletic supporters.
In fact, this is one of the secrets of Bron- Shoes success: “Our strength is that we do small quantities,” says Kaynes. “we have no set up fee, no minimum.” Naturally, this policy has enticed corporate customers into bronzing items for their employees. For instance, Wendys restaurants had bronzed spatulas, General Electric requested bronzed light bulbs, The Limited did shirts, and TRW has even bronzed pistons and oil drill bits.
Kaynes feels the reason bronzing is viewed as sentimental is that “its the actual item–we take it and make an award out of it. It’s their product, and its much more memorable than a trophy. People want the real thing preserved. They want to be able to say ‘That’s the ball I hit over the fence’ or ‘Those are the baby shoes my child took his first steps in.’”
Asked how Bron-Shoe gets its message out to potential customers, Kaynes notes that the Violet Shinback method is still being used. In fact, Bron-Shoes “senti-metal” division employs 400 independent sales reps who go door-to-door, offering the company’s services to consumers and corporations around the world. In addition, Bron-Shoe maintains a presence–under its own name–in department stores, jewelry stores, childrens clothing shops, and childrens shoe stores, and the company’s American bronzing division makes extensive use of direct mail and gift certificates, contributing up to 50% of the company’s overall profits.
Bron-Shoe also regularly sets up booths at flea markets and county fairs–a marketing strategy that some would no doubt call unsophisticated, although John Lister, a partner at Lister Butler, a New York brand and image consulting firm notes that “Small marketers, almost by definition, have to resort to some kind of breakthrough promotion, be it in the media, on the shelf, or elsewhere.”
Will sentiment ever cease to sell? Not according to Bob Kaynes: “People are very, very sentimental,” he says. “They’ll do anything–even bronzing–to preserve a moment, a feeling, an item.
And if you need further proof that sentiment continues to permeate every facet of society, consider the case of Lawrence Taylor, the New York Giants preeminent outside linebacker, a guy who obviously doesn’t consider himself a particularly sentimental person.
After a dozen bone-crushing years, “L.T.” declared 1992 to be his last season (an announcement made even before he tore his Achilles tendon last October). Asked to reflect on his career prior to his last game ever with the arch rival Washington Redskins, Taylor didn’t hesitate to spit out his opinion: “If you’re looking for someone to get sentimental,” growled history’s fiercest defensive player, “its not me. To hell with the past. The past doesn’t mean @#$%.”
Or does it? Recently, L.T. displayed what some might consider a more sentimental side by consenting to donate his football helmet to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
They’re having it bronzed, of course.