What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Hallmark Brand

20110912-125943.jpgLike the United States Postal Service, Hallmark is trying to find its way in a new era.

But it has not been successful. It has in recent years laid off some longtime employees, and some stores are closing. The store closures are particularly troublesome because they are locally owned, and for generations have held together Main Streets and neighborhood shopping centers.

In thinking about what is wrong, I did not have a clear answer as to why the company is off-track. Thoughts:

  • Fashion cannot be blamed. A card is still an essential thing for birthdays and Christmas and the like. Realistically, you don’t have to think with a greeting card; it does the thinking for you. Nor can I blame the struggles of Hallmark on the recession; after all the company has been through many. Indeed, you could argue that a card and an inexpensive gift should be more popular in lean times, as all can afford it.
  • Gift cards rule: The ideal gift for a teen (or any child) is a gift card, and to give one of those, you need to put it in a card.
  • I could not blame the struggles on Hallmark not being hip. Hallmark has tried to be hip of late, without being edgy. Nevertheless, Shoebox Greetings seem to be quite clever, and it does not confuse with the main Hallmark brand.
  • The television arm of Hallmark seems rather vibrant. While I don’t recall seeing a memorable Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie recently, their cable channel is plenty watchable, and is doing wholesome, positive series like the western drama Love Begins and Time After Time, which stars Richard Thomas of The Waltons fame.

So what is wrong? I found the answer while looking at an old Hallmark book, first published in 1962.

It was the book Flowers of the Holy Land by Bertha Spafford Vester. Vester was not only an artist, but an amazing American expatriate in Palestine, a dynamo who built hospitals, set up food kitchens and even ran a school for Arabs. She was the daughter of Horatio Spafford, whose great tearful hymn, It is Well With My Soul, was written after Bertha’s sisters were all killed in the 1873 sinking of a ship in the Atlantic. (Christian singer Chris Rice does a spectacular version.)

The smallish book includes some three dozen watercolors of Holy Land flowers painted by Vester, as well as an introduction of Vester by Lowell Thomas and Norman Vincent Peale, the Tom Brokaw and Oprah of their era.

The typography is classic, tasteful and elegant, and the print reproductions are so good they might be the sort of pages that are torn out and sold by prints dealers for high prices.

Each flower has a description; the description of the Palestine Cornflower is perfect:

The Palestine cornflower is similar to the English and American cornflower, or bachelor’s button. Thistles and thorns are mentioned in Genesis as part of God’s punishment of Adam. They grow in such enormous numbers as to take possession of whole fields in the Holy Land.

I think of this book, and then I think of the Peanuts gifts and ornaments in a Hallmark store today. Not that there is anything wrong with Peanuts gifts, but they are definitely pop culture. The Spafford book, however, is a classic, and would be a fitting feature of any coffee table or library. But even with its highbrow appeal, it is also something ANYONE would give at Easter or Christmas or anytime, a true mass market item.

Sadly, I don’t recall seeing such products sold in a Hallmark store recently.20110912-010041.jpg

Certainly, retailers give their consumers what they want, and for years, consumers have wanted Peanuts ornaments. But for me, these days, I think Americans have higher aspirations, and tchotchkes don’t satisfy like they used to.

Putting a book together like Flowers of the Holy Land is not an easy enterprise, and requires imagination and many staff resources. But it can be done.

Reading Spafford’s description of the Pink Cistus (myrrh), I found the Genesis description she quoted also applied to Hallmark. The riches are there for the picking; it is up to Hallmark’s leadership and artists to make a new generation of products that does more than clutter up America’s already-too-hoarded houses.

Take of the best fruits of the land in your vessels, and carry down the man a present, a little balm, and a little honey, spices, and myrrh, nuts and diamonds.

 

5 Comments

  1. I have a different take on why the post office and Hallmark are not as successful as they once were. Very simply put it is generational. My parents bought Hallmark cards and mailed them at the post office. I also bought and still buy Hallmark cards and mail them from the post office but my parents are now 81 and 85 and I am 52. Younger generations are not too keen on buying a paper card, writing a handwritten message, writing the envelope, stamping it and mailing it. Instead they simply type an email or transmit an e-card, both of which, in my opinion show a lack of sincerity. Even worse, the youngest generation may just send a text message which shows no real effort of sincere thought or care. It’s a generational problem and one must really think hard as to how companies like Hallmark can capitalize on the lack of humanity in today’s younger and youngest consumers. And that in itself is the answer!

    If I were head of Hallmark advertising I would concentrate on the human quality of writing a greeting card in one’s own handwriting and mailing it to a loved one, a special friend or to someone on a special occasion. For example, the motto could be “Holidays are more special when you show how much you care” and the commercial could show a young person about to text a holiday message but she changes her mind and the scene fades in to her writing inside a Hallmark card and then putting it in the envelope and smiling and nodding as she knows this is so much more special than typing a text message or an email. The announcer says “show how much you care, take an extra moment to send the very best..Hallmark”.

    One more piece of advice to Hallmark is that they should jump on the vintage frenzy happening in the world today. With TV shows like MadMen profiling the 1960s, Hallmark should realize that there are scads of consumers who would love to send vintage Hallmark cards. Hallmark should dig into their 1960s files and reprint some of the nicest cards and call the series Hallmark Vintage Collection and they should create some advertising like “from the archives of Hallmark, your chance to send the very best, look for the Hallmark Vintage Collection of cards”.

    There were so many beautiful Hallmark Christmas cards, birthday cards, anniversary cards, etc from the 1960s that I fondly remember with glitter and foil. I think there is a big market for reproductions of original Hallmark cards from that decade and the time to act on it is now.

    I hope you find my suggestions useful. Thanks!

  2. I have a mild Hallmark obsession myself–I don’t collect the vintage material, but I certainly appreciate the appeal of their brand and its historical value–as commercial art that reflects its time in a very particular way. Their contemporary marketing just has zero appeal for me. I haven’t aged into their “grandma” demographic yet. They could be doing a lot more to leverage the value of their incredible library of works and images, but I saw that the recent 100th anniversary of the company passed and there were no reissues of their bold, colorful designs from the 60s and 70s, so I guess the research does not support my view. I do hope they are lobbying the hell out of whomever will ultimately be responsible for bailing out the USPS, though, because I can’t really see paying $12 to FedEx a greeting card…

  3. I just bought the book “Flowers of the Holy Land” that the article refers to, from a Abebooks bookseller for $3.98 (free shipping), if anyone is interested in obtaining it. Unfortunately (or fortunately) one of my vices is whenever I see a book that appears interesting in a internet article; I tend to buy it!

  4. One of the reasons Hallmark may not be doing well is the price of their cards. It is difficult to justify spending upwards of $5-$7 on a greeting card that many will toss in the garbage. In addition, with the popularity of scrapbooking many want to express their own creativity and save a bundle with homemade cards.


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