How an 111 year-old brand is reviving greeting cards for a digital age

  • Since American Greetings went private in early 2013, it has pivoted to a new strategy, focusing on making greeting cards relevant in a digital age.
  • It has done so by adopting an empathy-laden approach, focused on millennial consumers.
  • The brand has encouraged meaningful conversations including tough or uncomfortable situations like infertility, for example, and also dabbled in live events

A young girl walks into a tattoo parlor visibly on edge, shuffling her feet and nudging her hair behind her ear. She settles into the chair, as an artist begins inscribing her wrist. When he’s done, she pulls out a greeting card and we finally see what the tattoo says: “Keep Shining,” written in her mother’s handwriting from the card.

“I think she would have liked it,” the girl says, confirming that the tattoo wasn’t a rebellious teen act, but rather, a touching tribute to her mother that has probably passed.

“Tattoo,” released on Mother’s Day this May, perfectly encapsulates how 111 year-old brand American Greetings is flipping how greeting cards have been traditionally advertised on its head. Since the company went private in early 2013, the company has pivoted to a new strategy, focusing on making greeting cards relevant in a digital age.

“People aren’t sending greeting cards the way they used to just for birthdays or anniversaries,” Alex Ho, American Greetings’ chief marketing officer, told Business Insider. “With the communication overload happening today, greeting cards have become a means of deeper, more meaningful connections with the people that most matter to them and those are the connections we’re trying to drive.”

It’s not an easy task. The past few decades haven’t been particularly smooth-sailing for greeting card companies. The advent of the internet has hit the industry hard, which is struggling to stay relevant in an age when emoji-ridden texts, ephemeral Snapchat wishes and Facebook wall posts have all but replaced tactile paper cards.

Between 2011 and 2016, revenues are expected to have declined at an annualized rate of 6 per cent to $401.7 million, according to a 2016 trend report by research company IBIS World. Projections out to 2021 show further revenue declines and fewer sales outlets for greeting cards. American Greetings itself was forced to go exit the New York Stock Exchange after its worth had shrunk by 65 percent back in 2013. (It makes about $1.8 billion in revenue today.)

In such a landscape, the company believes that an empathy-led approach will help it tap into the millennial mindset. The idea is to reach this audience through real, authentic storylines that play to their lifestyles and interests and help them define how to create meaningful ways to connect with one another, including tough or uncomfortable situations like the one above – or infertility, for example.

“Our advertising strategy is to find these topics that make customers tick, and remind them about the relevance of greeting cards in today’s digital world,” said Ho.

The brand also tries to find shared value with its consumers and spark conversations with them that are grounded in some sort of purpose. Back in 2015, for example, the company ran a campaign called “The ThankList,” enlisting big names like Arianna Huffington and Elizabeth Banks to encourage people to express gratitude. The card maker asked fans to compile their own lists on a digital portal, where they could thank any people that helped shape their lives. Users’ messages were then aggregated into a collective, immersive digital collage.

Despite the digital disruption, American Greetings believes that greeting cards are complementary to digital communication, whether that’s a snap or a tweet. And so, the brand has also been tapping into experiential marketing to show how greeting cards can coexist with, and in fact, complement digital.

Last year, for example, the company set up shop at the South by Southwest interactive festival in Austin, Texas. It let attendees try out do-it-yourself printmaking and pop-up cards, learn about lettering techniques from an artist, get thread-stitched selfies, fill in a coloring-book mural and even create analog GIFs.

This year, it upped its game by marking its presence at CES in Las Vegas, piquing consumer interest by talking about “a device like no other.” The device, of course, was the greeting card, and the experiential event was a space designed to inspire meaningful conversations in the midst of what is arguably one of the world’s most chaotic trade show. More than 2,400 greeting cards were written and mailed by American Greetings.

American Greetings’ message – especially the focus on uncomfortable topics- isn’t exactly what you would call a safe strategy. But it might end up paying off, said Stephen Boidock, director of marketing and business development at Austin-based agency Drumroll.

“You expect a greeting card company to come to you in one way, and sell packaged holidays,” he said. “But when it makes itself relevant in an actual real life scenario, it makes you think that it actually cares about you and the things that you value.”

Its focus on millennials may not necessarily be misguided either. Younger card buyers and those who are more technologically savvy are currently the ones most engaged in buying paper greeting cards online, according to the Greeting Card Association, and the tradition will also likely continue.

“It’s the same reason that vinyl records are making a comeback,” said Drumroll’s Boidock. “There’s something nostalgic and of value to hand someone something that is handwritten, tactile and can be felt.”


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