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If You’ve Got An Ounce Of Feeling, Hallmark Has A Ton Of Sentiment
How the colossus of the “social expression industry” always manages to say it better than you do
December 1982 | Volume 34, Issue 1
The cards in the Hallmark files mirror the concerns of seven crowded decades. A 1928 card, playing off Lindbergh, shows lovers in a cut-out monoplane, with the sentiment, “It’s PLANE to see I’m all taken up with you.” Many Depression cards keep a stiff upper lip—“in this year of readjustment.” Others flash breezy tough-guy lines: “Hi, Toots, Happy Birthday.” Or topical word play: “There ain’t no Hooey Long with this/It’s just a great big wish for Happy Birthday.” World War II cards, most of them pacific, send good wishes “to you in the Service.” A few clearly violate J. C. Hall’s belief that “good taste is good business”: a 1946 number, for instance, shows a cartoon anarchist’s round black bomb labeled ATOMIC , its sentiment reading, “The little atoms in this bomb can show you what to do/Just have yourself a BANG-UP TIME each minute all day through.” Hallmark’s efficient archivist, Sally Hopkins, smiles at the card’s naïveté. And winces at the early blackface cards in her care. “We don’t show those to people,” she says, “It was a different time.”
Born in the late 1950s as a response to a growing irreverence toward things previously held sacred, the contemporary line has, over the years, featured humorous H-bomb cards, hippie greetings, peace messages, lunar-landing missives. The archives disgorge C.B. radio cards, jogging cards, silicone-injection cards, fuel-shortage cards, streaking cards, Astro-turf cards, computer-dating cards, feminist cards, even goose-down cards. Last year there were Princess Di cards and video-game greetings. All of these, of course, merely augment the tried-and-true everyday and seasonal products.
In marketing, Hallmark is to cards what Procter & Gamble is to soap, albeit with some crucial distinctions. Faced, for example, with the unhappy fact that people don’t have to buy cards, Hallmark uses the “guilty verse” to make them think they should. Every line carries at least one card covering the message “You know I don’t write as often as I should, but here’s a card for you.” The famous Hallmark slogan, “When you care enough to send the very best,” was chosen by Mr. J.C. from a batch of 1944 promotion ideas because it simultaneously conveyed quality and a sense of obligation. The slogan is said around Hallmark to be “the world’s greatest guilt producer.”
Creating a sense of obligation has been only one ingredient in Hallmark’s marketing mix. Again the difference between card and soap is illustrative. A box of detergent needs no special occasion, no requirement of “sendability,” and it seldom reflects the temperament, personality, or affluence of the buyer. Yet a good line of greeting cards, they’ll tell you at Hallmark, must do all those things for every sort of customer. Predictably it was J. C. Hall who laid down the basic rules. Early on he began recording each card’s sales success and the possible reason for it. He then sent dealers his cards based on what he knew or strongly suspected would sell—on a “no buy back” basis. Today in Hallmark’s beige product-management offices, computer printouts are studied for, say, the 1983 “Christmas model line.” The managers scan past model lines for eighty-five coded characteristics from price to paper stock to size and subject and sentiment. “From the computer,” says Don Fletcher, corporate product director for greeting cards, “we see we need so many trees, wreaths, poinsettia, Santas, snow, and whatever. We add the vapor of experience to the computer and make sure we have no holes in the line.” Then, Fletcher says, the line is produced, and the computer sends the retailers what the machine knows is a good selection. And there is still a policy of no return of goods. If the cards don’t sell the first time, the dealer is stuck. But as Fletcher notes, the next time around he won’t buy Hallmark. As for direct orders from stores, “a retailer only has to send in a computer card,” says a Hallmark public relations man. “The computer sends the cards, maybe not what he thought he needed but what we know will move.”
Knowing what will sell is the heart of Hallmark’s creative department, where, in their cluttered warrens, the writers and the artists create the myriad cards that beckon from Hallmark’s carefully chosen and decorated retail outlets. Another of Mr. J.C.’s principles was close attention to where his cards were sold. He inaugurated the eye-level, illuminated card shelf and later directed the development of Hallmark’s color-coordinated, mood-lighted, designer-fashioned “card environments.” Hallmark cards are not sold in supermarkets or discount stores; such lowly environments fall to the company’s subsidiary line, Ambassador Cards.