Hallmark finds Canadian identity in risk and humour

Caring enough to send the very best isn't enough - you have to actually deliver the goods....

Caring enough to send the very best isn’t enough – you have to actually deliver the goods.

That’s where Hallmark fell short in late 1998 when the U.S.-based greeting card company lent Canada its first ever TV ad for national syndication.

Created by Hallmark’s worldwide AOR, Chicago’s Leo Burnett, the ‘I’ll Bet You’ll Look’ campaign fared well Stateside three years earlier, but somehow missed the mark here. Roger Baranowski, senior VP, marketing and sales for Toronto-based Hallmark Canada, says the ads, which featured card recipients slyly checking the back for the Hallmark logo, ‘offended the Canadian sensibility’ to the point of hurting Hallmark Canada’s own poorly defined brand image.

At the time, Hallmark Canada had never developed its own creative – TV or otherwise – save for the odd retail promotion. Its Kansas City-based parent company wouldn’t dole out the dollars to do so. As a result, the Canadian Hallmark brand was drastically underdeveloped in comparison to its U.S. counterpart, and was in dire need of a strategy.

‘The challenge was to define the brand. People already had the awareness of Hallmark, they just weren’t sure what we stood for,’ says Baranowski, referring to Hallmark’s stuck-in-the-’70s image, where everything is apple pie and America. ‘It’s your grandmother’s company – it’s not a company that can laugh at itself and be in step with the times.’

He says that all changed in October, 1999, when Judy John stepped in and ‘rescued the creative.’

After hiring a Toronto-based market research company to look at current Canadian brand attitudes via telephone surveys, Leo Burnett confirmed that Hallmark needed a full-fledged image makeover, even though the brand was perceived as ‘the Kleenex of greeting cards.’

John’s goal was to break new ground in the Canadian marketplace with the Hallmark brand. Drawing from an agency brief that stressed ‘every occasion and relationship is special,’ the strategy included creating a long-running brand equity campaign that would focus on everyday greeting cards, not just those geared to holidays such as Christmas, Easter and Mother’s Day.

The point was for consumers to select from the brand’s variety of cards because ‘they can be confident of finding just the right card to convey their sentiments.’ Examples could include everything from apology and get-well cards to extended family birthday greetings (read: ‘Happy Birthday Step Monster’).

However, when it came to inventing a new tagline for Canada, Baranowski says he didn’t want to depart too radically from the familiar ‘When you care enough to send the very best’ U.S. brand positioning. John and her team came up with: ‘If you could say it like Hallmark, you wouldn’t need Hallmark.’

The creative team came up with approximately 20 ad scenarios, which were eventually whittled down to six. The client picked three scripts to be tested on a panel of participants. The comment most commonly espoused by panelists was that the inclusion of humour ‘helped improve their feelings towards the brand.’

‘We tried to add a sense of humour to get away from being overly sentimental,’ says John. This tactical device was key to broadening the brand’s appeal as a hip and contemporary product.

The three spots were produced in March, 2000. Each involved elements of humour, sentiment and surprise set before a backdrop of an embarrassing moment or a risky situation that would right itself in the end.

‘The Kiss,’ a favourite in the campaign, features Gordie, a geeky, glasses-wearing grade-schooler who, after incessant prodding from his classmates, tries to impress a girl he has a crush on by reciting prose from a Hallmark card. The positive reaction he receives only furthers his cockiness and he pulls the same stunt on another little girl.

Another device to heighten consumer awareness was incorporated into the end of all three spots, when both the inside and the back of a card are shown, identifying the recited verse along with the Hallmark logo. According to Baranowski, it completes the loop, highlighting the brand without hitting consumers over the head with it.

John says the client nixed some ads where the scenario felt too contrived. One such spot was based on an employee giving his boss a birthday card, considered too risky because viewers might interpret what was supposed to have been a sincere gesture as common brown-nosing.

The selected ads were launched in May, 2000, and are still running in flighted rotation. Results show the campaign strategy achieved its overall goals and that Hallmark Canada is well on its way to improving its brand image with consumers. Since the campaign launched, card volume sales have increased by 11% and overall market share has risen by 2.5%. However, Carlton Cards is still the current market leader, with Hallmark being 80% of its size by dollar share.

Next up for John et al is a new TV and radio spot set to launch next month. Sticking to the strategic roots of humour, risk and sentiment, the goal this time will be to ‘put the ‘happy’ back in birthday.’

With seven awards received to date for Hallmark Canada’s premiere campaign, John says she can envision the strategy lasting at least a few more years.

‘It’s a strong idea with a lot of legs. It shows Hallmark is a little different from what you would expect.’