First class post

One of the biggest challenges facing the Royal Mail is changing people’s attitudes to business mail, which is making up a growing proportion of our post.

According to the latest figures, 86 per cent of the Royal Mail’s volume comes from companies trying to sell consumers or other businesses their products and services. Unfortunately, such direct mail is often still dismissed as junk mail, despite the fact that most direct mail is now more highly targeted.

The Royal Mail decided that any re-education programme should start with its own workforce. Its 190,000 employees had tended to treat some business mail as if it were second class.

Indeed, while the Royal Mail has targeted businesses in TV advertising, other advertising campaigns have talked up the importance of social mail as if this, and not its business mail, provided the lion’s share of its business.

Until this year, delivery times for customer-sorted mail from businesses were longer than for private mail. It was generally given a lower priority by personnel throughout the chain, from those sorting and delivering the mail to their managers.

“There’s been a growing realisation over the past couple of years that there was an increasing gap between these two categories of mail,” explains Barbara Cadd, director of communications for Streamline, the Royal Mail unit which serves larger UK business customers. Although figures have improved, says Cadd, there is still work to be done on the consistency of on-time delivery.

It is not only staff and public awareness which has tilted the balance in favour of social mail. Government, too, has always pushed targets in this sector, says Cadd, ignoring the fact that the Royal Mail’s key customers are businesses. “As we move into a more competitive environment, not only against other media, the challenge is to prepare for this and improve customer loyalty,” she explains.

At first glance this looks like a straightforward internal marketing exercise aimed with shifting attitudes among sorting, delivery and low-level management workers. But inevitably, there is an interplay between external and internal forces.

Royal Mail management realised that it had to act decisively to change staff perceptions and behaviour. The previous year, the Royal Mail had brought in the Marketing & Communications Agency (MCA) to introduce an effective internal communications process for Streamline. Now, once again, the organisation turned to MCA for an internal marketing solution.

Staff attitudes towards business mail had been tackled before in disparate projects, which had worked in the short term, says Cadd. But the Royal Mail was looking for more strategic, long-term thinking, integrating different channels of communication and going beyond the issue of how particular types of mail are treated. “You can’t deliver a message like that in isolation,” says Cadd. “It needs to be part of a more general set of messages about where the business is going.”

The brief snowballed still further once MCA had been brought in, expanding to address wider thinking about how the Royal Mail talks to its employees, and binding this firmly to the question of customer loyalty. It soon became clear to MCA that the link between direct mail and the future of the organisation was of paramount importance. “The key issue for senior managers was the quality of service,” says MCA client director Adrian Lenard. “This was going to drive the Royal Mail’s position as market leader.”

Focus group and one-to-one research among staff showed that they underrated the significance of revenue from business mail and resented it as a burden – literally and figuratively. A major business mail-out could double or treble the size of a bag on a given morning.

And MCA uncovered a tendency to assume that all business mail was badly targeted, making it likewise more of a nuisance than a benefit to the consumer. Mailsort post, which has already been part-sorted by the customer, and unaddressed mail, bulk mailings of untargeted advertising material for which delivery staff are given a separate allowance, were bracketed together despite being very different animals, says MCA. Both were considered to be less important than social mail.

In an effort to keep the sorting office clear, says Lenard, pallets of subscriber magazines might also be kept outside, with results that could upset both the consumer and the publisher.

Clearly, communication issues had to be integrated with practical operational solutions. The internal staff journal, departmental briefings and external media would all need to be co-ordinated, says MCA, to put across a maximum of three central messages for set periods of time. “No one in any key role must go off-message,” says Lenard, acknowledging the debt here to New Labour management style.

Implementation has already begun. For the moment, the organisation is concentrating on attitudes among local sorting office management, while early next year attention will turn to the “frontline” workers: sorting and delivery staff. “There’s no point targeting the frontline if managers do not have a good understanding of the issues, or perhaps do not even agree with our point of view,” says Cadd.

Rather than beating staff around the head with negative messages or veiled threats about the future of the business – and their own jobs – the Royal Mail’s strategy focuses on the benefits of business mail, both to the organisation and to the consumer. Cadd quotes figures suggesting that eight out of ten consumers open direct mail and that in 40 per cent of cases they respond (source: DMIS).

Greater staff acceptance can be generated, says Cadd, by stressing the convenience factor in direct mail, and drawing the parallel with home shopping. By pumping 8m into the direct mail industry, sponsoring education, training and database management, she says, the Royal Mail is also demonstrating that it has a long-term stake in the sector and is committed to improving targeting.

Above all, the Royal Mail is keen to match internal messages with whatever reaches the workforce externally. Marketing staff are being equipped to rebut criticisms on the junk mail issue, but are also being encouraged to take the initiative in putting the case for the Royal Mail. Will all this bring a smile back to the face of our overloaded postman? The answer is in the mail, and should arrive … some time next year.

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