Creatives designing mailpacks tread a thin line. Make the mailing too clever and consumers will think it’s just a gimmick – too simple and it runs the risk of going straight in the bin. Daney Parker finds out which creative approaches work best
Television advertisements have the potential to awe you with dramatic locations, entertain and surprise you with special effects. What tactics can a piece of direct mail lying on a doormat use to excite you?
Above-the-line advertising provides great scope for creative ideas, whereas mailpacks may be seen to provide limited opportunities for creativity, not only because they must fit through a letterbox, but because it is easier to play safe using formats that have succeeded in the past.
To find out whether varied creative approaches do work, the Direct Mail Information Service carried out qualitative research to test consumer opinions about different direct mailshots, and discover which indicators they use to decide if a piece of mail is worth reading.
Jeanette Hull, a partner of HBH Partnership (which runs the DMIS), claims the results are “fascinating”, providing more insight into consumers’ reactions to direct mail pieces than relying on the usual indicator – response levels.
“Above-the-line advertisers frequently carry out pre-research, but direct mail advertisers only know which pack gets a good response after a mailing has been completed, and often do not know why it has achieved this response. Research helps us to understand consumer likes and dislikes, rather than finding out by trial and error.”
She adds: “Most people will open mail with expectations of what they will find inside. An example of a pack that was disliked was a one that had beautifully produced contents inside a plain brown manila envelope with a handwritten name and address. People thought the two did not match.”
Bob Nash, a creative director at direct marketing agency WWAV Rapp Collins, believes research is useful to help create the right campaign strategy, although often people think they do not have the time to carry out diagnostic research for mailpacks.
He agrees it is important to communicate the right brand message, but that this still leaves room for creativity: “We did a mailing for Digital asking people to come to a seminar held in conjunction with Microsoft. There was a series of six teaser postcards followed by a box mailing. Inside this box were plastic triangles that could be joined together to make a model to reinforce the message of building a © partnership. That was key throughout the pack. We were targeting senior people and to get the response we achieved at that level was fantastic.”
Nash underlines the importance of relevance: “Our creative approach got attention, and the executive toy was a great aide-memoire. However, it wasn’t just a gimmick, it represented the idea of partnership. Gimmicks for their own sake are a waste of money.”
It is not just the design of the pack that is important, a successful creative approach involves well-thought out copy too. Nash explains: “You can create a better response by using better words. We test writing about the product in different ways, placing the copy about incentives higher up the page, or altering product positionings.”
Clients can use their knowledge of products and customers to create their own direct mail solutions, including writing engaging copy, claims Petra Luckman, marketing services executive at Sabre Europe.
“Copywriting is a specialist skill, but not all the people who have that skill are working for direct marketing agencies. Our copy is so specialised that it is easier to do it in-house.”
Sabre is a travel information network which carries out business-to-business mailings to travel agents. Luckman adds: “Travel desks are cluttered with brochures showing exotic locations. We have to be clear about what we are doing and what the company is about. We have a product called Turbo Sabre, a souped-up version of a computer reservation system for large travel agents. We sent out soundcards that when opened made the noise of a racing car.” Copy lines such as “Outdistance the competition” underlined the main benefit of the product and tied it in with the visual, and audio, treatment.
Good creative work may not only lead to better results, it also builds on a product’s brand image. Some clients may feel this is, in fact, more important.
Paul Tullo, creative director of Tullo Marshall Warren (TMW) believes direct marketing has become more sophisticated in the past ten years: “The industry started off being very concerned with results, but now it takes into account factors including building long-term relationships with consumers, such as loyalty. We work for British Airways, which spends considerable money building its brand. It does not want this diminished by crudely sales-driven marketing packs. Immediate results are only one part of the picture.”
Tullo outlines a pack sent to Mercury customers encouraging them to migrate to a new product, VentureCall: “It was a fun pack, it looked like a pattern book, and the message it conveyed was ‘made to measure’, it asked people to subscribe to a better fitting product.”
Charles Snell, marketing specialist at Mercury, explains why this was an apt, creative approach: “VentureCall branding highlights how it is tailored to the needs of small businesses, as there are few products targeted solely at this market. It’s early days, but so far there has been an 11 per cent conversion rate.”
Adrian Fedyk, senior campaigns manager at telecoms company Orange, explains how its strong visual identity has also been advanced by direct marketing: “WWAV understands the brand, not just its visual identity. It is important for all agencies to become involved with this development.
“The marketing’s main aims are to develop the range and enhance customers’ perceptions of Orange, whether they come across the company in the press, on TV, or through direct marketing. In direct mail we must understand who the customer is and what will appeal in terms of offers. For instance, one offer was for a hands-free car kit, and we identified prospects who spend over 25 per cent of their time on the road.”
The notion that creative ideas should be used to enhance branding is confirmed by the DMIS research. This shows that where a direct mail recipient already has a relationship with the sender, the relationship can be weakened by creative techniques which don’t fit the consumer’s idea of the advertiser’s image.
The research also highlights common likes and dislikes of creative approaches. Dislikes include over-busy envelopes and statements such as “urgent” and “private and confidential”. Keys and coins were also connected with the idea that there must be a catch. The techniques which generated more positive feedback included using unusual pack shapes, and designs which showed that effort had been spent on the creative.
However, as the research did not consider the results of the mailings, the researcher comments that, “the attitudes expressed may not have been converted into actions. The continued use of creative themes which consumers say they dislike suggests a gap between perception and reaction”.
Steve Harrison, creative director of Ogilvy & Mather Direct, believes that contrary to what text books and direct marketing courses preach, good mailpacks do not simply consist of envelope lines, involvement devices, incentives, personalisation, lift letters or handwritten Pss.
“While such techniques may help, they count for little unless you have a well-written brief with a single-minded proposition and facts to support it. Then all you require is a big idea that will communicate the proposition clearly and precisely.”
Harrison describes a pack for Disneyland Paris: “When the brief came in we were asked for a ‘quick letter’ to tell potential customers that children could stay at Disneyland Paris for free between January and April.”
The creative team believed they could add more impact and created a Disney wand with the line: “Something to help make the family disappear.” This tied in with Disney- land’s Paris existing strapline: “The magic is closer than you think.”
The wand unrolled to show a letter explaining the offer. Harrison says that not only was the idea original, “it was also highly successful. Even though we were asking people to visit for three days in the middle of the bleakest winter for years, we still got an eight per cent response”.
Harrison concludes that a vital element for a good mailpack is the right client: “A client who will not only buy good ideas, but demands them and puts you under pressure to produce excellent work.”