Some Direct Mail Is So Eye-Catching, It Borders On Fine Art. But Does It Generate Business?

By: Natalie Engler

Starting A Conversation

Some direct mail is so eye-catching, it borders on fine art. But does it generate business? 

A year ago, Brea Olson, a marketing manager in Denver, received a direct mail postcard that caught her eye. Promoting an offer from online shoe retailer Piperlime, the card was designed to look like the green citrus fruit. Olson doesn’t recall her exact response to the message — but she knows that she couldn’t ignore it. A year later, that lime-shaped postcard still hangs in her kitchen.

Lin Ennis knows this experience well. A decade back, she stumbled across a direct mail postcard with the word “create” printed across it. Ten years later, its offer long since expired, that card still adorns her office wall. “It’s tattered now,” she says, “but I seem unable to part with it.”

Olson and Ennis aren’t alone. In offices and homes across the country, mail pieces initially designed to pitch an offer or service have become something more than just another piece of business communication. For many recipients, these pieces are something deeper, richer, more inspiring. No longer just an ad, they are also viewed as art.

We’re not talking just a crude illustration or generic stock photo designed to elicit a passing chuckle, either. Rather, many of the pieces that endure are created by respected artists and fully intend to do more than just prompt a purchase decision. While almost any mail piece can catch someone’s eye for any reason, the pieces that last due to sheer artistic brilliance are almost always intended to do so.

Writer and designer Alison Macmillan has kept several direct mail postcards because they provide inspiration for her own marketing campaigns, she says. Among them is an ad for a water filter, with a photo of a girl in 1950s-style clothing; a nursing services piece celebrating art and soup; and a mailer from an eyewear store that she saved because “the colors draw me in, as does the sultry look of the model in dark glasses.”

What recipients also see — weeks, months and even years after the marketing message has lost relevance — is a constant reminder of the company that sent them this irresistible bit of mail. And while evidence about the influence of highly artistic pieces is largely anecdotal, it’s still clear that a brand can get an unexpected boost by having its name or logo affixed to a wall for years purely because of the aesthetic appeal of a mailer.

There are plenty of companies that invest in visuals that they hope will outlast the immediate message of a mail piece. Some are companies you’d expect — such as art houses, graphic design companies and other visual-arts businesses. But there are also other major businesses, from retirement communities to big-city dance troupes, hoping to win over consumers with visuals that go beyond just a generic stock photo or crude illustration.

Return on Artwork

The first, most obvious payoff from the use of high-level artistry in a mailer is that the piece becomes more likely to capture potential respondents’ attention. The right images can help differentiate a direct mail piece from competitive mailings, says Kacy Cole, vice president of marketing at Corbis, a Seattle-based resource for advertising, design and media professionals worldwide. “Using imagery in direct mail campaigns helps convey a complex concept or idea in a glance,” she says. “Using quality imagery helps a campaign stand out.”

Recently, Corbis launched an initiative it calls BrainBran, which includes both an online and hard-copy component. The direct mail piece consists of a pack of 24 cards, each featuring a single and thought-provoking image along with a brief statement (“Remove the technology”) or question (“What’s the emotional motivation?”). The cards, which can be ordered from the company’s Web site, are designed to help stimulate ideas among creative professionals while also promoting Corbis as a fount of smart thinking, resourcefulness and eye-grabbing art. Just as significantly, they are designed as keepsakes.

Of course, you’d probably expect an art supplier to invest heavily in direct mail images that art lovers would want to keep. You might not, however, expect a popular retirement community to make a similar stake.

That’s what happened, though, when strategic marketing agency Creating Results launched a campaign for Westminster at Lake Ridge, a continuing-care retirement community. Creating Results sent 10,000 double-sided, full-color postcards to retirees. The 6-inch by 10-inch postcards spotlighted two resident artists — a photographer and an award-winning painter/sculptor — and displayed images of their work along with details about their lives. “Getting older doesn’t mean you have to stop pursuing your passions,” says Karen Pitts Baugher, director of public relations for Creating Results. “The vibrant artwork helped us show that Westminster at Lake Ridge gives you the time and freedom to live a vibrant life.” The campaign even inspired a reporter for a local paper to write about each featured artist.

In the weeks after each mailing, visitors to the Westminster Lake Ridge Web site roughly doubled, Creating Results reports. Calls from new leads surged as well, and the community’s occupancy rate of 96 percent was the highest ever.

Individual artists can benefit from an artistic approach to direct, too — especially when they are savvy about their mailing lists. When a Houston-area dance company showed the artwork of internationally recognized artist and designer Pablo Solomon in connection with an April performance, Solomon advertised the show with a postcard displaying one of his sculptures.

But he not only sent the mailer to prospective attendees, he also used it as an opportunity to reach out to past and potential business associates, gently reminding them of his existence. This targeted mailing resulted in several new opportunities, he says. For example, when he sent it as a “thank you” to the company that makes the particular product with which he sculpts, the company made him a spokesman.

And a mailing to critics he met several years ago when he did promotions for an art-related television series as well as a few local fine arts institutions and retail establishments led to several new artistic collaborations. Meanwhile, a poster-sized version of the postcard was hung at the theater complex where he was the featured artist. As it turned out, Houston Grand Opera shared the complex that night, so he also received inquiries about doing graphics work from opera-goers.

Different Strokes

But can a direct mail piece be too arty? Although beautiful mailers catch the attention of creative types, does investment in eye candy make sense for everyone?

Not necessarily, caution direct marketing experts. The value of aesthetics hinges on the industry, the audience and the message, they say. “We are a visual society,” observes Thomas Lamprecht, creative director of Hacker Group in Seattle. “We rely on our eyes more than any other sense, so visuals in marketing are important.” But he points out that we are also an Internet society, accustomed to finding pertinent information immediately — so if the visuals are fabulous but the message is muddy, your beautiful work may end up in the trash.

Hacker Group, which has created campaigns for numerous brand-name companies, occasionally compares the impact of an art-intensive execution of a campaign with a plain version. What they’ve found: Art tends to produce more bang for the buck when marketing an “object of desire,” such as real estate or motor vehicles, Lamprecht says.

Among the firm’s successful art-driven campaigns was one for a motorcycle manufacturer. Each direct mail piece displayed a digitally enhanced view of a motorbike, but in full and detailed view. The imagery focuses on “romanticizing” the product and is aimed at intense fans of the machines. In this case the art, says Lamprecht, “is purely about the product’s aesthetics and sex appeal.”

Appearance-related industries also benefit from pronounced artistry, says Joy Gendusa, founder and CEO of PostcardMania, a direct mail marketing company in Clearwater, Fla. Among those industries: dentists, day spas, art galleries, plastic surgeons, high-end landscaping, salons and home improvement companies. “Any time you are selling beauty, you have to have a beautiful card,” she says.

Some high-end services companies may benefit from beauty as well, but for different reasons. Tammy Mangan, director of marketing for Sterne Kessler Goldstein & Fox PLLC, an intellectual property law firm in Washington, D.C., says, “We’ve made superior design a part of our normal course of business because we believe it defines and reinforces our brand.” She adds that by using inventive imagery the firm aims to mirror the creativity of its clients, which are often tech companies.

Corbis’ Cole notes that for some health care and financial services companies, lifestyle images, showing people conveying emotions or connecting with friends and loved ones, can engage customers and help them identify with the product or service.

But for other financial planners, physical therapists, cleaning services, plumbing, appliances and other services firms, gorgeous design may be counterproductive. In these industries, humor tends to be more effective, says Gendusa, who has produced over 688 million postcards with around 70,000 designs over the past 10 years. In addition, she says that anyone trying to reach a financially conservative or low-income audience should be especially wary of coming across as slick or snobbish.

“Gilding the lily is one of the pitfalls of direct mail,” contends Steve Goebel, the creative director for MassMedia Inc., which is based in Las Vegas. “If you focus too much on the art and not enough on the call to action, you’re just making art for art’s sake. There’s a place for that.”

Of course, if you manage to make that great art relevant to your message, the place for your mailer just might be on someone’s office wall.