Thursday, December 13, 2012

'tis the Season for the Generic Corporate Greeting Card

My wife almost always cries when she watches a Hallmark television commercial, and I must admit sometimes one of those commercials taps a sentimental nerve in this Irishman.   Hallmark has a way with its advertising.  Each commercial is about a special relationship, and the short story we see play out during a commercial break is usually one that connects with us on a personal level.

According to Hallmark, Christmas is the “largest card-sending holiday in the United States, with approximately 1.6 billion cards sent.”

Of that 1.6 billion, a significant portion are corporate greeting cards that companies and other organizations send to friends, associates, colleagues, employees and other important people.

Since I first entered the PR business, I have been on holiday card committees, provided advice to clients on the annual greeting card, and have taken different approaches in my own business with regard to holiday greetings.

The one steady trend is that every year organizations seem to get even more sensitive as to how much Christmas to include or avoid when deciding on the corporate greeting card. 

I know organizations that have opted to send Thanksgiving or New Year’s cards in keeping with the business nature of the correspondence and the message.  But most organizations still seem to prefer to send their cards in the weeks of December leading up to the 25th.

When clients have asked me for advice on the card, I’ve usually adhered to current custom and said it’s okay to use the term “holiday” throughout and it’s always acceptable to thank recipients and wish them peace and prosperity in the coming year.  Graphically, the corporate card tends to avoid overt religious images or symbolism, but that’s where things can start to get muddled.

What one person thinks is a generic image of the holiday season, another might perceive as having religious undertones or overtones.  The Christmas tree is one of those examples.  Five years ago, the tree, while associated with the Christmas holiday, was not in itself seen as a religious symbol.  Today, in some corners even that has changed.

To be sure, it’s important to recognize that the tree would have no significance if not for the Christmas holiday.  But the same could be said for the entire holiday season.  To remove Christmas from the calendar would virtually eliminate the very basis for most of the card-sending, shopping, entertaining, vacation-taking and other business and personal traditions associated with December.

Tied to this is the issue of whether or not any of these symbols are offensive.  That is a judgment call most organizations don’t want to have to confront.  The last thing the card sender wants to do, especially in a goodwill greeting, is offend the recipient.

As a result, holiday greeting cards have been watered down to lose nearly all of their sentiment and sincerity.  This has resulted in generic cards that:

·         Avoid the use the traditional holiday colors of red and green;
·         Tend to feature winter nature scenes; and
·         Avoid using snow men, wreaths, Christmas trees, skating ponds, ornaments, gifts, or any other symbols associated with holiday traditions.

As you may be able to tell, I’m skeptical of the trend.  One of the most important components of communication is credibility.  If you intend to conduct any communications initiative, it should be believable.

So, when the subject of the corporate greeting comes up in my work, I tend to adhere to the trend of playing it safe.  But I do look for every opportunity to personalize the greeting.  I continue to think that certain iconic images and colors traditionally associated with the holiday season can provide a nice fit for the right organization.

And while I’ve had no clients publicly embrace the religious aspect of the holiday, there are some nonprofit and other organizations across the country that have not shied away from cultures built on Christian or other religious values.  In such cases, it is entirely appropriate for those organizations to feature the more religious aspect of the holiday in their greeting cards.

As Hallmark demonstrates time and again, the best greetings include a believable connection between the sender and the recipient.  I think that’s a good model for the rest of us.

Meanwhile, if you want to get a taste of the holiday Hallmark-style, check out this classic Hallmark commercial from 1999:

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