It’s easy to poke fun at the poor post office these days. The service started by Benjamin Franklin in 1775 lost $5 billion this year—the seventh year of red ink in a row. Americans sent 44.3 billion fewer pieces of mail this year than in 2008, according to a recent study from IBIS World. You don’t need an MBA to determine why the mailman’s problems now go well beyond snow, rain, heat and gloom of night in the swift completion of his appointed rounds. The new hindrances are email, social media, cheap long-distance calls via cellphone. All have made sending cards and letters (a hefty 43 percent of U.S. Postal Service business) tumble down to somewhere between quaint and irrelevant.
Still, the holiday season has long been the post office’s time to shine, and, as these ads show, the agency’s done its best to keep the pretty colored lights plugged in. But while these print ads from 1976 and 2013 both feature red ribbons, happy people and an air of holiday cheer, they show all too clearly how the Postal Service has lately lost its way—and failed to capitalize on the few remaining selling points it has left.
“Both of these ads are about goodwill—trying to make you feel good about the post office,” observed Hayes Roth, chief marketing officer for brand consultants Landor Associates. The trouble is, the post office needs more than goodwill to survive now, and its new ad isn’t delivering the goods. “It’s an attractive ad,” he said, “but I don’t see the compelling sales argument that going to the post office is better than going elsewhere.”
That’s why this saccharine ad from 37 years ago was good enough for the times. In 1976, Americans couldn’t go elsewhere. There was no email, of course, and private carriers barely took a nip of market share. Federal Express was a five-year-old foundling used principally by businesses. United Parcel Service had only just won the right to deliver in the lower 48 states in 1975. With its dominance assured, the Postal Service could relax—and pick an advertising theme as fatuous as kids having a blast collecting stamps.
Today, however, the Postal Service has to get serious. And, contrary to popular assumptions, it really does have some competitive advantages, especially when it comes to package delivery. It’s cheap, reliable, and there are 26,755 post offices in this country. Yet few of these attributes are evident in this bubbly ad featuring model Daisy Fuentes. “She looks beautiful, but I don’t for a minute believe she’s doing any of this,” Roth said. “The message is ‘Send and receive with ease,’ but I don’t get why this is so much easier than going with FedEx or UPS. They talk about joy, but what is the joy about the post office?” Ouch. But … good point.
Snail mail isn’t irrelevant: 160 billion pieces of it were delivered in 2012. But Roth says the post office can no longer afford warm and fuzzy ads like this in place of ones that convey the real value to be found in a Priority Mail box.
“They’re missing a unique selling proposition,” he said. “This ad is just the classic pretty girl opening and closing the refrigerator. She could be doing anything.”
Like, even, sending an email.