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Greeting Cards Get Real

How American Greeting's card writers capture the market of sadness

Think of a greeting card. Imagine the soothing colors and the card stock. Imagine the smell of it and weight of it in the hand. Finally consider the occasion. Is it a sympathy card for a miscarriage? Is it for a couple struggling with infertility? Maybe it’s for a person fighting heroin addiction or cancer? Probably not. Because for most people, greeting cards signal thoughts of happy, saccharine occasions like birthdays or anniversaries, and not those painfully raw emotional times when happiness seems far off.

Greg Vovos is not most people. He’s a greeting card writer. And sometimes when he’s writing cards he’s thinking about how to say just the right thing to people for whom things have gone very wrong. These types of cards are not for joy-filled “special occasions”. They are meant to offer support, sympathy and also love. Vovos likes writing these cards. “To me, it’s rooted more in the reality of relationships,” he says, sitting in an unscuffed conference room in the newly built American Greetings world headquarters in a western suburb of Cleveland.

Vovos looks like the good natured dad that he is. He wears a tight graying haircut and well groomed, neat facial hair below a set of happy eyes. In his gray polo shirt and jeans, he doesn’t necessarily cut the figure of a man concerned with the more harrowing times that create a relationship’s reality. But he is.

In fact, he often thinks about creating cards for a specific dark reality, say the experience of infertility. But the trick is, he says, to then write generally. “If it is an ‘infertility card,’ can it also work for for someone who’s going through an addiction struggle?” he asks. “It’s kind of a playground for a writer.”

If that sounds odd, it is. American Greetings has made a recent marketing push to make people think about looking to cards in desperate times far from “Happy Birthday” and “Congratulations”. From the outside, their recent “Give Meaning” campaign looks very much like a play to capture what could be called the sadness market.

The campaign features a series of heart-wrenching videos. In one called “Tattoo”, a pensive young woman enters a tattoo shop while a birthday card is read in voice over. This is her first tattoo. And as it’s revealed, she holds it beside the birthday card she brought for reference. Her tattoo is the phrase “keep shining” in her mother’s handwriting. It’s a memento of her passing.

In the campaign’s most recent video, called “Not Alone”, a young woman and her husband struggle to become pregnant. Negative pregnancy tests are discarded, and there are concerned and heartfelt kitchen conversations and a doctor’s visit. At some point, the woman’s friend notices her pain at a baby shower. They are shown later in a cafe as the friend hands over a card that reads “I can’t know what you’re feeling… / But I’m here for you.”

That’s an actual card with Vovos’ actual copy. Frankly, it would probably work for someone struggling with addiction too.

So how did American Greetings come to the idea of marketing to these moments of sadness? “The Give Meaning came from listening to our consumers,” explains American Greetings Communications Director Patrice Sadd. That listening came largely through social media. “We’d put up a post for Mother’s Day and someone would comment that their mother passed away, or we were seeing conversations around infertility.”

It became apparent to the marketing team that although many cards were celebratory, “people are going through something every day. Just the idea of reaching out to somebody is important,” Sadd says.

Which is not to say that American Greetings is turning away from Mother’s Day and Birthday cards. Those will always be a part of its $1.8 billion annual revenue. As Vovos’ colleague and 30-year card-writing veteran Ann McEvoy puts it, “That’s kind of our bread and butter. We’re always going to be doing the birthday cards.”

But she is quick to point out that she and Vovos have competition in the Facebook algorithm. After all, when a social media platform reminds you to dash out a quick “HBD” on a friend’s timeline before the day ends, what’s the point of a birthday card?

McEvoy, however, is largely unconcerned. As she sits beside Vovos with her white flowing hair, cream-colored flowing blouse, and kind, stately demeanor, she rests her hands on the smooth conference room table. Cards, she explains, show a commitment that even a birthday text message can’t claim.

“Yes, the card is there to make the person feel better,” she says. “But it also makes the sender feel like they’ve gone that extra step. Especially if it’s a card that’s saying ‘whatever you need, I’m here for you.’”

Which is to say that recognizing a friend’s private struggle and reaching out with an analog memento that says just the right thing makes everyone feel just that much better. “I relish the emotional cards,” McEvoy says. “They’re really really rich. I think it comes from a very personal space. You have to dig deep sometimes.”

McEvoy and Vovos are no strangers to digging deep. They both come from a theater background where wearing another person’s emotions is crucial. “I was a single mom with five kids,” McEvoy says about her pre-card writing days. She was going through a divorce and needed a new non-theater gig that paid real money. She was hired at American Greetings despite not having any specific education in writing. “My background was in theater. So I thought, I can pretend to be a greeting card writer. Give me my costume and a pen.”

For his part, Vovos is a playwright. He recently put up an acclaimed production at Cleveland’s storied Doboma theatre titled How to be a Respectable Junkie. The show delves unflinchingly into the midwestern heroin epidemic. It’s not the side hustle one might expect from a guy who spends a ton of time thinking about new ways to say “Happy Anniversary.”

And that is perhaps why both writers don’t tire of putting themselves into raw emotional places. They’re used to wearing the skin of tragic heroines or inhabiting the lives of the drug addled downtrodden. Still, Vovos does worry his emotional investment at his day job might affect his ability to be an emotionally present husband and father.

“I’ve thought this but never actually said it out loud,” Vovos chuckles nervously. “I’m still employed because I have a wife. I think about her a lot when I write this copy.” But he worries about what happens when he comes home tired after work. “I wonder if I’m failing her as a husband because I put most of my effort into writing greeting cards.”

Both Vovos and McEvoy agree nothing in their lives is safe from the possibility of finding its way into the pages of a greeting card. Vovos remembers a time after he lost his mother. He suggests learned more about sympathy cards during that time than he ever had. “I’d think, ‘This sentence really means something to me,’” Vovos says. After that, he poured himself into writing sympathy cards, something that came easier because the emotions of losing his mother were still so very fresh. “I was really successful,” he says. “If it’s impacting me personally it will probably impact other people personally.”

It’s as if the American Greetings headquarters is an emotions factory of sorts. The marketing staff and writers are very open about the fact that there can be some very raw conversations in the cubes and conference rooms across the huge but tidy campus. In fact, the infertility video was, in part, inspired by conversations among co-workers who were experiencing struggles to become parents. The people in the “Not Alone” video are real people recreating their real struggle. The friends exchanging cards are real friends. The emotions captured, says Sadd, are the real emotions.

“All of us on the marketing team have folks who experienced infertility and we realized nobody was really talking about it” says Sadd. She says that the act of surfacing those conversations are why American Greetings calls itself a “meaningful connections” company.

McEvoy adds, “As writers, we share our stories with one another. Whether it’s on a casual, day-to-day basis, or in a meeting where we’re actually getting paid for discussing emotional situations. It’s all fodder for what we’re creating.”

That idea plays into the overused, hackish marketing buzzword of “authenticity” which is tossed around constantly at the company. But more than say, a cola or clothing brand, authenticity actually makes sense for greeting card company. After all, if the cards don’t sound like something a person might actually say, they’re probably never going to leave the store.

At the same time, McEvoy points out that authenticity is a moving target, and it’s intensely personal. “If you go in and pick up a card and say, ‘I would never send that,’ well that’s because, honey, that card’s not for you.”

Authenticity is also linked to culture because culture often dictates the intricacies of what we can and cannot say to one another. And what we can and cannot say to each other dictates what can be printed in a card. “We can use the word ‘cancer’ now,” says McEvoy. That wasn’t always the case. But over her 30-year career, McEvoy has watched it progress from a stage whisper to a battle cry. “It’s worked its way into the lexicon,” she says, noting that it’s not uncommon to see hats and shirts sporting the phrase “Fuck Cancer.”

“Those cultural shifts make you a little bit of a sociologist,” McEvoy says. “You keep your finger on the pulse of what words people are comfortable saying.”

McEvoy and Vovos wind down their conversation. It’s past lunchtime and McEvoy has to excuse herself because one of her daughters is coming into office with her newest grandchild. A half-hour later they’re saying goodbye in the airy American Greetings lobby. McEvoy hands her cane to her daughter. She holds the baby for some photos and the kid smiles brightly.

This is a moment far removed from any of those laid out in the company’s Give Meaning campaign. It’s bright and full of smiles. But one can imagine that at some point in McEvoy’s grandchild’s life, there will be a struggle. And if he has a good friend who notices, they may opt for analog comfort over virtual sympathy and deliver a card—maybe one that builds on his grandmother’s work.

But for now, in the arms of his grandmother, a card isn’t needed for him to understand that she loves him very much. But she needs to feel that love in order to write her cards.