A Welcome to the 74th Postmaster General and CEO Megan Brennan

Happy President’s Day, and a warm welcome to the new USPS Postmaster General and Chief Executive Officer Megan Brennan. In a recent letter to USPS employees, upon her term of service beginning February 1, Brennan shared these statements, which I thought would be noteworthy enough to share here.

Happy President’s Day, and a warm welcome to the new USPS Postmaster General and Chief Executive Officer Megan Brennan.

In a recent letter to USPS employees, upon her term of service beginning February 1, Brennan shared these statements, which I thought noteworthy to share here:

  • We will invest in the future of the Postal Service. Investing in our future means creating the best opportunities for long-term growth and profitability.
  • We will speed the pace of innovation. The coming years will see greater focus on innovation, with pilot projects designed to test new delivery offerings, new tools to better meet the digital and mobile expectations of our customers, and new offerings designed for America’s small businesses.
  • We will develop strategies to better engage and empower employees.
  • We will also build the most efficient and productive network to support our growth products.
  • We have made tremendous progress streamlining our operation footprint in recent years—allowing us to keep our products and services affordable.

Updates to the USPS five-year business plan and strategic initiatives are certain to follow.

From a USPS customer perspective, it’s hard to argue about any one of these objectives, and it’s tempting to say she has put emphases exactly where they need to be: innovation, investment, productivity, affordability, engagement and infrastructure.

While Postal Service customers are not called out directly here in this excerpt—all of these goals speak to keeping the Postal Service attractive, accessible and responsive to marketplace needs and realities. The PMG also stated in her letter, “Your commitment to our public service mission and to delivering for our customers defines who we are as an organization and is the bedrock of all of our successes.”

There are certainly challenges ahead: Marketing organizations are well aware of the difficulty of working with a quasi-independent governmental entity that does not have total control over its finances, and taps the business sector unpredictably as a result. The whole rationale of past postal reforms was to instill predictability, manageability, cost controls and some semblance of logic. We can say with certainty that that most recent postal reform law fell short, and created huge liabilities in funding that clearly were not sustainable, nor grounded in logic, which brought on USPS default and financial uncertainty. And I’m not talking about the crown jewel in that law, from mailers’ perspective: the CPI-indexed annual rate cap. But rather Congressional mandates for pre-funding certain civil service and retiree benefits, and we’re still awaiting the collective political will to fix these mandates.

Thankfully, the PMG is inheriting a growing US economy which helps USPS financials, but the fix-its still need to happen on The Hill. Let’s make sure some of this needed emphasis and impetus can find its way into the Postal Service’s working more closely with the business community, engaging USPS employees too, for these legislative changes to happen very soon.

I’d love to hear some positive developments here by the time the PMG addresses the National Postal Forum in May.

McKinsey Thinks Bland, Generic Loyalty Programs Are Killing Business – And They May Be Right!

A recent Forbes article by McKinsey, “Making Loyalty Pay: Six Lessons From the Innovators,” showed loyalty program participation has steadily increased during the past five years (a 10 percent annual rate of growth), with the average household now having almost 25 memberships. For all of that growing popularity, there are huge questions for marketers: Are the programs contributing to increased sales? And what is the impact of loyalty programs on enterprise profitability?

A recent Forbes article by McKinsey, “Making Loyalty Pay: Six Lessons From the Innovators,” showed loyalty program participation has steadily increased during the past five years (a 10 percent annual rate of growth), with the average household now having almost 25 memberships. For all of that growing popularity, there are huge questions for marketers: Are the programs contributing to increased sales? And what is the impact of loyalty programs on enterprise profitability?

Overall, companies with loyalty programs have grown at about the same rate as companies without them; but there is variance in performance value among industries. These programs produce positive sales increases for hotels, for example, but negative sales impact on car rental, airlines and food retail. And, companies with higher loyalty program spend had lower margins than companies in the same sector which do not spend on high-visibility loyalty programs.

McKinsey has noted that, “Despite relative underperformance in terms of revenue growth and profitability, over the past five years, market capitalization for companies that greatly emphasize loyalty programs has outpaced that of companies that don’t.” This, as they see it, may be indicative of hope among companies with programs that long-term customer value can be generated.

Within the McKinsey report, several strategies are offered for helping businesses overcome the negatives often associated with loyalty programs. Key among these are:

  • Integrate Loyalty Into the Full Experience
    Companies can link the loyalty program into the overall purchase and use experience. An example cited in the article is Starbucks, which has created its program to reflect the uniqueness of its café experience. Loyalty is built into the program by integrating payments and mobile technology, which appeals to its target audience.
  • Use the Data
    This may be the most important opportunity represented by loyalty programs. Data collected from the programs can offer competitive opportunities. Tesco, the largest supermarket chain on the planet, has been doing loyalty program member number-crunching for years through DunnHumby. Similarly, Caesars Entertainment has rich databases on its high-rolling program members. One retailer has combined its loyalty program with a 5 percent point-of-sale discount, building volume from its highest-value customers. In another well-documented example, a retailer has used its loyalty program data to identify future mothers before other chains, thus targeting offers to capture both their regular spend and new category purchases as buying habits evolve.
  • Build Partnerships
    As stated on so many occasions, organizations that build trust generate stronger, more bonded, customer behavior. This applies to loyalty programs as well, where there is ample opportunity to build cross-promotion for customers with non-competing products and services. In the U.K., Sainsbury, the major supermarket competitor of Tesco, has partnered with Nectar, a major loyalty coalition. Nectar has more members than Tesco, and participants can collect rewards across a large number of non-competing retailers. Through partnership, Sainsbury’s offers customers a broader and deeper value proposition; and Nectar also generates data from coalition partners, which it uses to better target promotions to customers.
  • Solve Customer and Industry Pain Points
    Numerous customer behavior studies have shown that people will gravitate to, and pay more for, better service. A perfect example of this is Amazon Prime, where additional payment gets customers faster delivery and digital tracking. This is good for Amazon (estimates are that members spend more than four times more with Amazon than non-members), its customers, and its suppliers, who also get access to Prime customers and the positive rub-off of affiliating with a trusted brand.
  • Maximize Difference Between Perceived Value and Real Cost
    Often, program elements can represent high perceived value without adding much in the way of bottom-line cost to the sponsor. The example cited is Starwood Hotels and Resorts where, through its Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) program, there is a focus on personal leisure travel rewards for high-spending frequent guests.
  • Allocate Loyalty Reinvestment to the Most Valuable Customers
    Many companies have only recently come to the realization that some customers are more valuable than others; and, to be successful, loyalty programs need to target the higher revenue customers. In 2010, Southwest Airlines revamped its loyalty program to make rewards more proportional to ticket price; and this has better targeted the most profitable customers, as well as enabled the airline to adopt a loyalty behavior metric that is closely tied to actual revenue generation.

Loyalty programs continue to grow, but they are also tending to become more closely integrated with brand-building and multichannel customer experience optimization. But, there is also lots of commoditization and passivity were these programs are concerned—sort of the “If You Build It, They Will Come” syndrome at work. And, of course, there’s a mini contra movement among some retail chains, where they have removed established loyalty programs—or never initiated them in the first place—in favor of everyday low prices and more efficient performance.

Keep the CPI Postal Rate Cap Alive!

There are no guarantees when “grand” budget and funding bills make their way through Congress … there’s always a chance some horse-trading will be tacked on that undermines the interests of and harms the direct marketing community. That’s why I was more than an interested bystander when a federal budget deal was announced last week that seeks to keep the government funded without another costly shutdown

There are no guarantees when “grand” budget and funding bills make their way through Congress … there’s always a chance some horse-trading will be tacked on that undermines the interests of and harms the direct marketing community. That’s why I was more than an interested bystander when a federal budget deal was announced last week that seeks to keep the government funded without another costly shutdown.

There’s nothing in this bill (so far) that is nefarious to marketers (a vote is still needed in the Senate). In the whole of the budget bill, some fiscal conservatives are not happy—prompt spending controls have been punted, and deficit reductions have been kicked down the road, a reflection of our still-weak economy being the rationale.

But it’s also a reflection of what’s dysfunctional in Washington: A seemingly ever-present readiness and willingness to punt fiscal discipline in more matters than just the federal budget. At least the three-year pattern of budget shutdowns and debt ceilings may be diverted. At least we can hope.

Now to postal reform … which was not part of the budget bill.

We need postal reform legislation—both political parties and nearly all postal stakeholders agree on this, but there’s devil in details in a current Senate proposal to move another breakthrough piece of legislation forward.

The reason for postal reform’s urgency, however, has nothing to do with the annual rate cap on postage increases that is now part of federal law.

Yet this most precious centerpiece for ratepayers of the 2006 postal reform act—the Consumer Price Index-Urban annual rate cap on postage hikes—is dispensed in the Carper-Coburn Postal Reform Act of 2013 (S. 1486) bill now before the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee. Crucially for us, Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) is leading a bipartisan effort to remove from the bill Section 301 (a Section which would eliminate this rate cap for market-dominant classes, among them First-Class Mail and Standard Mail). If she is successful, the vital rate cap would be preserved. A markup for the bill overall in Committee is scheduled for this coming Tuesday (Dec. 18), so there is still time to voice support for Sen. Baldwin’s effort to amend the legislation and save the cap.

What is urgent, of course, is relief from 2006 Congressional mandates to pre-fund retiree health benefits at a magnitude that was (and still is) wholly unsustainable and has proven to be unrealistic. One might say how ironic it is to have a column praising fiscal discipline bemoan a pre-funding mandate, but this type of mandate is unprecedented, unwarranted and blind to financial facts. The CPI cap, on the other hand, has been an extremely useful tool to USPS and its customers and, arguably, an important driver of USPS management efforts to “right size” USPS infrastructure to today’s mail (and marketing) realities.

Fiscal discipline matters to the private sector, and to all U.S. citizens in our own households and our business affairs. It is shocking (to a layperson, if not Beltway insiders) that such discipline means little to too many policymakers. Price caps are a common-sense, and extremely demonstrable, method for assuring predictable increments in postage hikes which serves to aid businesses and nonprofit organizations in their marketing and media planning. Take these caps away, and we’re back to uncertainty, costs rising unchecked and diverted dollars from direct mail media spending.

Stay tuned to industry organization efforts to see postal reform through—but with the all-important CPI rate cap intact. I’m hopeful Sen. Baldwin has a great week, and so do we.

Look Who’s Arguing for Higher Postage

It was a busy past week for postal reform followers, as the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Oversight Committee convened a hearing on a bipartisan measure to implement various Postal reforms. Perhaps the most contentious part of the Senate’s current bipartisan proposal was the centerpiece of the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act: The annual rate cap on postage increases tied to the Consumer Price Index.

Well, it was a busy past week for postal reform followers, as the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Oversight Committee convened a hearing on a bipartisan measure to implement various reforms that would enable billions in necessary U.S. Postal Service (USPS) savings. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee already passed a postal reform measure earlier this year—without one vote of support from Democrats. Whatever bipartisan effort the Senate can put forward matters greatly, since votes of majority Democrats are needed in the Senate (and eventually the House) for passage, and also to garner White House support.

Perhaps the most contentious part of the Senate’s current bipartisan proposal, based on comments filed and testimonies given, was not five-day delivery or relief from funding mandates of pre-retirement of health benefits (though both of these have their own list of supporters and detractors), but rather the centerpiece of the now-in-effect 2006 postal reform law (Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act): The annual rate cap on postage increases tied to the Consumer Price Index.

Marketing mailers—USPS customers—insist that such a cap remaining in place.

It is this measure of fiscal discipline that acts as the single most important indicator to mailers that the Postal Service will operate within its means, and mailers will have predictable increases in postage that can be budgeted for with a high degree of certainty.

Uncertainty, on the other hand, is the specter that advertising mailers most fear—and one that channels ad dollars most formidably to other media. The 2007 rate hike (the last rate hike ahead of the 2006 law’s implementation) clearly showed what exorbitant and unexpected increases can do, such as the case of catalogers in that year.

Now we have postal unions (predictably), USPS management and the PMG (less predictably), the USPS Inspector General, and even a Senate Republican (now that’s a surprise) arguing for an emergency rate hike (a “last resort” allowed under the current 2006 law, if and when exigency is proven) or, as the Senate bipartisan bill would allow, the removal of the CPI cap altogether as the USPS looks to $20 billion in overall relief (much of which it has achieved already in its own cost-cutting to date) to balance the books.

Well, I have my own feelings about the negative effects of exigency—which I shared recently in a post. (I’m not an economist here, just a student of history.)

Yet, to do away with the CPI price cap stricture? That would make disappear the crowning achievement of the 2006 law that USPS customers fought so hard for. Getting rid of the cap means exigency, in practice, could be a permanent fixture in postage increases—and mailer flight to digital and other channels will be the “giant sucking sound” as uncertainty reigns again (my apologies to Ross Perot). As we know from the past: USPS management goodwill, Postal Regulatory Commission oversight, and mailers’ testimonies of warning in rate case hearings are not enough to stop punishing and unpredictable rate hikes. A law that keeps cost increases in postage within CPI, however, largely has halted such malaise.

The losses that the Postal Service is experiencing today have to do with Congressional mandates, not nimble efforts of USPS management and workforce to right-size the Postal Service and its infrastructure to USPS mail volume trends.

Mailers: Stay tuned—and be prepared to mobilize.