“Mail?! Isn’t That Dead?”

“Mail? Isn’t that dead?” That’s the reaction I sometimes get from new friends when I talk about my job (well, part of it): analyzing direct mail. To answer that ‘direct’ question, let’s take a dive into …

“Mail? Isn’t that dead?” That’s the reaction I sometimes get from new friends when I talk about my job (well, part of it): analyzing direct mail.

To answer that “direct” question, let’s take a dive into the retail sector. Yeah, the postal service is in crisis, mail volume is in decline, and digital retail channels are flexing their muscles more than ever. But over the last few months I’ve seen some terrific direct mail demonstrating that some companies still realize and celebrate the unique value of direct mail in positioning their brands.

My first “aha!” moment came in late April, with the new J. Crew catalog. On the cover was a greeting in white text (“NICE TO MEET YOU”) on a red background. But that wasn’t what got my attention. It was a two-page spread inside — the welcome to this “Style Guide” — that made me stop and read closely (see image in the media player).

The letter talks about how the catalog has been used by customers: “You read us on the train and on the beach. You also dog-ear the pages to mark your favorite looks … SO HERE’S YOUR OFFICIAL COLOR BIBLE, YOUR OCCASIONAL TRAVELOGUE, YOUR WHAT-SHOE-GOES-WITH-WHAT-SKIRT AND WHAT-TIE-GOES-WITH-THIS-JACKET SOURCE OF INSPIRATION.” In essence, the catalog is a benefit all by itself.

Lord & Taylor mailed a Style Guide of its own in August. It includes a note from Suzanne Timmins, the company’s Senior VP & Fashion Director, who confidently proclaims, “Our Style Guide is all you will need to build your fall wardrobe. Take it from me, it’s what’s chic right now!” Likewise, Ann Taylor’s head designer, Lisa Axelson, introduced readers to the store’s first edition of “The Workbook.” Actress Kate Hudson, the star of its Fall ads, appeared on the cover, but, Axelson says, the focus of the issue is on “women like you, with 9-5 schedules and a 24/7 life.”

As with the other catalogs, there are lots of call-outs throughout to combinations of styles both new and old. Both the Ann Taylor and Lord & Taylor efforts include incentives (a gift card and coupons, respectively) that are good only at the brick-and-mortar stores; the J. Crew offer code can be used either at a store or online.

It’s not just apparel retailers who are championing their expertise and exclusivity. On a cover, Design Within Reach recently asked its readers “What is MODERN?” The answers — “the people and places that shaped the modern objects with which we live” — are found on the pages inside, claims company president & CEO John Edelman in the letter inside.

Much of the catalog explains the history of the design movement, and showcases products that exemplify the people, places, forms and materials that influenced decades of home and office design. It’s all about having an ongoing conversation, according to Edelman. “Talk about design, test us on our knowledge, or just listen to our stories.”

Many retailers can sell clothing and furniture like what these cataloguers offer. They can promise lower prices, similar quality, and good customer service. But these companies stand apart because of how they keep direct mail relevant; they use high-quality paper, copy and images to break through the mailbox clutter and build (or reinforce) a unique identity for themselves and, for their customers, a lifestyle.

So, to answer that original question: Dead? Nope.

Paul Bobnak is the director of the Who’s Mailing What! Archive, the most complete library of direct mail in the world. Reach him at pbobnak@napco.com.