For Valentine’s Day this year, Hallmark is selling a card fronted with toilet paper rolls arranged in the shape of a heart. “I love you this much,” it reads. “And you know what a big deal that is.”
In any other era, this caption would be totally nonsensical — Valentine’s Day by Dada. But Covid-19 completely upended our culture over the course of the past year. One look at that card, and anyone who has lived through a year of the pandemic knows exactly what Hallmark is trying to say.
Angela Ensminger, Hallmark’s creative product development director, has designed cards at the company for 20 years. Usually, she focuses on human emotion; pain, joy, loss, relief. But this was the first time Ensminger, and her team, had to articulate the continuum of experience of a public health catastrophe.
After a few months away from the office, as it became clear that Covid wasn’t going away anytime soon, Hallmark got to work producing a line of cards specifically tuned to pandemic life. Some are funny and light, and others attempt to speak for a world that’s become mired in grief. As Ensminger puts it, one of Hallmark’s best attributes is its range, and the company has put that versatility to good use in the face of an overwhelming crisis.
It was once inconceivable that Americans would be celebrating Valentine’s Day 2021 in a lockdown. But the February 14 is right around the corner even as the country continues to report around 100,000 new cases a day. The future remains tentative. This year, Ensminger believes that Valentine’s Day might take on a different tone; less focused on romantic love, and more oriented around a general appreciation for everyone in our lives.
Clearly, we’re all in a giving mood. Hallmark reports triple-digit growth in their e-commerce sales throughout 2020. We talked about that, as well as the precise nature of pandemic humor, and what it’s like to collaborate on greeting cards while everyone is working from home.
When did the pandemic become a reality at Hallmark? When did you realize it was going to change your workflow and the kind of cards you were printing?
It was March when the work-from-home shift happened for us. It was a slow realization of, “Okay, this may be longer than a month.” As a creative team, in a highly collaborative process of making greeting cards, we were able to pivot very quickly into something we could do remotely. We got more comfortable with Microsoft Teams and things like that. We had a good time learning how to put together, say, a collaborative sketchbook, where everyone could contribute at once. By summer, we had hit our stride.
We knew we had a huge responsibility to help our customers communicate at a time when everything about communication had changed. It was always on our radar that we had an opportunity to help people connect, because physical contact was so limited. We knew the brand was poised to do that for people.
At the beginning of the lockdown, did you feel the need to change the kind of cards you were making and address the pandemic in the content? Or was it just business as usual for a while?
We know that because a greeting card represents a relationship, there’s always been a need to connect across the country or through adversity. So, the first thing we did was highlight the cards we already had that met those needs. The pandemic-specific cards came up quickly afterwards, because we heard people saying, “Gosh, birthdays aren’t what they used to be.”
We felt like people did want to address the pandemic. So we had a collection that hit retail earlier this year that was more overt. We used Shoebox, one of our humor brands, to help people laugh a little in this really unfortunate situation. We had one that said, “It’s your birthday and you don’t look any older from 6 feet away.” We also had cards that were more heartfelt. One of the best things about the company is our range. People look to us when even they don’t know what to say.
I believe you guys typically work way ahead of schedule. Like, the Christmas cards you make might not be seen in stores for a full calendar year. Was it hard to get those Covid-themed cards out the door so quickly?
The good news is that we have a very dynamic and responsive ability to bring cards to market quickly. So while we do have longer lead times for certain seasons, we have the ability to work fast. Our product didn’t change, we just wanted to ensure that we could meet people’s needs as their needs adjusted.
How hard was it to come up with the right tone for a greeting card in the middle of a public health crisis?
Obviously this was a new challenge for all of us. We’re very used to helping people navigate difficult times, but usually those difficult times are one-to-one, not nationwide or worldwide. That said, we understand that there’s not one way people choose to communicate. As we moved into the pandemic, we knew that one size didn’t fit all.
We never made light of the situation. We were never disrespectful. If we were to laugh, it would never be at the expense of anyone who was suffering. After all, we were going through the same thing. Oftentimes, we put on our human hats as well as our creative hats and thought, “What do we need to say right now?”
Tell me more about how you found the right voice for humor right now. That sounds like a delicate balancing act.
There are certain icons and phrases that have made their way in the public awareness that people really resonate with. Things like the word “essential,” or social distancing, or personal space. All of that is really topical right now, so that’s where we started. So toilet paper, or a character wearing a mask, immediately brings you to the current day.
We wanted it to be warm, we wanted it to be kind, we wanted it to be casual and intimate. We have a card that says, “You are cordially invited to invade my personal space,” which is funny, considering how much time we’ve spent with our significant others this year. Again, the beauty is that we’re all going through the same thing when it comes to the impact Covid has had on our day-to-day lives. We all have a shared experience right now. It’s pretty unique, and that’s what we lean on with our humor.
What ideas have come out of your Covid Valentine’s Day collection? How are they different from the cards you made a year ago?
Valentine’s Day is the second-largest card-giving holiday; 145 million cards are exchanged each year. That’s a big opportunity, and it’s not just about romantic love. More and more, it’s become a holiday about celebrating everyone in your lives. In a year like this, that non-romantic sending, using Valentine’s Day to express gratitude, is really important.
We have a trends studio, and they’re finding that people are gravitating to cards that tell someone they matter. From people that are by your side every day, to people who are on the front lines. Teachers are a big deal, as are health care workers and service providers. We have one example in this year’s Valentine’s Day line that says, “You are essential” on the cover, and on the inside it reads, “Especially to me.”
Recognizing the challenges of Valentine’s Day in 2021 was very important as we developed our product line. In years past they might have been more fun and lighthearted, but right now there’s more of a priority on the need to support each other.
We also wanted to acknowledge couples, families, and friends who’ve had to navigate changing relationships this year. So we wanted to offer a little bit of nostalgia for the way things used to be, while recognizing how things are. We have a card that was specifically planned to espouse how fast life moves, and how we may forget to stop and say, “I appreciate you.” Everyone’s life has gotten a little bit smaller this year.
So, do you think that Valentine’s Day is going to be less about romantic love this year and more about a general appreciation for each other?
That’s something we’ve talked about quite a bit. Last year, everyone was decorating earlier for Christmas and Halloween. Everyone was looking for an opportunity to celebrate and lighten the load. We believe that people are going to participate in Valentine’s Day, if only because it’s an opportunity to find good in the world and reach out to each other.
Has anything about this pandemic underscored the pride you take in designing greeting cards? Does the work you do at Hallmark feel more vital during a pandemic?
Cards are one of the simple ways people can reach out to each other. People can hold them, read them, and process them. Our in-house analytics team conducted a survey and found that 60 percent of respondents found that cards were more meaningful than other forms of communication, and 76 percent of them said that the impact of a card is worth the time it takes to send it out.
We heard anecdotally from people who display their cards more than they used to. By looking at them, they’re reminded of their family and friends. We think about how our cards were displayed because they were pretty and festive before, and how now, that displayability is more a metaphor for someone in their life. We’re pleased to be present in so many relationships this year, even more so than before.