Pushing the Envelope at the U.S. Postal Service

Ad Age Publisher Allison Arden Explains How a Pumpkin in the Mail Could Inspire Innovation

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Allison Arden
Allison Arden
The news of the U.S. Postal Service cutting back to a five-day week reminded me of an unexpected and amusing delivery I received a few days before Christmas. It arrived in the mail, but it was something I would have expected in my FreshDirect box rather than my mailbox: a Santa squash. I know. I had never seen one, either. It was a butternut squash with a beautifully painted picture of Santa Claus painted on the front, along with my address and a sticker worth $5.23 of postage on the other side.

What is a Santa squash and why did I receive it? It might help to understand some of the backstory. At the end of September, I was out with some friends when one of them mentioned that you could mail fruit. She worked for Shape magazine, and they had received an orange in the mail last year. My curiosity was piqued. Imagine the possibilities: fruit for sure an interesting one, but the idea of no packaging even more intriguing.

Since the Jewish New Year had already passed, I decided to move straight to Halloween. Before I began thrusting gourds into the postal system, I did a test using a single miniature pumpkin, three stamps, my own address and a cheerful "Happy Autumn!" written across the top. I hoped this little touch of happiness might capture some goodwill from postal workers in case my little experiment wasn't exactly legal.

Flash-forward to the next afternoon -- my little pumpkin had safely arrived back home in my mailbox. Success! Off I went. Buying 10 more pumpkins and 30 more stamps, my children and I created happy Halloween surprises for a select group of family and friends. What we received in return were lots of delighted phone calls and e-mails thanking us for the sweet little surprises we had sent around the country. Phone calls, e-mails and, of course, one beautifully crafted Santa squash.

While this is one small creative endeavor, it seems worthwhile to point out that my little exercise netted the post office $19.03, and spread some joy in the process.

This comes in an era where there is not much exciting news coming for the United States Postal Service. Buried under a multibillion-dollar debt, the USPS is continually closing post offices (3,200 went under review for possible closure this past fall). They continue to increase the cost of delivery for those who are steadfast supporters, including publishers like yours truly. Crain publishers were most recently told that we would need to insert an "issue stiffener" for all issues fewer than 48 pages, because these copies failed a newly implemented "droop test." This would be an additional cost to the publishing industry as print advertising continues to decline.

In an ever-increasing digital and fragmented world, marketers are craving ways to form a deeper connection with their consumer. Maybe it's time to give the USPS another look and rethink direct marketing in the physical form.

As my apparently legal Halloween exercise suggests, mailed packages can come in many shapes and sizes, and don't need to be in a package at all. According to a Postal Service representative, as long as the item does not rot or decay and won't cause any odor, you are free to send it through the regular mail system (at your own risk, of course).

So, not only can consumers begin mailing unencumbered Christmas ornaments to friends and families, imagine what can happen when the idea is put in the hands of the creative brain trust we have throughout our industry. The possibilities are endless and don't stop at the mailbox.

With 34,000 postal offices around the country, the USPS has three times the retail outfits around the United States than Starbucks, making it a potentially powerful new platform for local marketing.

Sampling programs, branded uniforms for the postal workers, billboards -- this untapped inventory may be one of the last remaining spaces untouched by advertising.

With the possibility of more post offices closing and workers losing their jobs, the once-unhappy postal worker should be delighted at the idea that these new endeavors might just be saving jobs, and should be excited at the opportunity to wear your branding or spread and hand-deliver your messaging.

Just think. This could give the phrase "going postal" a whole new meaning.

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