The U.S. Postal Service last week canceled an old law that forbade businesses from placing ads or logos on any type of currency -- including postage -- relinquishing to marketers once-hallowed ground unsullied by commercialism.
The effort is part of the USPS' push to stem a loss of income as consumers increasingly turn from so-called snail mail to Internet correspondence. First-class mailings have plunged since the mid-1990s from almost 55 billion pieces mailed in 1998 to just over 43 billion last year.
Personalized custom postage began with a two-month test in 2004, with some snags that led to stamps featuring less-than-savory characters including Ted Kaczynski and Jimmy Hoffa. The USPS reinstated the program for individuals in May 2005. Stamps.com -- one of three USPS-approved vendors, along with Zazzle and Encidia -- alone has sold almost 17 million personalized postage units. (Its PhotoStamps division accounted for $9 million in revenue in 2005 and $4 million in the first quarter of 2006.)
Hewlett-Packard will be the first marketer to leave its stamp on consumers with branded postage art that includes a photo of founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, an HP logo and a current print ad. HP executives and sales-force members are already using them in mailings, said VP-brand marketing Gary Elliott, although the company is still working on other potential uses.
"HP employees who send the correspondence become brand ambassadors. Recipients are reminded of the heritage of HP and the company's innovative background," Mr. Elliott said. "HP sees this as an exciting opportunity to extend its brand into a whole new avenue."
In that, it's not alone. Stamps.com President-CEO Ken McBride said his company is "talking to a lot of names you have heard of" in the Fortune 500, while Endicia VP-Marketing Mark Delman said he believes the market will be huge.
Still, the latest infringement of advertising may not sit well with all consumers. Images on "postage stamps have always been George Washington or the flag or scientists, educators and innovators, reflective of the culture," said Jim Nail, chief marketing officer of media-and-marketing consultant Cymfony. "There has to be a backlash of some sort. Here it is, this sacrosanct space where we've never seen ads before."
However, he believes the backlash will not result in lost sales, but rather a more psychological hardening of resolve against the overall inundation of advertising.
"If there is a negative reaction, I think it will be along the same lines of the way some people reacted when baseball and football stadiums began selling corporate naming rights," said Joe Calloway, an independent branding consultant and author. "There was a great outcry, but then, for better or worse, it wore off and we all became used to it."
"It will be interesting to see what marketers do with this," Mr. Calloway said. "If you're General Motors and you're going to do a mailing to a Nascar demographic with a Chevy Nascar on it, then I can imagine people would think that's pretty cool."
The cost for businesses will depend on the size of the mailing. A single sheet of 20 39-cent stamps costs $17.99 at ZazzleStamps for Business, but the price per stamp drops as the size of the order increases. Still, even for a large-volume mailing, businesses can expect to pay first-class rates plus a premium of 15% to 20% for the personalized postage -- all for mailings they could get at bulk rate.
Purists may be relieved to find that the branded postage created by companies is not actually a stamp. However, consumers who receive one on a piece of mail will not likely discern the difference.
"We have 47,000 members in 100 countries and they're all viewing them as stamps," said Dana Guyer, spokeswoman for the American Philatelic Society. She said their members likely will snap up the corporate postage as collectibles, and she envisions a whole new category of stamp collecting.
~ ~ ~
Here are some of the most popular U.S. stamps:
Breast-cancer research: 800+ million sold to date. It was the first semi-postal stamp, meaning it is sold for more than its value. Reauthorized for sale through 2007.
Elvis Presley: 517 million (no longer sold)
Spay and neuter pets: 250 million (no longer sold)
9/11 heroes: 133 million sold (2002-2004, with proceeds going to victims of the attacks)
~ ~ ~
Ira Teinowitz contributed to this report.