Smart reaction to mail crisis

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Amid the fear over anthrax-contaminated mail, the direct-marketing industry deserves praise for its reasoned and measured response. Mailers walk a fine line as they seek to address consumer concerns without overreacting-and so far they are walking it straight and true.

It helps that the industry reacted quickly. The Direct Marketing Association issued guidelines for its members, the U.S. Postal Service formed a task force and the Magazine Publishers of America released secure-mailing recommendations.

But individual marketers and agencies did not stand idly by. Devon Direct Euro RSCG began putting together a Web site, available to all DMA members, enabling consumers to check the veracity of mailings they receive. Marketers such as Procter & Gamble Co. and Nissan North America, at considerable expense, pulled some innocent programs that, in the light of the anthrax news, could conceivably unnerve consumers. Cox Target Media, which mails Val-Pak coupon envelopes, committed to an extra $50,000 a year for special sealant to discourage tampering. Undoubtedly, more such measures will come to light in the days ahead.

With nearly all forms of mail falling under at least some suspicion, those marketers that rely on tricks and ploys to entice consumers to open solicitations will be the most vulnerable. The more familiar companies and direct-mail brands are in a vastly better position to weather the scare. Direct marketers are, after all, in the relationship business. Consumers have learned over the years to trust Carol Wright, Lands' End, Columbia House and other old friends in the mailbox.

Marketers that have established the best relationships with consumers and that adapt to keep the faith-even if it ultimately means investing in expensive tamper-resistant packaging during a tough economic year-are the ones that will continue to keep the public trust.

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