Marketing Through Rain, Snow, Heat, and Gloom of Night

As chief marketers go, Nagisa Manabe is in a unique position. She’s charged with creating innovative uses for an ancient service whose rates are rising precipitously and whose fate hangs in a precarious balance between impending legislation and lawsuits. A packaged goods veteran who developed her marketing chops at Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, and Diageo, Manabe is guided by a personal experience and conviction that direct mail remains a powerful weapon in the marketing arsenal. We spoke with her about her first two years of marketing a government-run monopoly.

Coming from consumer packaged goods marketing, you’re a bit of an odd bird at the Post Office, aren’t you? You’re a former customer, right?

Since the beginning of my career I’ve used the mail quite a bit. From my early days doing big sampling programs on Ivory Soap through [my tenure] at Johnson & Johnson, mail has been a critical part of my marketing success, so I don’t think it’s any surprise at all that I got to the Postal Service and thought, “Well, hey, here’s a chance to help grow a longstanding component of the marketing industry through a little bit of innovation.”

What was your charge from the Postal Service in taking over its marketing and sales operations?

The primary thing I did when I came to the Post Office was to start the conversation [about becoming] a more customer-centric organization. What I’ve been doing is getting out on the road and meeting with customers. Folks would say to me, “Hey, this is the first executive meeting I’ve had with the Postal Service in years,” and many times I would bring the Postmaster General [Patrick Donahoe] with me to get a better understanding about what our customers actually need.

Who’d you see?

[Companies] like Pitney Bowes, Quad Graphics, and R.R. Donnelley, but also the major financial institutions and catalogers. The first job was to get an industry scan and understand what’s working, what’s not, what are their frustrations, what are the opportunities, how [we can] build business together. As a result, we’ve created new products. We’re developing new, negotiated service agreements. I think the team has actually reduced more than a third of the mailing manual, just to try to reduce the number of rules.

Do you find the Postal Service’s relationship with mailers to be symbiotic?

Mail is just a part of the marketing mix. I’ve known this since I started in the business in ’91 at Procter & Gamble. But the truth is, the physical delivery of a piece to the head of household can be one of the best ways to convert a customer. We’re trying to innovate in the mail enough so that it’s relevant. So you’ll see us doing a lot of promotion this year, trying to drive the linkage between digital and physical. You’ll also see us just straight up collaborating with mailers to develop test mail pieces and see whether or not it improves their effectiveness—just old-fashioned partnerships with key customers.

Name some mail options that even digital-heavy marketers should be looking at.

The package side of our business is experiencing explosive growth. That’s largely a result of the great shift in business to e-commerce. But what’s interesting about that is that many of these dot-com-type customers don’t use the mail very much. We’ve tested things with many of them, and I think they’ve come to realize that mail is an important part of the mix. Our catalog friends have known this for years. There’s something fun about that lean-back moment of flipping through a catalog, enjoying that experience, and then picking what you want to buy, and perhaps going online to do that. I think that people are going to be a lot more seamless about when to use one vehicle and when to use another, and how to marry up those vehicles. Some of these newer vehicles—it’s just too easy to delete an email, to screen things out. These folks are realizing that mail serves a purpose because at least it’s one guaranteed impression.

Because you have exclusive access to boxes on every door in America?

Even the best of my television media plans or my video or my online—if you look at all of the other delivery all together, I rarely get above a 90% reach. If I’m looking at reaching 100% of U.S. households, I’ve got to have mail in the mix.

Are businesses listening to what you have to say?

I think they were surprised to hear from us, you know? At first I think that they thought, “Now, why on earth is this person from the Postal Service calling on us?” It’s really all about just starting to get in and penetrate some of these customers.

One agency executive we spoke to recently remarked that, when he analyzes campaigns, he measures mail as just another tool and that it works better than digital for some clients.

That, I think, is my job at the Postal Service: to make sure that mail stays in the consideration set. I use Internet advertising. I use mobile advertising. We actually just started selling on eBay. But I want to make sure that businesses use mail when mail is more effective.

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How do you go about developing new products and services for business mailers?

We’ve gone to the trouble of working with our own agency and developing mock-ups for some customers, and saying to them, “Hey, we’re looking at your mail piece. That’s a terrifically effective piece, but here are three ways that we might improve on that mail piece.” Many agreed to put [the suggestions] into the mailstream, and we tested them and hope they implement them on a more regular basis.

Merging digital with physical mail is a recurring theme in the promotions you offer. Will you continue to beat that drum?

We have quite a large innovation group. We have almost 100 innovators developing future platforms for the Postal Service. We also have a group working under Randy Miskanic [VP of digital solutions], working farther out with digital. But, the goal of those promotions is to talk to as many mailers as possible, which is what Gary Reblin [VP of new products and innovation] and Tom Foti [manager of direct mail and periodicals] do. They spend a lot of time with mailers, trying to understand how they’re innovating in the mail, and then looking for opportunities to encourage others to adopt. The promotions are really born of great insight from customers. Not surprisingly, there’s a pretty high level of adoption in terms of folks using the promotions.

Some of your deals are predicated on things not-so-technological, like adding color.

Believe it or not, color matters. So just encouraging folks to experiment with a little bit of color to improve the effectiveness of their piece—it’s a simple thing, but it works.

There’s worry about the survival of the Postal Service. Where will the Post Office be three years from now?

We’ve had a phenomenal year in package growth, and I think that folks will continue to see all kinds of innovation from us in that space. The announcement of Sunday delivery and same-day delivery are just two examples of the ways that we’re going to continue to bring people into our package business. I think that that’s just the leading edge of a lot of this hybrid work that we’re doing. It doesn’t matter if it’s mail and package together, package and digital, digital and mail; we’re looking for the combinations that create better effectiveness for our customers. So, if everything goes well, by 2016 I would like to see mail in everyone’s media mix where mail makes sense. My old business, the consumer packaged goods business, is a great example of folks that I just can’t believe aren’t in the mail more—more sampling of new products, more interface between digital and their mail pieces. These are all huge entry-point opportunities.

A great deal of that package business comes from e-commerce companies. So that’s a great point of new-customer engagement for you, isn’t it?

The Postmaster General often says the Internet giveth and the Internet taketh away. On the one hand, we’ve seen a shift in bill payment to online, but at the same time we’ve seen tremendous growth in our package business as more and more folks shop online. I think our reality is, the world is going to continue to change, but we believe that the role for the Postal Service is to continue to innovate in all the ways that people need us, because the fact is they still need us to deliver to every household in America.

So is the Postal Service a hulking monopoly, a fleet-footed business, or something in between?

I will tell you that I’ve been in the marketing business since 1991 and I’ve never been part of an organization that moves faster than the Postal Service. Sure, there are legislative constraints about the businesses we operate in, but if it happens to be about the core business for mail or packages, we’re able to make decisions quickly and move to market with innovations that our customers ask for. I think we’re in a lucky place. We’ve got a strong leadership team and an outstanding organization of employees who are willing to get in there and try new things.

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