Although Vogue wielded the same direct mail piece to woo potential subscribers for seven years straight, the Condé Nast fashion publication can’t be accused of settling for what’s tried and true.
Throughout those years, Vogue tested an array of direct mail pieces against its successful control. The envelopes for the pieces that aimed to knock out the lead contender signified a wide scope of creativity, ranging from hot pink to aquamarine in color with playful copy that alluded to its discounted subscription offer as “something fabulous” or “a private sale.” But nothing new worked — until recently.
“Vogue was really in a stew for seven years,” said Ruth K. Sheldon, president of Ruth K. Sheldon and Associates, New York, a copywriting and consulting agency. “They had been mailing packages against the control, but the packages didn’t even come close. There was some magic about this control that seemed to be working.”
Vogue declined to provide response rates for its control and test mailings. What is known is that the control was relatively simple in its design. Potential subscribers received a semi-glossy white envelope within which was a “gift certificate” for 12 issues at $18, half the regular price; a pink postage-paid reply envelope; a letter from the editor describing Vogue highlights; and, in later years, an offer for a free, black, nylon backpack. It was pictured within a gold diamond on the outside envelope below copy that announced “Free Gift!”
Last year, Vogue turned to Sheldon and Jyl Ferris, a graphic designer at Ferris & Co., Easton, CT, in search of a direct mail package that would work better than the old one. Sheldon and Ferris have worked together on direct mail pieces for Architectural Digest, Mademoiselle, Allure and newcomer nest magazine.
“We met a couple of times and scratched our heads, looking at the controls and not coming up with anything,” Sheldon said. “We decided to go out and visit the market place and see what the fashion conscious are buying.”
Their first stop was Saks Fifth Avenue, where they put the direct mail package out of their mind and soaked up fashion trends instead. They saw that a softer, more romantic approach was surfacing as flowered prints, filmy dresses and see-through clothing edged out funky clothes, dress-for-success apparel and the grunge look.
“After visiting a few more stores and seeing this look everywhere, we figured that a package that had the look and feel of this fashion was a vellum, see-through outer envelope,” Sheldon said, noting that the sheer envelope allows readers to glimpse what’s inside, namely the offer for the free backpack. “It echoed the see-through romantic fashions that we were seeing in the stores. We also thought it would be a lot cheaper, because it would eliminate the need for four-color printing on the outer package.”
They decided to picture and describe the free backpack on a perforated card attached to the 12-issues-for-$18 subscription order form, rather than as a separate notice, as before.
“We thought that was an added incentive or motivation,” said Sheldon, who figured that a reader holding a picture of the gift would be more inclined to order the magazine.
Before Sheldon set to work on the letter from the editor, she read a year’s worth of Vogue — ads as well as copy.
“It becomes clear as you read a magazine that there are certain buzz words or terminology — in this case ‘Vogue speak,’ ” Sheldon said. “Once you start peeling off the words, you can mix and match them.”
The resulting letter first asked readers, “When was the last time you bought something you were really mad for? On sale?” The letter then offers an overview of Vogue by using catchy phrases like “dangerously sexy stilettos” and “knee and shoulder sharing the spotlight” and “flowing dresses as delicate as hothouse flowers.”
“I tried to make the letter reflect what a shopper would think,” Sheldon said. “People who buy Vogue are really into shopping.”
Toward the end of last year, Ferris and Sheldon discovered that their direct mail piece beat out the 7-year-old control, although Vogue would not release specifics. Now, this one-time test will become the control.
“We always pride ourselves on coming up with unique ideas and coming up with the facts and feelings that lie behind them,” Sheldon said, adding a warning about the dangers behind extensive shopping research: “We both ended up spending a lot of money at Saks.”