Why are there so many greeting cards?

Let’s start with the Kevin Bacon Game. The concept of the game is to start with an actor or actress. The players name a costar of that actor in a movie, then move to another movie that actor was in and name another star. This continues until you reach a movie that featured Kevin Bacon.

Here’s an example from the last movie I watched, Hubie Halloween (yes, I have kids).  

  • Tyler Crumley (fringe child actor) 
  • Was in Tag with John Hamm 
  • John Hamm was in Richard Jewel with Sam Rockwell
  • Sam Rockwell was in Frost/Nixon with Kevin Bacon

The concept behind this game is called the Six Degrees of Separation. Kevin Bacon is used in the game because his movie credits contain a large, diverse set of other actors making the game easier for the general movie enthusiast.  You could technically play the game with hundreds of actors/actresses, but it would be much harder to come up with connections, and Kevin Bacon’s name is more fun to say.   

Six Degrees of Separation is a theory of social networking. It states that any two people are associated with six or fewer interpersonal connections. LinkedIn built its platform on top of this theory. Scientists study historical documents on how people’s connections disperse information. A similar concept explains the spread of this freakin pandemic. 

These same networking theories also explain the vast amount of greeting cards in the market. Suppose you change the movies from the Kevin Bacon Game into life events. The greeting card is an expression of human connection, a celebration of someone’s life, achievements, or milestones. It can express love, sympathy, or gratitude. Even the most solitary person has hundreds of connecting occasions throughout the year. 

Each occasion adds to the complexity of simply knowing someone. A connection is unique, based on the life, experience, and depth of the two people’s relationship.  The birthday sentiment to your mom and your boss is very different and changes over time. 

so many greeting cards - connections

Enter Human Emotion

Adding to the complexity, a greeting card is a combination of expression and imagery. The simple inclusion of the wrong color or image may ruin a perfectly worded expression for an occasion. “This is exactly what I want to say for her birthday, but Aunt Judy hates yellow!”

For each relationship, occasion, and connection, our greeting card community attempts to put together the perfect copy and design to account for all unique human connections. Our grocery stores have 100s of feet greeting cards stacked six feet high, and thousands of small stores have spinners and card walls filled with diverse greetings. Yet, each year more greeting card makers enter the market because they see the need for a forgotten voice and look in the industry. 

If we tried to calculate the number of cards to meet all people’s needs, the math quickly tells us it is exceptionally high, and this is a pointless calculation.  Even if the industry produced the necessary trillions of designs, how would the consumer even know they existed? In the engineering world, this unconstrained multivariable problem is a nightmare. There is no practical solution.  To a greeting card designer or retailer, this can be equally disheartening. How can you design or pick the right cards? 

This is where the diverse human networks we discussed earlier work to our favor. When humans can’t find the exact thing they are searching for, they look to influencers and their community to help put constraints on what’s “right.” Large sets of people can influence each other, define boundaries, and naturally constrain the variation. These influences across networks are the natural social engineering that drives trends. 

Universal Specific

One of my colleagues in one of the largest greeting card companies in the US defined the ultimate card as universally specific.  A universal message that connects with a very large group but still feels one to one when sent.  Universally specific cards are the money makers, whether at the mass market, serving your community, or meeting a particular niche market’s needs.

Being universally specific does not point you towards being generic. The goal is to find how large groups are expressing and connecting, and applying your voice and viewpoint. The key is finding a group that turns a lot of cards and connects with your voice and perspective. Each year, the United States sends an estimated six billion cards or 18 cards per person, so the groups are out there.   How do you find them? Trial and error, instinct, testing, consumer research? The first two are more expensive than you think but the default answer for most of the companies in the industry.

Endless Products equals Endless Oppurtunity?

The endless amount of products needed to support the greeting card industry shapes almost every aspect of the business.  It drives entry into the market, creates tiers of companies from single owners to multi-billion dollar corporations. It employs thousands and connects millions, but the work will never be done. So is this a good thing, bad, or just the nature of the business?  

Some great communities have formed to discuss these issues, The Greeting Card Association, Proof to Product, Greeting Card Gurus, and CST Peer Groups.  The need for so many products in the industry also lowers the competitive nature allowing peer groups to be open, honest, and help everyone grow.

The six billion card estimate is a little outdated and suspect. So is most of the data for our industry. Want to help solve it? www.page3consulting.com/greeting-card-industry-survey/