Focus: Handling and Distribution - Achieving effective postal strikes

Where do you draw the line between mail-outs that are attention-grabbing and those that are downright bizarre? Danny Rogers looks at what’s turning up in postal trays around the nation.

Where do you draw the line between mail-outs that are

attention-grabbing and those that are downright bizarre? Danny Rogers

looks at what’s turning up in postal trays around the nation.

An increasing number of bizarre, imaginative, edible, entertaining, and

occasionally live, products are now finding their way on to journalists’

desks in a desperate bid by PR people to make their services or their

clients’ products stand out from the rest.

Youth marketing agency Red Rooster PR, for example, has mailed

everything from miniature paint boxes filled with semi-permanent hair

dyes to duo packages of extra strong ’dynamite’ sweets and extra strong

hair gel to journalists to promote its clients’ funky hair care range


And in-house departments can be just as creative. Channel 5’s PR

department came up with an ingenious way of inviting journalists,

producers and showbiz talent to the launch of the channel last


’The launch was on bonfire night and themed ’no smoke without fire’,’

explains PR manager Danielle Nay, ’So we placed a glittery silver ticket

in a long narrow packet designed in Channel 5 colours. We also included

a gold sparkler in the shape of a number 5 and a box of matches.’

Such was the success that at last week’s launch of Channel 5’s

programming schedule at the Oxo Tower in central London, Nay and her

team used an equally creative device to attract journalists.

They mailed out Oxo cube boxes full of Smarties mini-eggs, again in the

Channel 5 colours.

With such scope, distribution specialists come across quite a range of

mailings. ’We have sent out cheese, fortune cookies, garden gnomes, and

artichokes,’ says Laila Jay, marketing executive at distribution

specialists Two-Ten Communications.

Really? ’Oh yes and stress balls, toothpaste, doughnuts, four-foot high

Christmas stockings and Tutankhamun death masks,’ she adds.

Neil Shotton, group marketing manager of handling house Mailcom says:

’Promotional items have changed dramatically in the last few years. They

used to be relevant to the target market but now this is often not the

case . My view is that below-the-line activity is replicating

advertising, becoming wilder and wackier to grab attention.’

However Shotton believes the market is becoming saturated with the weird

and wonderful and expects a move back towards more conservative


Trisha Moon, managing director of long established consumer agency Green

Moon Public Relations says: ’We employ a whole range of different


A campaign may call for mailing straightforward products or it may

justify a more creative approach.’

She gives the example of a hair product that was mailed to beauty

editors with the theme of ’treat yourself to a night in’. Along with the

product Green Moon included a scented candle, a best-selling paperback

and some bed socks.

’I think you should pick a creative idea when appropriate but only as

long as you are providing the journalist with a real angle, something to

write about,’ she says.

Moon gives another example of a mailing she came across by the promoter

of a fragrance product who sent journalists an empty bottle of fragrance

along with some billiard balls. ’What’s the point in that?’ she quite

rightly asks.

But why should public relations companies take on all this hassle


After all there are mailing specialists such as Mailcom, GWC and Brann

who theoretically can take the whole job off their hands.

’Our services are traditionally split into two areas,’ explains

Mailcom’s Shotton, ’There is the handling side which is the taking of

orders, processing, data capture as well as follow-up reports and

analysis. And there is fulfilment, which means the physical fulfilment

of a programme. Although nowadays the two are rarely split.’

However, Shotton points out that he would be unlikely to take on a

mailing job for less than two or three thousand items, which can make it

a dilemma for public relations professionals targeting a limited number

of journalists.

Although he does point out that by doing it themselves PR companies

retain the important ’courtesy element’.

’To be honest the odd job for an agency probably wouldn’t excite us,’

agrees Alan Halfacre, chairman of handling house GWC, ’But if it was

going to be a long-term partnership that would be more appealing.’

Halfacre says that creative mailings can be too easily trivialised by

agencies: ’Let’s face it, this sort of activity is not really what

public relations staff are for. I’m always very cautious to say we’re

creative but on the other hand when it comes down to making sure a

concept is possible we’re the practical engineers of the business.’

Angie Moxham, managing director of LeFevre Communications says: ’It’s

getting increasingly difficult to get coverage in this way. This is

because there’s so many bright public relations executives out there who

are getting better and better at attracting journalists’ attention.’

For this reason Moxham says LeFevre prefers to deliver products to a

limited number of journalists personally. However the agency doesn’t

compromise on creativity.

Last summer LeFevre launched a range of new dairy products for client

Anchor Foods by serving them up to the predominantly female staff on

women’s consumer magazines.

The cheese and whipped cream products were served up in a variety of

recipes by a hunky male dressed as a butler. ’He was gorgeous, and the

journalists loved it,’ says LeFevre account manager Annabel Dunstan.

And this year LeFevre went one better for its client the Oyster


On Valentine’s Day it arranged for fresh oysters to be delivered by

hand, taxi and courier to national food journalists and radio stations

which held tastings live on air. To add further spice they were

accompanied by other foods alleged to have aphrodisiac qualities and a

’hornometer’ to gauge their sexiness.

’If we are targeting the media we always do it ourselves,’ says Moxham,

’I still question the benefit of sending out loads of products. If you

tailor the campaign to the audience, you can use the opportunity to

explain the product. Handing distribution of product to a third party is

putting yourself in the lap of the gods.’

Alice Chan, account director at Lexis Public Relations agrees: ’Drink

products are notoriously difficult to distribute, particularly as many

alcoholic drinks should be served cold.’

For this reason when Lexis launched Gordon and Schweppes - a pre-mixed

drink in a can - last summer it chose to hire promotional staff to

deliver ice-cold cans from a cool bag. And it paid off. ’It was

gratefully consumed, particularly as on that day the temperatures were

soaring into the eighties,’ says Chan.

The use of creative devices to deliver the editorial message is, after

all, at the heart of the public relations discipline. The skill is in

finding an imaginative and appropriate delivery mechanism, then managing

it in such a way that journalists are truly inspired.

Special deliveries: Mail ordered publicity

According to Royal Mail guidelines, silkworms, meal worms, leeches,

caterpillars, maggots and fish fry may be posted if packed


Not that they will make particularly attractive promotional items.

However, according to its lively promotional literature, it does draw

the line at aardvarks, aerosols and arsenic.

Also out are compressed flammable gases, other living creatures,

corrosives (including dyes), adhesives, disinfectants, paints, toxic

substances and sharp instruments (unless well-protected).

There is a corporate leaflet published on behalf of the three companies:

Royal Mail, Parcel Force and Post Office Counters called ’Play it


Mail it Safe’, which provides guidelines on what can or can’t be posted

and those which are legal if packaged correctly.

Each company also has its own leaflet. Probably the most useful is the

Royal Mail’s Handy Guide to Postal Services. The Royal Mail will provide

specific guidance on letters and small packets, Parcelforce can be

called for advice on parcels. Alternatively local customer services

centres will provide information.

Maria Hudson, service conditions manager at the Royal Mail says: ’An

increasing amount of our mail now goes by air and since 1996 we have had

to comply with International Air Transport Association (IATA)


This has meant a tightening of rules.’

She says there was some controversy about Channel 5’s decision to send

fireworks through the post for its launch (see main text) - it seems

Channel 5 checked out regulations in advance, only to later find that it

had an old version of the rules.

Hudson says that the mailing of fireworks may still be legal but only if

packaged according to strict guidelines.

For particularly tricky items it is probably worth bringing in

specialist handling firms. Neil Shotton, group marketing manager at

Mailcom talks about the headache of delivering Bonsai Trees for one

client which involved hand delivery of specially made boxes that had to

be kept the right way up. ’They were the most delicate thing we have

ever delivered,’ says Shotton, ’We also had to insure each one to the

value of pounds 95.’

Handling and distribution houses, closely geared to the PR industry,

such as Two-Ten Communications and PIMS are well-placed to advise on the

best means of distribution.

For higher volume work Two-Ten has a Marketing Support Services plant in

Yorkshire, but marketing manager Flora Hamilton says the more

specialised mailings tend to go through its customer services department

in London.

We like to get involved at the planning stage,’ says Hamilton, ’then we

can give professional advice to clients on the best option based on

costings and likely complications.’

Mail-out turn-offs: The root of the problem

An unusual product landing on the desk of a target journalist can be a

highly effective means of raising editorial interest. But beware.

Creative mailings can equally backfire, with potentially damaging


Enter Scottish Life. Last July the Edinburgh-based insurance company, in

conjunction with London PR outfit Clarendon, decided to send 77 live

homing pigeons to journalists as a way of raising awareness of a new

offshore investment product.

The birds arrived in small boxes with instructions on how to release

them back to their owners and win a prize. But some journalists were

appalled with the concept of using live animals as a publicity stunt and

contacted the RSPCA.

The news wires were soon buzzing with, often inaccurate, versions of the

story. TV, radio and national newspaper coverage ensued.

Clarendon’s senior consultant James McDonald dismissed animal lovers’

outrage at the fact that the Daily Mirror’s bird had laid an egg in its

box. Owner of the pigeons Mrs Langley apparently advised that this was

normal and that it would be ’very nice cooked in butter’.

The upshot was that all the birds returned home relatively unruffled but

even McDonald had to admit: ’Press coverage hasn’t all been positive.’

And it left the question: Does anyone actually remember the product?

But this was not the only summer mailing cock-up.

In June below-the-line specialists Grey Direct were briefed to draw

attention to a Eurostar offer - one free standard ticket per first class

ticket bought. Grey’s creative team came up with the carrot as the ideal

representation of an incentive.

Consequently 50,000 fresh carrots were mailed to Eurostar’s database,

including a number of journalists.

Joanna Beard account manager at Grey Direct says: ’The response was


People really remembered it. Client research revealed a huge prompted


However the initiative will also be remembered for the wrong


Some people received mouldy carrots, prompting varying response of

distaste and amusement from the recipients.

And unfortunately for Eurostar it also generated considerable media

coverage as a stunt that had backfired.

’It was a misplaced concept,’ says Alan Halfacre, chairman of direct

marketing services company GWC, ’If a pristine carrot was received

you’re delivering the right messages, if it’s a shrivelled up carrot

you’re saying: ’I’m a tacky supplier’.’

Would Joanna Beard do it again? ’Personally no,’ she laughs, ’It

continues to haunt me. It was also a complete nightmare trying to insert

the carrots into the boxes.’

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