Interviews/ Strategic Planning

The Interview: Hallmark’s Lisa Macpherson

by Keith Loria
Contributing Writer

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Article Highlights:

  • "We knew the trust consumers have in our brand gave us permission to meet a much broader array of connecting needs."
  • Hallmark's branding initiatives tend to focus on expanding the brand’s role from “special” occasions to more everyday occasions.
  • Under Macpherson’s marketing leadership, Hallmark is taking advantage of the digital world that once looked like it could render the company obsolete.

It couldn't have been too difficult to figure out what to send to Hallmark when the company celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010: Special-occasion cards have always been a part of the greeting card giant’s collection.

In fact, anniversaries and birthdays are right up there with Mother’s Day, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day for top sales categories year after year.

However, with the advent of e-cards and other ways to send personal messages on social-media platforms increasing over the past decade, Hallmark has experienced a decrease in business, especially among its greeting cards division. A recent study conducted by the USPS showed that the amount of greeting cards delivered through the mail dropped by more than 24 percent in the past two years. That’s an alarming figure for a company that regularly does $4 billion in card sales.

Something needed to be done and fast. Around the time of the centennial, Hallmark promoted Lisa Macpherson to SVP of marketing, charged with leading a 250-employee marketing department and expanding its product line to look beyond just the holidays and special occasions to those little moments and memories that happen every day.

“As the market leader in the category, and against a backdrop of social media and changing social norms, we knew greeting cards alone would not allow for sufficient growth to meet our goals,” Macpherson said in an exclusive interview with “And we knew the trust consumers have in our brand gave us permission to meet a much broader array of connecting needs, such as keeping kids close as they grow, encouraging and celebrating others through humor, and helping tell family stories through memory keeping and sharing. This became the basis of our new strategy, organization design, and marketing effort.”

Repositioning In The Campaign Cards
One of Macpherson’s first efforts was with the “A card. It’s the biggest little thing you can do” campaign. One of the commercials, which positioned a holiday card as a way to give “the gift of appreciation,” even appeared on The Colbert Report (although Stephen Colbert’s position was that appreciation is not a very good gift).

The repositioning continued to take shape in 2011, when Hallmark launched its “Life Is a Special Occasion” and “Tell Me” campaigns to encourage consumers to commemorate life’s simpler moments.

“Like most marketers, we adjusted our product assortment and merchandising to reflect shoppers’ need and desire for more price value. However, we were also hearing shoppers talk about greeting cards as a very affordable way to express caring or celebrate when a gift or party was no longer affordable,” she said. “Economic challenges caused many past Hallmark customers to revisit some of their personal values and redefine what really matters. Often the conclusion was family relationships, personal connections, and time spent together. Although it was not a direct response to the economy, the ‘Life is a special occasion’ campaign is based on these same insights.”

Greeting cards also needed some favorable companion pieces to get people back into the stores and thinking of the brand regularly. In addition to the keepsake ornaments and plates that have been staples of the brand, it added innovative ideas in gifts and books. One of its most successful new products is the Recordable Storybook, which allows a person to record a favorite story, like “Good Night Moon” or the Hallmark original “That’s What Grandmas Do!” and a child can “hear” the story, page by page.

“We marketed the product as a way for grandparents to stay close to their grandchildren when they don’t live in the same place. But we have heard amazing stories, mostly through social media, of the role the product plays in the lives of military families, families who are separated by divorce or work, and even those that have lost a family member and still have their voice captured in the book,” Macpherson said. “Now we use those stories and that content—which were richer than anything we could have created—in our own paid, earned, and owned spaces.”

Path To Hallmark
Macpherson has specialized in emotive and life-stage marketing throughout her career; her resume includes 11 years at Fisher-Price in marketing and product management, a few years at the Timberland Co. heading up global marketing, and then joining Hallmark in 2001.

“Hallmark is both a century-old business and a family-owned business. That means our brand is rooted in a timeless set of values and serves an authentic purpose, and that we can make decisions based on the long-term value of the brand. But it also means you have to be very adept at how you propose and carry out change, especially transformational change,” she said. “Fisher-Price was still influenced by the values of Herman Fisher and Irving Price, and Timberland was still run by the founding Swartz family, so I was familiar with these dynamics.”

Because Hallmark is a brand with virtually universal awareness and almost exclusively positive associations, Macpherson said its branding initiatives tend to focus on expanding the brand’s role from “special” occasions to more everyday occasions, or on ensuring relevance among new consumer audiences, such as bicultural Hispanic or Millennial consumers.

It was back in high school that Macpherson envisioned a career as an account executive at an ad agency, so she studied consumer psychology and economics at SUNY Buffalo.

“The combination of analytics with creativity fascinated me,” she said. “But none of the agencies in upstate New York were hiring in the early ’80s, so I started my career in market research at a regional bank.”

She was eventually recruited by Fisher-Price, which was owned by Quaker Oats at the time, and received classical consumer package goods training.

“I also learned pretty fast that I was not cut out to work at an agency—I’m much too bossy!” Macpherson said. “I alternated between marketing and general management roles throughout my career at Fisher-Price and then at The Timberland Company. When Hallmark contacted me in 2000, I jumped at the chance to work for another iconic brand based on an authentic purpose, emotional benefits, and strong values.”

Macpherson joined Hallmark in a general management position. Then she moved into retail merchandising for Hallmark stores.

“In both those roles I leaned into my strategic and brand skills and got results. The retail role, in particular, taught me about urgency and the importance of the store experience—it definitely made me a better marketer,” she said. “In 2009 Hallmark reorganized to support a growth strategy based on insight-driven innovation, and I asked for and received the top marketing spot.”

At the time Macpherson transitioned into marketing, Hallmark was creating seasonal or individual campaigns to support each line of business. The company had multiple consumer targets, campaign messages, and media strategies, and was almost exclusively a national, mass advertiser—mostly on TV.

“I needed to prepare for a much broader product offering. So I stepped back and called for a brand development effort that ultimately drove a singular consumer target, brand positioning, marketing campaign, and substantial changes in our media mix,” Macpherson said. “That is best embodied by our campaign, ‘Life is a special occasion,’ and the fact that 25 percent of our media spend is now in digital, social, and targeted print advertising. We’ve seen movement in specific brand measures that we know drive loyalty, such as fun, creativity, and relevance to every day life.”

Embracing The ‘Frenemy’
Under Macpherson’s marketing leadership, Hallmark is discovering success with new ways in distributing cards and taking advantage of the digital world that once looked like it could render the company obsolete.

“For Hallmark, social media is both marketing platform and brand ‘frenemy’ since it offers alternative ways for consumers to connect. We have integrated social elements into most of our campaigns over the past few years, and last year launched a ‘social-first’ effort for greeting cards called ‘Tell Them.’ But we are also adopting social media as part of our broader business strategy, tapping it for consumer service, crowdsourcing of new product ideas, and recruiting,” she said. “The immediacy, context, transparency, targeting, and rapidity of digital media offer us a powerful tool for reaching consumers in the flow of their lives. It has been incredibly important as we try to evolve the role of our brand from special occasions to every day.”

The Hallmark marketing team doesn’t think in terms of digital campaigns or traditional campaigns; it focuses all marketing efforts on the people, behavior it wants to change, and an idea. Only then, Macpherson said, will it discuss context, delivery, and media channel.

“For me, the best leading indicator of changes in marketing is changes in peoples’ lives. Shopping in her stores, reading her magazines, participating in her social platforms, and generally trying to stay in touch with how her life is changing gives me some lead time to understand how she will take in messages and interact with brands,” Macpherson said. “More practically, I attend and consult regularly with our marketing associations and resources, including our agencies, M50, Marketing Leadership Council of The Conference Board, and ANA.”

Macpherson said she is excited about the direction Hallmark is going in, and that her team is willing to adapt and tailor an idea to the media venue as long as it is recognizably the same concept. She knows that to continue the success, the company needs to be more nimble, more willing to try things out, read results, learn, and iterate--and she said she plans to be leading that charge.

“I still love the balance of analytics and creativity. I also read somewhere that there is no functional discipline in corporations today undergoing as much dynamic change as the marketing function, and I believe it,” she says. “Social platforms. Big data. Brand transparency. Agility vs. grit. Exploding variety of media channels. It’s like having a new job virtually every day. I will say this: Having worked in general management and retail as well as marketing, I’m in marketing to stay.”

As it heads for its next centennial celebration, the message Hallmark wants to convey is clear, according to Macpherson: “Don’t wait for the big day, the special occasion, to create an opportunity to connect with those you care about.”