It’s hard to imagine that life existed before the introduction of e-mail, mobile phones and instant messaging (trust us, it did). Letters written by hand were once the gold standard of personal communications. This is illustrated beautifully in the HBO miniseries John Adams, which premiered in March. In a poignant scene, Abigail Adams, John’s wife and an intellectual force in his personal and professional life, meets General George Washington at her Boston home in 1774. Mrs. Adams essentially is running the house as her husband is laboring in Philadelphia at the Continental Congress, attempting to birth a country.

After Washington compliments Mrs. Adams on her intellect, which he says is well known in Philadelphia, he asks if she needs anything. Abigail — running a home and a farm, caring for children and facing the threat of attacks by the British — without hesitation hands Washington a pack of letters, asking if he can deliver them to John. Washington obliges immediately, saying he’ll dispatch his personal courier. In a beautiful thought, Washington tells her that prompt delivery "will allow all of us to benefit from [your] wisdom [contained in these letters]…."

It was the spirit of scenes like this, where the importance of letters and letter writing was emphasized, that helped convince the U.S. Postal Service to commit its brand to HBO’s John Adams when the network was seeking a nontraditional way to extend the reach of its biggest event of 2008.

The resulting campaign, "The Power of The Letter," allowed consumers to mail greeting cards that contained quotes from Abigail and John. Even better, the postage was free to consumers, as HBO picked up the tab.

For 30 days beginning in late February consumers visiting  the poweroftheletter site could pick from six card designs. After an order was made at the site, the cards were mailed to consumers, who then added a personal note and sent them (with HBO’s paid-for stamp already affixed).

That giveaway was just one piece of a campaign with plenty of moving parts. Indeed, Power of the Letter "was really a multiplatform deal," notes Zach Enterlin, VP of advertising and promotion at HBO. The USPS site, poweroftheletter, not only contained the free card offer, it also featured some of the 1,100-plus letters John and Abigail Adams wrote to each other during their lifetime. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society, visitors could read the letters in the Adams’ original hand, or in modern type.

Poweroftheletter also pushed traffic to HBO’s video-intensive site, constructed by Behavior Design of New York. That site allowed viewers "to dive in deeper if they wanted," Enterlin says. Like the HBO series, the site was divided into seven parts. Each section’s core was a timeline of events and characters relevant to an individual show. Along the timeline visitors could click on a character or a topic to watch a video that "added context to the major events and characters in that episode," says Jeff Piazza, a principal at Behavior. The site took three months to build.

Adding to the multiplatform nature of Power of the Letter was HBO’s takeover for one week of the official USPS web site, which averages 26 million visitors per month. That week’s traffic saw John Adams images and tune-in messages worked into the site’s usual postal information.

Besides a sweepstakes whose grand prize was a trip to Colonial Williamsburg, Va., the site of much of the series’ filming, another aspect of the campaign was signage at 37,000 post offices throughout the U.S., including cutouts of John and Abigail. "This was a national promotion in the truest sense of the word," Enterlin says. HBO declined to reveal how much it paid for the campaign.

And lest we forget that the John Adams quote — "Let us dare to read, think, speak and write" — was printed on 3.75 million post office receipts. The quote, and the Power of the Letter URL, also appeared as a postmark, known as a postal cancellation, on 3 billion pieces of mail during the period.

The Eureka Moment — Not!

How did the concept of letter writing to promote John Adams arise? "It’s fun to say that someone came running in with the idea and just like that we had a campaign. But it didn’t happen that way," says Stuart Ruderfer, CEO of event/branding firm Civic Entertainment Group, which received the assignment from HBO to develop a nontraditional campaign for John Adams. The idea came during "brainstorming sessions," Ruderfer says. An assist, he notes, was "the comprehensive briefing" Civic received from HBO, including scripts and copies of David McCullough’s book, which was the basis for the series.

Yet the appeal of The Power of the Letter was not immediately apparent to the USPS. I know what you’re thinking — can’t the Postal Service do anything quickly? Of course it can, but the USPS believes it’s best to be deliberate when its venerated brand is involved, says Joyce Carrier, the Postal Service’s manager of channel advertising (yes, that’s really her name).

HBO’s proposal, brought to the Postal Service by the network and Civic, was just one of many the USPS receives. "We’re approached all the time by everything from movie studios to any consumer product you can imagine," Carrier says. The appeal? With outlets and mailboxes in every part of the country, the Postal Service has a ubiquitous reach, serving some 7 million customers in post offices daily.

But when Civic and HBO approached the USPS in the fall of 2007 it was more of "a courtesy meeting," Carrier admits. "HBO is such a prestigious brand, we at least wanted to hear them out. But most of us felt going in that while it was a lovely idea, we’re not really into promoting letter writing right now. I mean, we know that’s not the future of the postal service, although we think [letter writing] is a beautiful thing."

[For the record, the USPS feels its future is in delivering advertising mail, catalogues, periodicals and packages. And in May the USPS will have, for the first time, the ability to offer online rebates and discounts on packages, allowing it to be competitive in that business once again, it believes.]

HBO and Civic were persuasive, however. "When [HBO] said they’d pay to create POP [point of purchase] displays for post offices," we became more interested, Carrier says. Then the issue of Web sites arose, and the USPS didn’t want to pay for design. HBO offered to pay for that too, Carrier says, and to sweeten the deal, it offered to use the USPS’ design firm.

But Carrier and Spencer Rice, a director at Civic, agree that the concept really began to jell when HBO discussed the postmark. "We said, ‘No, there are too many rules against us [promoting a commercial enterprise on our postmark],’" Carrier says.

In turn, USPS officials suggested that they would try to come up with a theme for the campaign that would fit their rules for the postmark. "That was really the start of The Power of the Letter," she says. "Once we got our head around the idea that letter writing was driving this campaign" and that letters were crucial to the Adamses and to McCullough’s book, it all came together. The USPS wasn’t promoting just any TV show, but one that praised the art of letter writing.

Quick thinkers at the USPS (see, they do some things fast) realized the campaign could tie into its own annual Cards and Letter Writing Month promotion. "It’s not always easy to come up with things to tie into that," Carrier admits. Who knew that a patriotic couple from the 1700s who wrote thousands of letters would fit that bill?

Fast Facts

  • The Power of The Letter campaign marked the first time in USPS history that post office receipts carried a promotional message; it directed consumers to the poweroftheletter site.

  • The USPS receives 50,000 submissions per year for stamp proposals. It takes 5-10 years from proposal to date of issue, so HBO’s proposal of a John Adams stamp was not doable.

  • The first postmaster general was Benjamin Franklin, a colleague of John Adams.

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