Official vs. Promotional: Choosing between ‘stealth’ and ‘in-your-face’ marketing

Not every consumer responds favorably to the same marketing approach. Just as comedians can be dry or slap-stick, wine can be sweet or oaky, and paintings can be real or abstract, direct mail marketing can be official or promotional.

“With an official strategy, we don’t want the format/design to tip our hand before they get inside the package,” said SeQuel's Chief Marketing Officer, Erik Koenig. “A promotional package typically isn’t hiding anything.”


Official mail pieces enter the mailbox disguised in an outer envelope that looks as though it could be coming from a governmental office, a legal entity, or with an implication that a previous relationship exists with the consumer. The recipient doesn’t need to understand the proposition immediately.

“This is so important … don’t you dare throw it away without trying to fully understand why I’m writing you today,” said SeQuel's Chief Creative Officer, Mike Goodwin. “Things like certificates, certificate orders, official seals, and/or authorizing signatures are usually effective. Also, these packages usually abide by a restrained color palate, with an emphasis on blues.”

Promotional mailers, on the other hand, employ art and images liberally. They clearly communicate the offer early on, often taking a friendlier approach.

“If consumers don’t see a piece that screams, ‘70 percent off,’ with bullets, starbursts or hand-drawn stars, they tend to toss it in the waste basket,” Goodwin said. “There are sidebars, more involved and colorful graphics with captions and photos of people or products. Promotional designs can run the gamut from professional and dignified to cheesy and tacky.”


In spite of its lack of color, official mail can still be more expensive than promotional mail, because it involves more components, such as envelopes, glassine windows, affixed cards and various inserts.

“Promotional mail is more likely to use four color, images, a heavier weight and higher quality paper, varnishes and even fifth or sixth colors,” Koenig said. “So you could see a promotional package being much more expensive than official. But a promotional approach typically uses far fewer components. Perhaps it’s even just a self-mailer or postcard, which can often offset the cost of all the other features. Ultimately, it’s all about the CPA, not the CPM.”

Best product fits

Official mail tends to work best in the insurance, credit card, and mortgage and loan categories. Letter and envelope packages – which are often official in nature – accounted for more than 80 percent of mail volume in all three industries in December 2014, according to marketing research firm Mintel Comperemedia.


Prudential relies on an official-looking envelope (top), while Royal Caribbean takes a more promotional approach (bottom). Photo courtesy Mintel Comperemedia. 

“If we have an insurance concept with heavy imagery, many consumers dismiss it right away, because they see it as an offer for something they don’t want,” said SeQuel's Co-Founder & Chief Operating Officer, Jay Carroll.

The key is trying to tap into the emotion of fear by stressing the consequences of not opening the envelope, without relying on art to catch a consumer’s attention. Due to regulations, insurance marketers cannot incentivize the sale with an offer, thereby leaving that marketing angle off the table.

“If we can get them inside the envelope and move them with statistics and possible consequences, maybe we can convince them along the way,” Carroll said. “A promotional outer envelope can give away what we’re trying to accomplish too early.”

For promotional mailers, consumers usually have an emotional affinity with the product. For example, nonprofit packages sometimes show a starving child or an unclaimed animal on the outer portion of the piece.

“Promotional mail works with the things that we collect – the things we love,” Carroll said. “Retail industries like golf, travel, wine, food and clothing – we’re trying to connect the dots with the consumer right away with the imagery. It wouldn’t make sense to fuss around with an official envelope.”

According to Mintel Comperemedia, nearly 60 percent of the tobacco sector’s December 2014 volume was self-mailers, which usually lean promotional. Self-mailers also accounted for more than half of banking volume.

SeQuel case study

SeQuel has seen these principles play out in its testing efforts with a prominent identity theft protection service.

“No one loves ID theft protection or life or health insurance,” Carroll said. “These are necessities. So usually when it’s a necessity, you lean more official.”

The product doesn’t carry an imagery connection that resonates with consumers, so SeQuel invests more in concepts that rely on facts, education and statistics.

“You would like to depict negative imagery of someone going through hell and back,” Carroll said. “But it’s hard to do it, because ID theft is such an insidious crime – much of which is computer based.”


Nobody likes to think about life insurance, final expense insurance or health insurance – so one would expect official mail to work best in all cases. Travel insurance, however, seems to benefit more from a promotional approach.

“Travel insurance doesn’t conjure up the same negative reaction as other insurance products – because travel is fun to think about,” Koenig said. “It starts to blend which approach you should take in the mail.”

Even though travel insurance is an exception to most insurance-mailing rules, it’s still important to play on fear – but using art to tell the story.

“You lost your luggage. You broke your leg. Your flights were canceled. You got ill,” Carroll said. “We show the imagery of that. People see the imagery and say, ‘That would stink.’”


In new client campaigns, SeQuel generally structures its hybrid multivariate test matrices with a reasonable split of official and promotional mail – largely based on industry and past testing experiences. Ideally one style will trump the other, and then all testing can be either official or promotional – or a hybrid of the two.

“We test broad at first to learn which approach is best and then focus all our efforts on finding the most effective concept in that vein -- eventually working toward more incremental enhancements as a campaign matures,” Koenig said. “Our opinions don’t really mean much. It’s what the results tell us that matters.”


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