Marketing slows down in the summer, and this summer is no exception. People are about and about again, on vacations, and taking road trips. They don’t have time to read marketing mail. So what are marketers mailing? For insight, I turned to a favorite source, Who’s Mailing What!

I can’t review all 20,000 pieces of mail that have been added to the database since the start of the summer, but I can select a market vertical—in this case, retail—and look at those mailed to my state, which is Maryland.

Here is a representative sampling of the calls to action of the first 160 or so pieces of the more than 1,000 added in the past month.

  • “Get all of today’s flavors delivered” (Doordash)
  • “Get $15 off your first pet food and supplies order” (Temptations)
  • “Instant savings, plus everyday low prices” (Sam’s Club)
  • “A little more in your wallet” (Kohl’s)
  • “Take 10% off your next in-store or online purchase” (Home Depot)
  • “We miss you! Take 40% off almost everything” (The Woman Within)
  • “Semi-annual sale! 60% off” (Athleta)
  • “Shopping made easier + safer” (Kohl’s)
  • “We wanted to provide you with an exclusive offer” (Leaf Filter)
  • “Spend less! Lounge more 15% off your next purchase of $25 or more” (Chewy)
  • “Peace of mind starts with a clean home” (Clean Authority)

We talk a lot about the ability of digital production devices to personalize images, messaging, and offers to boost response and conversion rates. We love to talk about data on the value and impact of personalization (although, these days, that data is almost exclusively related to digital marketing). But when I look at what’s being mailed, I see little of it happening on the ground. Rather, I see marketers defaulting to the discounts and other financial incentives. Sure, that works if you hit people at the right time or your offer is the greatest discount on recipients’ stack of mailers if the need arises before the promotion expires. But it still has businesses competing for sales based on price. Only two of the CTAs among hundreds of offers jumped out at me based on lifestyle or need: Doordash (“Get all of today’s flavors delivered”) and Clean Authority (“Peace of mind starts with a clean home”).

I’m not saying that there is no personalization or targeting in any of these pieces. There may be deep inside the text somewhere. Or they may be targeted based on precisely selected audiences. But if there were significant personalization happening in these pieces, those pieces should look different enough to be flagged by the WMW! AI-driven software as separate campaigns, and that’s not what appears to be happening. Other than price, then, what is really and truly distinguishing one retailer from another?

I think back to a printing trade show I attended many years ago. The presenter looked at the room full of C-suite executives and asked them to take out a piece of paper. He then asked each one to write down what makes their company special—what truly distinguishes them from their competitors—then fold it over and hand that piece of paper to the person next to them. Next, with participants holding the paper from the person next to them, he asked them to open up and read their neighbor’s sheet.

“Did you say price, quality, and service?” he asked. “Now I want a show of hands—be honest. How many of the papers in your hands have the exact same thing you wrote?” Sheepishly, nearly every hand in the room went up.

When I look at these retail mailings, that seminar comes to mind. While these companies may be switching up their offers based on percentages, dollars off, or special offers like BOGO (using WMW!’s lookup tool, I did note that, a little earlier in the year, Ashley Home Store, for example, tried both “60% off everything” and 50% off + 15% [58%] off furniture in April 2021), nearly every one of these mailings was identical in theme—get a discount or save money. So I give props to companies like Clean Authority and Doordash, which presented their value based on lifestyle needs instead.

For PSPs, the question is whether this matters. Supposedly, this industry is transitioning from “printers” to “marketing services providers,” and that means the ability to direct and influence marketing strategy. Printers are investing millions in new, high-speed inkjet presses to produce fully personalized pieces at volume. When that personalization reaches a level at which marketing text and images is truly personalized, I’d expect to see that reflected in the WMW! database. Until then, I wonder: To what extent are we talking about relevance-based personalization and to what extent are we actually doing it?