Writing Mother's Day Cards at Hallmark: An Inside Look

A crash course in greeting card writing on the eve of Hallmark’s biggest day

Elizabeth Renstrom; Hand-lettering by Sean Barton

The first rule of Mother’s Day is don’t make fun of your mom. “On Father’s Day, you can say, ‘Dad, all you want is a sandwich!’ or ‘Dad, you nap a lot,’ ” says Tina Neidlein, a Hallmark greeting card writer. “But if you make fun of your mother, she’s going to cry. And you can’t even make fun of that.”

I’m sitting in the Hallmark library at the company’s multibuilding headquarters in Kansas City, Mo. The room is filled with self-help guides, coffee table books, photography collections, children’s stories, and poetry anthologies. There are a few copies of Eat, Pray, Love. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Mother’s Day, and Hallmark has presented me a task: Write two greeting cards, one funny and one sweet. “You think Mother’s Day is hard? Try birthdays,” says Suzanne Berry, the soft-spoken Hallmark editor who will be reviewing my work. “Every year it’s, like, ‘Hmm, how do I make another reference to candles and birthday cake?’ ”

The mood at Hallmark’s headquarters is upbeat. Employees speak in greeting card lingo (envelopes are “eps,” a card is a “SKU,” after the barcode on the back), and the offices are decorated with balloons and colorful posters. But the cheery scene is misleading. The company—in fact, the entire $6.3 billion greeting card industry—is hurting. Analysts at IbisWorld estimate that greeting card revenue as a whole will drop 3.5 percent this year, and they don’t see things improving any time soon. In 2013, Hallmark made $3.9 billion in revenue, down from $4.1 billion in 2010. Customers have become fond of e-cards for ease and high-end handmade crafts for extra thoughtfulness. “We’ve actually talked to both Hallmark and American Greetings about turning our e-cards into real cards,” says Duncan Mitchell, co-founder of the popular and snarky Someecards.com. (“I can’t wait for the day when I can drink with my kids instead of because of them,” reads a typical message.) “But we never did it, because they wanted to keep, like, 95 percent of the money, and for us it’s just not worth it.”

The industry may be in decline, but Hallmark is still undoubtedly its king. IbisWorld puts Hallmark’s market share at about 45 percent; American Greetings, its closest competitor, comes in at 16 percent.

Hallmark didn’t invent the greeting card—that credit belongs to a London art shop way back in 1846—but its modern-day form is almost exclusively the creation of Joyce Hall. He founded the company in 1910, when, as an 18-year-old traveling salesman, he arrived in Kansas City and started selling postcards out of two shoeboxes. Five years later he’d switched to greeting cards; after a fire destroyed his inventory, he purchased printing presses to make them himself. In 1932, just four years after Mickey Mouse’s first film, Hall licensed Disney characters to put on his cards—a prescient move that makes the Hallmark-Disney collaboration one of the oldest licensing agreements still in existence. Then, in 1935, the company asked store owners to stop selling cards behind the counter. Instead, it provided free-standing display shelves that look a lot like the ones in greeting card aisles today.

Photographs by Elizabeth Renstrom for Bloomberg Businessweek

The Hall family still owns Hallmark, and Joyce’s grandsons Don Jr. and Dave Hall are chief executive officer and president of Hallmark North America, respectively. They employ 11,300 full-time staffers across the world, but only 40 writers. Those 40, most of whom are women, write every card, book, thank-you note, and one-a-day calendar Hallmark produces. “I didn’t even know this was a real job until my college adviser suggested I apply,” says Carolina Fernandez, a 23-year-old Hallmark writer who was hired out of college on the grounds that she liked to write and was, as she admits, “really, really cheesy.”

More than 133 million Mother’s Day cards will be sold this year, about half of them by Hallmark. It takes about 15 months for the company to create a line of greeting cards, which means this year’s Mother’s Day series was started back in February 2013. First, product managers analyze the previous year’s line to see what sold well and what didn’t—a practice Joyce Hall started as early as the 1920s. The best-selling cards are then picked up for the next year, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the losers drop out. “If you have a Coke machine, you’re not going to stock it with only Coke, even though that’s the most popular soda,” says Angela Ensminger, Hallmark’s creative strategist. “You’re going to put a Sprite in there, a Fanta. That way, you appeal to more people.” In 2013, Hallmark noticed that almost all of its 900 Mother’s Day cards were pink, so this year its designers made a conscious attempt to choose other colors. “I fully supported that decision. I don’t even like pink,” says Leslie Siebert, a designer who’s been working on a teal, yellow, and peach line of $10 handmade-looking cards to compete directly with artisanal offerings from stores such as Papyrus.

Because Hallmark cards are designed to appeal to as many people as possible, their evolution is a window into America’s cultural shifts. The company’s earliest cards featured grandiloquent, multistanza poems about friendship, thankfulness, or love. Messages are shorter now and almost always written in conversational prose. A few years ago the company started allowing mild curse words. “You can say ‘ass’ in a card now! That changed my career!” says Neidlein, who writes cards for Hallmark’s funnier Shoebox line.

For a long time, Mother’s Day cards were written only for husbands and children to give to their wives or moms. That changed in the 1980s, when Hallmark started making cards for stepmothers. The company avoids that word, though, because of the evil-stepmother stereotype, preferring the strangely passive-aggressive “Dad’s wife.” It also makes cards for baby mamas, birth mothers, and adoptive parents. A few years ago, Hallmark noticed that Mother’s Day cards that didn’t say “wife” were selling well; this year it’s releasing its first line of gender-neutral cards for people who have a “partner.”

“Roles are definitely changing,” says Lauren Benson, Hallmark’s editorial director. “We can’t know if the person you’re buying a Mother’s Day card for is really your mother or if it’s your grandmother, aunt, or just someone who is like a mom to you.” According to Hallmark, baby boomer women are eschewing the term “grandma” because they think it makes them sound old. The company has added Gigi, Mimi, and Glamma, which it swears people actually use. A Glamma, as Ensminger puts it, is “someone who stops by to see the grandkids on her way to Zumba.”

Hand-lettering by Sean Barton

To address these new family roles, I’m asked to write a card without actually using the words “mom” or “mother.” It can’t be longer than 50 words, Berry tells me, and has to sound like something a person would actually say. “We talk a lot about ‘universal specifics’ here, moments that everyone experiences, even if they think they’re the only ones,” she says. You can speak about how your mom fixes your favorite foods, Berry suggests, or takes care of you when you have the flu.

She gives me half an hour to write the cards, which I mostly spend in the library, flipping through a book about buttons. I’m not that sappy, so I’m surprised when the sentimental card comes quickly. “You may think I don’t notice the dinners you fix, the extra blankets you put out, or all the little things you do to turn your home into mine—but I do,” I write. It’s something I’d never actually say out loud to anyone, even my mother. Berry, of course, loves it. “The blankets are a lovely touch.”

The funny card is harder than expected. I try a card for a stepmother (“If the kids grow up to be failures, at least it’s not your fault!”) and a biological mother (“Sorry about all the wrinkles and stretch marks.”) With five minutes left, I scribble down something and hand it to Berry. “When I have kids, I want to be just like you. Or Meryl Streep. At this point, it’s a tossup.” She reads it. “That’s pretty good. How’d you come up with that?”

I shrug. “Everyone loves Meryl Streep.” Mom humor, it turns out, isn’t so hard to master.

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