Here’s the deal: I’m going to give you this envelope with a confidential note in it. I need it delivered to an address in California in a few days. It’s gotta get there in good shape and nobody can read it. And, get this, I’m willing to pay you 44 cents to take it there.
Want the job?
Didn’t think so. But there’s an organization that will do it for you for that paltry sum, and get it there 99.99% of the time. They work six days a week, no matter the weather. It’s the U. S. Post Office, and they are the Rodney Dangerfield of brands; a highly competent organization that is expected to be perfect as well as virtually free.
And nobody has a nice thing to say about them.
It runs on our tax dollars, right? Nope. Since 1971, its charter requires that it be self-funding. Taxpayers don’t pay a penny of their expenses. Yet we love to hate the post office and joke about their workers.
I’m going to say it here in this space, maybe for the first time anywhere: Mailing a letter with the U.S. Post Office is about the best deal ever, or at least since nickel beer night ended in major league ballparks. Sure FedEx, UPS, and other overnight delivery services fill a segment of the market that demands immediate delivery. FedEx will gladly deliver my letter to California tomorrow for about $18. Yet the USPS can do it for $16.50. But offer FedEx 50 cents a pop and see if they can keep a straight face.
There is a group of people out there who appreciate the Post Office at least a little more than the general public. It’s direct mail marketers, who generate about 100 billion pieces of mail per year and recognize the value of being able to land squarely on the kitchen tables of their target demographic. With an average 1% response rate, direct mail depends on low postal costs for its very existence. If you’re thinking that less junk mail would be a good thing, keep in mind that direct mail-related industries employ about 9 million people.
I tell ya, I don’t get no respect…
So here’s a business that is delivering more pieces of mail every day than FedEx does in a year, charges almost 30% less than what it costs in Japan or the UK to mail a letter and would rank #21 on the Fortune 500 list with $75 billion in revenue, if it were a private company. (Source of data: National Association of Letter Carriers) Yet as a brand it don’t get no respect. Where’s the love?
Here are a few reasons from a branding point of view:
The USPS rarely exceeds our expectations. No other company comes close to six-day-a-week delivery to every household in the country. (Imagine your cable company showing up every day, on time, for even a week.) But we all expect our mail carrier to show up at the same time each day, carrying a little bit of excitement and not too many bills. When they don’t, we complain. But there is little they could do to be more omnipresent. Could they increase their levels of service? Yes, but not for 44 cents a piece. The brand experience they deliver (sorry!) is really pretty good. But we expect nothing less, so it’s a challenge to impress us.
Low emotional investment. It’s not the government management. Hey, Uncle Sam is behind of some pretty well respected brands-Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines come to mind. Those brands stir deep-seated emotions such as security and patriotism. But mail delivery ranks with basics like water and electricity. Always there. Only notice them when they’re missing.
No choice. And, as with those utility services, there is no practical competitive choice. (You can send your Christmas cards by FedEx this year to prove me wrong.) Email is eating into the territory of the USPS pretty aggressively, but has not replaced the tangible nature of a letter (remember those?), birthday card, or package from home. When there’s no choice, it’s hard to love a brand, because there is little to compare it to. In many cases you just feel stuck with it, as are many, many Microsoft Vista users right about now.
So the 700,000 employees of the USPS keep humming along, getting the mail where it belongs, safely, confidentially and with occasional inefficiencies that are typical of any business its size. They’re not flashy; they’re certainly not the premium choice, but if there’s a better value for the money, send me a postcard–I’d love to know what it is.