Brown envelopes get opened!

Brown envelope

Brown envelopes.

They have long been associated with ‘bungs’ and payoffs, referred to with a smirk.  Filled with cash to avoid a paper trail.

But brown envelopes were also used frequently for official mail – stern warnings and timely reminders from the Inland Revenue, utility bills, circulars, and the original junk mail.

When I worked at Reader’s Digest, we devoted much time and creativity to making our outer envelopes look enticing. We mentioned the £250,000 Prize Draw, we suggested that a prize may already have won, we encouraged an immediate response to avoid missing out. We even designed envelopes that had to be destroyed to get at the contents.

Anything but a brown envelope.

The market followed our lead, and it became the norm for direct mail to come in message-laden envelopes that were white or even coloured. But not brown.

Brown envelopes are back. Because ‘official’ correspondence from HMRC has continued to arrive in brown envelopes, we have been pre-conditioned to open them at once, often in trepidation.

Two brown envelopes landed on my mat this week. One was from HMRC, demanding money which I had already paid. The other was an almost identical cover carrying a pitch for an equity release scheme.

It was clever. Whoever created the latter mailing has a good understanding of the effect of conditioning.  We are conditioned to respond in a number of ways, and it is sound marketing to make use of that conditioned response.

You should do the same.

For example, in Direct Marketing is makes better sense to aim at existing users of someone else’s brand and try to win them over to yours, than to try and convert non-users.

Existing users are already sold on the benefits of your (kind of) product, and are accustomed to buying it. Your task is simply to place your brand between them and their usual choice.

It works in B2B as well. I was advising a large financial organization recently, in their pitch for a prestigious account. Initially they wanted to put the entire story into their presentation. I advised them to cut down the content drastically.

I pointed out that the target company was already buying the kind of services they were offering. That’s a given, I said. Just focus on how you do it differently, but package that with a reminder of how your service meets ‘official’ requirements and keeps them on the right side of the law.

Their conditioned response goes like this: “Oh, we have got to have this in place, and you can make sure it is.  That keeps us safe and out of trouble.”

That’s the brown envelope argument.


Filed under public speaking

2 responses to “Brown envelopes get opened!

  1. Here in Africa, we use Brown, khaki, beige, & white enveloppes for practically everything, you your supposition is country based and not universal.

  2. You are right, Ashok. It refers principally to Britain and the USA. But not exclusively.

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