A Pak of birthday wishes

Posted: June 29, 2011

My mother is the only one who still mails me birthday cards. The rest of the world blows up my cellphone and Facebook wall. But I miss the personal notes - getting mail on my special day was fun.

Am I alone here?

Michael Marchesani doesn't believe I am.

That's why the Collegeville-based entrepreneur came up with the direct-mail marketing concept called BirthdayPak.

Each month, Marchesani mails 10,000 personalized birthday greetings to affluent women in the Philadelphia area. Included in the greetings are as many as eight gift cards - ranging in value from $10 to $25 - to day spas, boutiques, and restaurants within five miles of the recipient's home.

Not only does the marketing concept appeal to our emotions - what woman doesn't love celebrating her birthday? - it mixes old-school, direct-mail strategies of Pennysavers and Valpaks with the exclusivity of today's online networks and targeted couponing.

The result: an effective way to get people to open their mail.

"The purpose is to help small, independent, upscale businesses that are struggling to drive traffic without cheapening the brand," explained Marchesani, a 46-year-old father of two who has been in the advertising and direct-mail business for 25 years.

Maintaining a brand's cachet in an era when value shopping is expected is the tricky part.

That's because upwardly mobile customers love a deal but hate the word coupon. So Marchesani is adamant about using the term gift card. And the savvy marketing executive is building an "online community," not a database.

At the same time, roughly a year after online deal-of-the-day websites such as Groupon, Living Social, and Rue La La launched, business owners are discovering that the massive discounts they offer no longer guarantee high foot traffic and repeat customers. So they are looking for an alternative.

"Brands are finding themselves in a catch-22," explained Jim Joseph, president of the New York-based public relations firm Lippe Taylor. In this economy, they have to give customers incentives to buy, yet they don't want to offer discounts, but rather, gifts. And, they still need to engage the customer, he said.

When Marchesani, whose company is 365DIRECT, started developing BirthdayPak, he knew he wanted to focus on life-event marketing - the idea that people often spend a lot of money on meaningful occasions in their lives: birthdays, weddings, having babies, buying first houses. And women make the purchasing decisions regarding these life-cyle events.

About five years ago, Marchesani began building a website that would list participating BirthdayPak businesses, allow women to join the BirthdayPak community, and most important, let retailers track BirthdayPak's effect on their business.

Part of the reason advertisers want to be involved with BirthdayPak (there are waiting lists) is that they can see how many women are activating their BirthdayPak, how many are intending to use specific gift cards, and how much traffic BirthdayPak is driving to their websites.

"It brings new people through the doors on a regular basis," said Kristy Cole, owner of Cole Wellness Spa in Wayne. "We get an average of 25 customers a month because of BirthdayPak. It's been great."

Marchesani wanted to appeal to shoppers' desire to patronize local businesses too, so he created "zones." Zones are areas where Marchesani has identified at least 1,000 women between the ages of 25 and 55 who make more than $75,000 a year.

Right now, he has the information for 23 zones, with advertising backing to support 10 of those zones - none of which are located in Center City. (That means no gift cards to Joan Shepp or restaurants like XIX.) Why? Marchesani says he can't identify enough Center City women who fit the criteria within a contiguous geographical pocket. The birthday data he rents aren't always complete. Of course, if you're like me and you live in a neighborhood that doesn't qualify for an automatic send-out, you can still sign up.

Don't worry if you don't meet the salary requirements; you won't be turned away. And if your neighborhood businesses aren't signed up, you will get gift cards for retailers in the closest zone.

Therein lies the flaw in Marchesani's plan: You have to travel in BirthdayPak circles to know this business even exists. That means he's missing the aspirational shoppers - a major part of marketing for fashion and food.

Nonetheless, it seems to be working.

When Marchesani rolled out the BirthdayPak program in September 2009, he had 22 businesses advertising in West Chester, Skippack, and along the Main Line. Today he has 70 businesses in Pennsylvania, and about 20,000 women are registered on the site. BirthdayPak is making a little more than $1 million a year.

His goal is to make it available in neighborhoods surrounding big- to medium-size cities including Atlanta, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and here, in southern New Jersey.

Perhaps a BirthdayPak is on its way to your mailbox.

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704, ewellington@phillynews.com, or @ewellingtonPHL on Twitter.

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