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What does it take to save America’s most beloved brand?
You may think, “Eat more M&Ms?” “Watch more Netflix?” “Buy more from Amazon?” But far ahead of the rest lies the United States Postal Service, ranked comfortably at number one on Morning Consult’s 2020 report of the Top 50 Most Loved Brands in America.
The Postal Service is an undeniable and integral part of American history, and inarguably engrained in the fabric of our culture. Without it, we may never have established ourselves as a global information and communications superpower.
A Quick History Lesson
The postal service as we know it was largely established by Postmaster General John Wanamaker, who advocated for free rural delivery, postal savings, and parcel post. Decades later, President Nixon passed the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, doing away with the United States Post Office Department and creating in its place the independent agency we know today as the United States Postal Service.
So how did the USPS become our country’s most beloved government agency, if not the most beloved brand above all others? For starters, the USPS, for over a century, has been viewed as a staple of American culture and pride. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” reads the agency’s unofficial motto, first chiseled above the New York City post office in 1914. The declaration of dependability remains synonymous with the modern postal worker.
The USPS has long boasted a massive workforce including a lengthy list of well known artists, writers, and politicians – just think Abraham Lincoln, William Faulkner, and Walt Disney. Pop culture references abound, from “Please Mr. Postman,” Motown’s first #1 hit by The Marvelettes back in 1961, to Heaven being a mailroom and Chidi’s postal worker sex appeal on The Good Place.
Regardless of the cultural fanfare, the USPS is highly restricted in its ability to offer new services and adjust pricing in response to inflation. Additionally, the agency faces a stipulation requiring it to pre-fund 75 years worth of retiree benefits. The result? Enormous, crippling debt.
Rethinking the Brand
With an increasing deficit and little to no marketing budget, the USPS continues to make what efforts it can to remain relevant. Hoping to broaden appeal to a younger, digital generation, the USPS underwent a branding overhaul in 2014, led by New York agency Grand Army. According to designer Eric Collins, the goal was to craft a brand identity that “connotes some of the pride we believe Americans should feel for their USPS.” Unfortunately and even more frustrating, not all of the Grand Army brand package materials made it through to what you see today, as the client (USPS) has some last minute revisions.
The Grand Army design update incorporated inspiration and aesthetic features reminiscent of the Uncle Sam “We Want You!” signage and typography, as well as modern airport signage and the NYC subway system. “Some elements of the design might feel heritage, for example, but their implementation and the grid they follow is a strictly modernist approach to design,” notes Collins.
As iconic as the USPS is, and in spite of the Grand Army design update, mail use remains in steady decline. Efforts to market the agency to new users resulted in a 2018 research report detailing millennial consumers and their relationship – or lack thereof – to the service.
Despite the infrequency with which millennial and gen-z audiences make use of the traditional mail service, their support for the institution is clear. As the agency battles a financial crisis and operational challenges surrounding the November election, celebrities and social media influencers are showing their support by pushing out original content and campaigns that ensure the USPS and its workers see another day.
Twitter and TickTok are largely platforms of choice as younger audiences step up to show their support. Users like Benna Truckee White and Sieta White have gone viral with their content that, while stirring some controversy, uses the slogan “we must sexualize the USPS in order to save it.”
Emmy award winning TV host Samantha Bee launched the #MailedIt campaign on National Postal Worker Day this year. For every tweet sent by someone using the hashtag #mailedit, Full Frontal would purchase a stamp in support of the USPS and its workers. The campaign trended at #1 on Twitter throughout July and was promoted by such political and cultural leaders as Stacey Abrams, Bette Midler, Soledad O’Brien, Tony Goldwyn, and Khloe Kardashian.
Financial dilemmas aside, further changes imposed by newly appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy raised serious concerns on the upcoming general election cycle and the reliability of mail-in voting. Changes to overtime hours and restrictions on mail delivery services have many citizens on both sides of the aisle worried about the possibility of delayed ballots and an unpredictable election day result.
Just last Monday, a judge ruled to reverse those changes, requiring that the USPS treat all election mail as first-class or priority mail express and stipulating that the agency must pre-approve all overtime requests surrounding election day.
The USPS is now riding a wave of public support while debuting fresh, multi-channel advertising in an effort to reassure the public, and more importantly, voters, that they are more committed than ever to the quick, efficient, reliable delivery of your mail. The recent spate of ads touch on the importance of everyday needs in the Covid era, such as prescription drug delivery, cards and packages, and voter ballots.
For now, it seems, the time-honored trope of the “unstoppable mailman” will persist. The profession once heralded as a shining example of a functional and interconnected society will again have its moment in the sun as carriers are tasked with delivering our nation’s most precious cargo – our right to vote.