- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2006

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Hallmark Cards Inc., the nation’s leading card company and known for its traditional values, is suddenly rocking.

The company’s new Sound Cards — the first line ever to use original songs from original artists — have young and old tuning into everything from Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and from Tim McGraw to the Rolling Stones.

Feeling frisky? Let Marvin Gaye tell your loved one, “Let’s Get It On.”

Debuted with a trial run of two dozen designs about a year ago, the Say It With Music line expanded to more than 220 with a July release. Christmas will bring waves of seasonal cards, and while some cards tied to movies and TV — including “Star Wars” and “Law & Order” — are already available, a new wave will hit the stands in January.

While the AM-radio quality sound may not be a dramatic improvement over previous sound cards, the cards distinguish themselves by featuring recognizable music hits.

“These aren’t cover bands and re-records,” said Tim Bodendistel, one of three art directors for the line. “So the work to put out an offering of this size is amazing.”

Hallmark hopes it pays off, boosting the bottom line of a company that had $4.2 billion in revenue in 2005. While it won’t say what percentage of that revenue is derived from the sale of greeting cards, the company says that Sound Cards have so far fueled a 9 percent increase in sales of everyday cards compared with 2005.

Mila Albertson, membership-services director for the Washington, D.C.-based Greeting Card Association, said card sales generate about $7 billion a year. Most of the industry’s recent growth has centered on “high-end cards.”

Hallmark’s chief rival, Cleveland-based American Greetings Corp., is designing cards that include everything from sound and movement to lighting effects.

“Music cards are a nice innovation. We welcome anything that brings growth to the category,” said Sue Buchta, executive director of seasonal cards. “We’re going to touch base with the consumer and find out what’s important to them. Music might be one way to do that. Lights and motion might be another.”

Hallmark designers also say the Sound Cards, which sell for $4.99, could help the company shed its staid image by resonating with teenagers and men, two demographics that traditionally have been difficult to reach.

The cards are one way Hallmark is attempting to keep pace with e-cards, text-messaging and e-mail while at the same time staying true to the traditional greeting cards the company was founded on, said Deidre Parkes, a spokeswoman for the Kansas City-based company.

“We know card-sending has been, we say stable, you say flat,” she said. “We also knew as a company it was important to look forward. This is something we invested heavily in.”

The 6-inch square Sound Cards appear fairly standard at first. But inside is a small computer chip powered by a three-volt lithium-ion battery — the kind used to back up computer motherboards and hand-held devices — a quick signal the recipient is getting more than just folded cardstock.

The chip, similar to those used in children’s toys, is connected by two small wires to a silver-dollar sized speaker. The entire unit is capable of playing clips up to 45 seconds long at least 200 times. Their shelf life? A minimum of two years.

The concept began 18 months ago, when Hallmark pitched the idea to two record labels and was given licenses for songs, innovation director Tom Esselman said. As other labels learned about the cards’ sound quality, they became more interested.

Hallmark has licensing agreements with several record companies and publishing houses, though cards still need each artist to approve. In the case of an upcoming Charlie Chaplin card, the company needed a dozen Chaplin heirs to agree to it.

“You have Louis Armstrong to Smashmouth, ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ to ‘I Love Lucy.’ You’re connecting with so many different people,” Mr. Bodendistel said. “People build on them because it’s more like a gift.”

Artists chosen for cards aren’t always from yesteryear — although Mike Love of the Beach Boys recently appeared on “Good Morning America,” gleefully toting a card that plays “Kokomo.”

In August, the creative team set up a giveaway booth at the trendy MTV Video Music Awards in New York, where art director Joan Orth said the cards aced their first real test.

“A creative crowd is always going to be a tough crowd,” she said. “But I asked the [rock band] All American Rejects, ‘You guys — would you guys be interested in being on the cards?’ Because they loved them. And they said, ‘Aw, yeah, that would be so cool.’”

Professional wrestler Hulk Hogan and his wife picked out a Sound Card from the upcoming Christmas line to send during the holidays, Miss Orth said. The members of Panic! At the Disco, who won an MTV award for “Video of the Year,” loved the line. So did Fallout Boy, whose members wanted to send them to their families.

“I expected some people to be too cool for greeting cards,” Mr. Bodendistel said. “Even [rapper] Snoop Dogg, we handed him some cards and he goes, ‘I love Hallmark cards,’ you know? Which was really funny to hear from Snoop Dogg.”

A “Napoleon Dynamite” card was so popular it sold out, was reprinted, then sold out again.

“The cool thing about it is, there’s mounds and mounds and mounds of material,” Miss Orth said. “We haven’t even scratched the surface.”

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