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Shoebox's new cast of card-carrying characters is // Getting Personal

Shoebox Greetings knows how to push the envelope.

Instead of mushy Valentines and stuffy Happy Birthday wishes, the hipper division of staid Hallmark Cards Inc. offers some offbeat greetings.

Consider:

Valentine, sometimes I think you only love me for my body ... then I laugh really hard and have another donut.

Or check out this one:

I wouldn't say you're getting older ... But if you were a prize pig, you'd be a fondly remembered BLT by now. Happy Birthday.

Shoebox is only separated by a walkway from Hallmark's main Kansas City, Mo. headquarters. But its 70 staffers are miles away from the more staid corporate culture that exists nearby. Writers look for trends by watching TV and reading magazines. Artists match the witticisms with comic strip-style illustrations.

Not many suits and ties on the Shoebox side. The artists and writers favor jeans and T-shirts. One writer actually keeps a hamster at her desk.

Comfort promotes creativity. And the proof is in the cards.

"Traditional cards are kind of timeless," said Steve Finken, writing and editorial manager for Shoebox. "These cards are timely and topical."

Shoebox's greatest challenge is to stay current while providing cards with an edge that doesn't cross the line on taste. It's Hallmark, after all, with a reputation to protect.

Hallmark launched Shoebox Greetings in 1986. The "tiny little division of Hallmark," as the back of each Shoebox card states, is now a $248-million-a-year business helping Hallmark retain its status as king of cards.

Shoebox's name goes back to the beginning of Hallmark itself.

Joyce C. Hall, Hallmark's founder, was the order-filler and card-sorter of his family-owned postcard company in Nebraska. In 1910, Joyce took a train to Kansas City in hopes of expanding the business. Joyce kept his inventory of postcards inside two shoeboxes. That bigger business became the giant of the greeting card industry.

And the Shoebox logo _ scrawled on the back of each card created by this unconventional division _ recalls Hall's entrepreneurial spirit.

"We wanted the logo to reflect a hand-done look. We wanted to create the sense that a bunch of individual creative people are making these cards," the 48-year-old Finken said. "That enhances the personal feel of them."

Most Shoebox cards send a message that isn't related to a holiday. But Valentine's Day _ the most personal of all holidays _ is the biggest seasonal seller for the line.

"The humor of Shoebox is rooted in reality and talks a lot about relationships. It's very appropriate for Valentine's Day," Finken said.

Still, Shoebox makes Valentines with a twist. For instance: It's Valentine's Day! Why not dress up like Cupid and spread some joy? Believe me, you in a diaper and curly wig would spread more joy than you think.

Laughing at life

Allyson Jones, 31, has been a Shoebox writer for eight years; she took the job after a copywriting stint in San Diego. One of the ways she comes up with ideas is simply by noticing what's going on around her.

"If I'm standing in a store and the way a woman is talking to her kid reminds me of a typical situation I think would work well for Mother's Day, it just sticks with me and I bring it in the next day," Jones said.

Hang out. Watch people. Go into work the next day and write funny stuff. That doesn't sound too hard, right?

Try writing that funny stuff every day for the next 12 years. That's how long fellow Shoebox writer Dan Taylor has been doing it.

Taylor, 36, started out in the very un-Shoebox-like profession of youth ministry. He was a little out of place as a minister, though: Taylor was reading Rolling Stone magazine in his office when he saw a classified ad soliciting Hallmark writers.

"The hard part about the job is being funny every day all day long," he said. "When people say, "I thought of something funny,' well, they probably did. But whether they can tomorrow and every day next week and every month and every year is a different issue."

The Shoebox staff is a self-contained unit. Editors, writers, artists, art directors, business types and other employees work in the same area. The operations look and feel like a small company, Finken said.

For a small "company," it produces a lot of cards. Currently there are 832 everyday cards and about 500 holiday offerings in the Shoebox lineup.

Writers are required to produce about 15 cards a day. The copy that's approved _ the rejection rate is about 90 percent _ almost always comes before the illustration. It's easier to illustrate a joke than to joke about an illustration.

Like books, greeting cards are often judged by their covers, so the graphics need to grab the consumer quickly. Shoebox artists illustrate about three to five cards a week.

Fittingly, it's a social atmosphere in the Shoebox office. Staffers can come and go as they please. Taylor describes the environment as "a cross between a library and Rob's office on the Dick Van Dyke Show."

But things turn more serious each day at 4 p.m., when the writers gather for an hourlong meeting. Finken reads the copy aloud and judges it.

He admits he's not a connoisseur of pop culture; sometimes, he has to take the artists' and writers' word that a card is dead-on.

"A lot of times, there will be a card that gets a big laugh and I'll say "What is that?' They'll tell me it's based on a song or movie or a TV show," Finken said.

A recent card referred to a monkey on the TV show Friends. Finken was so out of touch with Must See TV that he assumed his staff had made up the gag line.

Shoebox writers keep current by reading magazines such as Newsweek, Time, Us and Entertainment Weekly. There's a VCR in the office and the staff brings in videotapes of The Larry Sanders Show, Seinfeld, Friends and the Late Show with David Letterman.

"We don't need to know what the Maclaughin Group is talking about, because that's not card stuff," Taylor said. "We need to know what America is talking about."

A formula that works

Shoebox covers basic occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries. But it also strays from the greeting card pack with themes ranging from shopping and sex to work and whining.

Sorry I haven't written...I've been trying to find a pair of "loose fitting" jeans that actually fit me loosely, says one of the cards.

The formula works. Since its inception 10 years ago, the division has sold 1.8-billion cards. Shoebox's non-holiday cards account for more than 16 percent of all of Hallmark's sales in that category.

And Shoebox Greetings has gone from creating cards to creating T-shirts, books, mugs and a daily cartoon strip for its most popular card character, Maxine, a cranky older woman who has something to say about everything.

When Shoebox started, the group assumed consumers ages 18 to 35 would buy its cards. But Shoebox's staff soon realized that everyone from preteens to folks in their 80s were part of their audience.

They already knew women would buy more of their cards than men, as industry statistics have shown over the years. But what they didn't know was that twice as many men as the average would buy Shoebox.

"Men are more comfortable with humor. They enjoy reading the jokes and getting the laugh," Finken said.

But Hallmark humor, even the Shoebox kind, has its limits. Shoebox writers don't joke about guns or drugs or drinking. And vulgar abusive jokes are taboo.

"We don't want that kind of stuff in there," Jones said. "None of us have that kind of taste, really crude for the sake of being crude and talking about things really graphically."

Though the writers will slip in catch phrases and even create Letterman-like Top 10 Lists, one universal topic they don't deal with much is divorce.

"It's the kind of situation where you go through a lot of emotional responses," said 12-year writing veteran Taylor. "To have the person have a consistent response from when they bought the card to when they sent the card to when the other person opened it, is tricky."

And while consumers still see plenty of male-bashing on Shoebox cards, it has a softer touch than in the '80s.

For instance: Hey, guy it's your birthday and there's something you should know about women ... really. You ought to know something, anything at all. Attend a seminar, go to the library. See if you can learn something.

"The '90s are a gentler time," said Jones, one of only two women writing Shoebox cards.

Other copy updates include references to the Internet, coffeehouses, cigars and body piercing. Yet the secret to Shoebox humor is not in its timeliness, Jones said. It's taking a normal situation and giving it a twist.

Coming up with those twists isn't easy. For the 20 to 30 cards Taylor writes a day, for instance, he will be lucky if five get chosen for retail testing.

He has learned to deal with the rejection. If the copy doesn't work the first time, that's as far as it goes. "As a rule we don't do fixes," Taylor said. "We don't tinker with stuff that didn't work, because you know it's not funny if you have to say "Oh wait, did I say they were astronauts?' "

But there is a way to read rejected Shoebox copy. Hallmark's Web site (www.hallmark.com) has some of it. An example: You've graduated! Now you can move your tassel from one side of your cap to the other ... get used to it. It is called busy work.

Regardless of whether the copy ends up on a card or lands in the trash, the creative staffers at Shoebox try to keep their jobs in perspective.

"In the big scheme of things, it's not like we're finding a cure for cancer or anything," Jones said. "But it's a nice thing to know that you bring laughter to people's day."

AT A GLANCE

Hallmark Cards Inc.

Headquarters: Kansas City, Mo.

History: Joyce C. Hall founded Hall Brothers in 1910 when he arrived in Kansas City to expand his postcard wholesaling business. Hallmark, mostly associated with greeting cards, also has interests in cable and broadcast television, real estate and retailing.

Revenues: Hallmark has sales of $3.6-billion and is ranked 35th on Forbes magazine's list of the largest privately held U.S. companies.

Size: 20,100 employees worldwide

Hallmark brands: Hallmark, Ambassador and Expressions from Hallmark

Other products: Personal expression items including greeting cards, gift wrap, party supplies, calendars, ornaments and collectibles. Names of product lines include Shoebox Greetings, Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments, Party Express and Hallmark Connections.

Distribution: Hallmark products are sold in approximately 40,300 retail outlets in the United States.

A look at three Shoebox characters

MAXINE:

- Character: Maxine, a female somewhere between 76 and 80 years old, is Shoebox's biggest success story. She's feisty, crabby and direct, and is never illustrated without her sunglasses and bunny slippers. Her dog pal, Floyd, is usually on the card, too.

- Artist: John Wagner, 49, was recruited by Hallmark out of college.

- Character genesis: "Maxine looks like my grandmother, who was a schoolteacher," Wagner said. "She was stern and had a hard life." She's also loosely based on Wagner's mother.

- Character recognition: Maxine's image is licensed and appears on products such as refrigerator magnets, T-shirts and books. A Maxine comic strip called Crabby Road appears in more than 100 newspapers.

DENISE:

- Character: Denise is not one character, but a collection of female characters with similar attitudes. They tend to bash men and spout sarcastic lines. She's named after the artist who created her look.

- Artist: Denise Chevalier, 44, worked as a secretary before submitting a portfolio to Hallmark and getting a job as an artist. Chevalier said she is somewhat like the Denise character because "I kinda got a smart mouth."

- Character genesis: "Sometimes I've thought that I've drawn something that looks like a friend of mine or looks like pictures of my Mom when she was young," Chevalier said.

- Character recognition: Denise is second only to Maxine in recognition of Shoebox characters. She, too, is licensed and appears on numerous products.

BRODERICK

- Character: One of the newest characters, Broderick is a ponytail-wearing, '60s-style beatnik for the '90s. He's self-absorbed and cynical.

- Artist: Pedro Martin, 29, hooked up with Hallmark after college and created the look of Broderick about three years ago.

- Character genesis: When the right kind of copy came his way, Martin combined it with a beatnik guy he had created a few months before. Later, "I grew the ponytail as I was working through the whole Broderick thing," he said. "It just kind of happened." Martin has since cut his hair; Broderick has not.

n Character recognition: Broderick is not as easy a sell as Maxine and Denise. Shoebox cards don't often use male characters as spokesman. The cards target a narrow niche, but are selling well.

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