ENVELOPES: The personal touch - Are bespoke envelopes the shape of things to come in the direct mail industry? They are if the growing interest of clients is anything to go by, says Rob McLuhan

The doormat is starting to show signs of the kind of creativity

more often associated with television and poster ads. Envelopes are

arriving in the form of triangles and boomerangs, with windows cut to

special shapes, or even wrapped in pink fur. Anything to catch the

attention of consumers who might otherwise bin the missive unopened.

This willingness to experiment is being stimulated by the growth of

direct mail and fears that an offer may go unnoticed in the

scrum.Clients understand the need to take more risks these days,

especially in sectors such as media, IT and telecoms, which will often

use envelopes of unusual materials or shapes to get attention. Rapier,

for instance, tends to seek an imaginative twist when mailing to ntl's

digital TV prospects (see panel).

Vidhu Kapur, head of production at Harrison Troughtman Wunderman,

stresses the importance of relevance. "It's not about being creative for

creative's sake - in order to work it has to be connected to the

message," he points out.

For Vodafone, the agency designed an envelope in which the window was

shaped like a cinema screen with the heads of the audience silhouetted

underneath. This tied into the theme of the mailing, which drew

attention to the convenience of the text message function in cinemas

where the phone has to be switched to 'silent'.

When it comes to non-standard envelope sizes and materials, Royal Mail

might be expected to object. In fact, the opposite is true. It actively

promotes creative ideas as part of a drive to ensure a strong future for

direct mail. The Agency Insight section of its website offers

suggestions for unusual materials such as canvas, PVC and even fake fur,

used by that august organ the Financial Times when promoting a new

section recently.

Parallel lines

An alternative is embossing, favoured by financial services and the

professions, is to create a classy feel. John Dickinson employs special

textures such as a grooved design, consisting of parallel lines that run

down the envelope.

This is imprinted during the production process, which is more

cost-efficient than using specially textured paper. "When print is

applied it provides an arresting effect that makes it stands out well,"

explains product group manager Mark Beaumont-Thomas.

Increasingly, direct marketers try to provide a personal touch to win

the consumer's attention. To further this, John Dickinson is planning an

emboss that creates the illusion of a stamp at the top right hand

corner, a move which has been approved by Royal Mail.

Opportunities for bespoke have grown as manufacturers invest in new

equipment, in order to shorten production time frames, reduce costs and

boost quality.

Lead times have been halved to two or three weeks compared with a few

years ago. And the cost of cutting machines has come down, which has

made ventures such as specially shaped windows more viable.

Since January, Washington Envelopes has been providing flexographic

printing, a faster and more economic alternative to conventional

lithographic. In the past, its colour process was not as effective, but

technological advances mean this is now of comparable quality.

"Flexo is cost-effective and looks excellent," says sales director Julia

Corkhill. Instead of allowing time for the ink to dry between printing

and cutting, she explains, these machines can produce envelopes in a

single process, around 1000 a minute compared with only 400 on


Washington has been converting customers to the new process. One is

Britannia Music, which faces tight deadlines for weekly mailshots on new

CD offers and benefits from the fast turnaround. Another is Book Club

Associates, which uses envelopes printed in full colour for its


With ordering bespoke, a cardinal rule is to bring the provider into the

loop right at the start to avoid errors later. A common mistake is to

specify the wrong dimensions. This can bring problems when the mailing

is being collated: a tolerance of 10mm may seem sufficient to the

designer, but machines will not function unless envelopes are 16-30mm

wider than the biggest insert.

"It's something direct mailers have to wake up to," says Tony Toye,

managing director of National Envelopes. "If they get it wrong it can

end in disaster, as they have to redo the envelope or stuff each one in

by hand."

Patrick Carter, sales manager at A1 envelopes, agrees. "If clients spoke

to us earlier in the campaign, we might be able to save them money and

show them the most cost-effective and workable solutions," he says. "One

client, for example, wanted to do one with a round window, but we

pointed out that it wouldn't have been able to show what was


Cut to fit

One tip with bespoke is to find out if a cutting machine, or 'knife,'

for the proposed job already exists, Carter suggests. If not, the

designer will have to factor in the cost of creating one, which can be

as much as £1,000 on top of other costs.

On the other hand some unusual designs are used so often that they could

usefully be kept as stock. One such is the square shape, which is

starting to be so popular that National Envelopes is planning to make it

available as a regular shelf item.

Bespoke may be more expensive, but properly tested and costed is capable

of boosting response well above average rates. For manufacturers the

proof of the pudding is in the eating and since clients keep coming back

for more, it must taste good to them.


Digital television is a sector where a bright, quirky approach is most

likely to go down well. Prospective customers of ntl recently received a

bright green envelope with a slice cut out of the right side, leaving a

projecting square where the stamp goes.

The insert was cut to the same shape, with a dotted line along the

protruding square and the words 'it's a rip-off' next to it, referring

to the exorbitant charges of other companies.

"This envelope created a lot of impact because it stands out," comments

John Townshend, creative director at ntl agency Rapier.

Such mailings can dramatically increase the return: an earlier mailing

consisted of six Tarot-size cards which detailed the available channels,

packed in an envelope of the same size. That increased the response from

a standard two per cent to eight per cent, with 80 per cent conversion.