U.S. Postal Service is working hard to come up to marketing speed. It needs revenue, and it provides direct-to-door delivery at a competitive price. In fact, given the price of postage around the world, U.S. first-class stamps are a relative bargain.
Now the USPS is being criticized for, well, marketing. Specifically, for issuing stamps with particular commercial value, rather than mere commemorative value. In part, the point is to encourage purchasing and in part, to encourage a revival in stamp collecting among a new generation.
In the bottom row left, the Batman stamp that has been a lightning rod for criticism because it represents an ongoing partnership with Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment. In limited edition, it was released at New York Comic Con. Commercial? Definitely, as was a Harry Potter stamp series and other pop-culture stamps.
In the top row right, the Rudolph stamp for 2014. Issued 50 years after the animated Rudolph special hit TV screens, the stamp evokes nostalgia with a commercial angle--and has provoked comments like this one from a former Postmaster General, quoted in Bloomberg Businessweek: "They have really ruined the stamp program. They have prostituted it in an effort to make money."
What is the role of stamp marketing? One former member of the committee that sifts stamp ideas and recommends subjects says the USPS should avoid issuing stamps "with the same profit motives as Big Macs, Slurpees, jeans or neighborhood tattoo parlors."
Given the financial situation of the USPS, stamp marketing must take profitability into account. Yet tradition has a definite place: Last year, the USPS issued a new version of the "Inverted Jenny," a stamp famous for the airplane (the Jenny) being mistakenly printed upside down. The originals are rare and celebrated.
Issuing a new version was more than a way to stimulate purchasing: It also put a smile on the faces of ordinary buyers and collectors alike, because of the back story and the decades of history involved in the Jenny mistake. Reinforcing a positive attitude is certainly a valuable role for stamp marketing.