Canada Post road show drops some science on ad agencies

Probably not for the first time today, the young researcher from Toronto neuroscience company True Impact smiles good-naturedly as he attaches a sensor to my head and I quip, “Hopefully it can detect some activity.”

He’s probably going to hear finely honed wit like this a lot over the coming days, as Canada Post takes its first-ever Phygital Road Show to agency hotspots around the city to demonstrate the combined power of physical and digital communications.

Today’s event, the first of three Canada Post has scheduled this week (Oct. 16, 17, 18) , is taking place in Liberty Village, a short walk from agencies including FCB, Cossette, lg2 and Huge.

The sensor, I’m told, will track my brain activity across three different metrics—engagement, interest and focus—as I interact with a series of items. There are no explicit guidelines for how this interaction should be conducted, and I envision a puzzled chimp expression crossing my face as I first take a plain white cube and begin turning it this way and that, peering inside and opening up the various flaps.

The author as scientific subject

Up next is a digital screen, which I dutifully swipe left and right before it’s taken away. Finally, a replica of the type of advertising that appears in millions of mailboxes across Canada every day (glossy, heavy stock, brightly coloured) is placed into my hands.

According to True Impact, I found the latter piece most compelling, with my engagement, interest and focus scores all markedly higher than for any of the other items, including digital. “Is that because I’m old?” I ask warily. Apparently, it’s not.

Walking around amidst various Canada Post representatives, who wear tags reading “I’m a phygician” (one representative laments that they should also have been wearing lab coats) attendees tour a series of stations dedicated to predictive eye-tracking, research about direct mail’s ability to complement other media, and the wealth of aggregated information contained in each of Canada’s postal codes.

There are approximately 850,000 postal codes in Canada, each representing an average of 14 households and containing more than 100 data points. These can range from simple demographics to psychographics, plus more actionable insights—such as their propensity to drive a minivan.

Another station shows off the wide variety of textures available with modern direct mail, with attendees invited to touch paper types that range from glossy to matte and even fuzzy.

Conceived by Canada Post’s director of advertising, Jennifer Justin, the Phygital Road Show was developed to evoke similarly warm and fuzzy feelings about direct mail among key agency influencers. About 345 people, comprised of account managers, media planners, strategists and creatives, attended the three sessions.

“We have been targeting marketers for a few years now, but know that there are clients out there who lean on their [agency] to make recommendations on their full go-to-market plans based on their objectives,” explains Justin. “Agencies are always looking for ways to help their clients drive better results, so the purpose of the road show was to inspire and demonstrate the power of physical.”

The goal with the Phygital Road Show, she says, was to “gamify” direct mail for attendees. “We wanted it to be like a Nuit Blanche of B2B advertising, and really just geek out on the nerdy, cool stuff,” she explains with a laugh. The event was developed by Canada Post in tandem with its agency partner, Publicis.

Direct mail generated about $1.1 billion in revenue for Canada Post in 2018, accounting for about 17% of the Crown Corporation’s total revenue. Yet it is also grappling with the perception problem endemic to other traditional media in the digital era.

That is reflected in a continued downward drift in revenue. Canada Post’s direct mail revenues were $1.4 billion (23% of total revenue) in 2010 and $1.14 billion (19%) in 2016.

Growing revenue would be a welcome outcome of the Road Show, says Justin, who admits Canada Post is playing the long-game and just wants to reintroduce advertising professionals to direct mail and demonstrate that, when used correctly, it can play a vital role in the contemporary media mix.

The Phygital Road Show is one part of an ongoing journey towards developing proof points for direct mail that began internally at Canada Post about five years ago.

There’s no denying that the world has changed since 2010, with the ways that people consume media and marketing forever changed. But Canada Post contends that the way direct mail works in the digital era has also changed.

With people consuming digital content all day, old-fashioned paper communications can break through, says Justin, particularly when they complement highly targeted digital content.

In other words, much like radio and TV aren’t dead, direct mail marketing isn’t dead. Canada Post just has to hustle a little harder to remind people in advertising—who seem particularly enamoured with digital—that mail still works. Sure, some people may have “No junk mail” on their mailboxes, but have you seen how popular online ad blockers have become? The marketing landscape is changing fast, and Canada Post wants to show advertisers where it fits in.

It was while trying to devise ways of convincing advertisers and agencies about the continued merit of direct that Canada Post’s advertising leaders had a (literal) brainwave: They would use neuroscience to demonstrate its relevance and its ability to complement and enhance other marketing elements.

Canada Post has conducted two neuroscience studies and amassed case studies showing that with the right sequencing, direct mail can play a key role in generating interest, engagement and action for brands. “The brain’s response to direct mail is not subjective,” says Justin.

“People are looking for personalized experiences [and] direct mail can do just that,” she adds. “It helps create brand loyalty, drive action online and to store, helps with acquisition and can meet many more common marketing objectives.

Canada Post’s first major foray into neuroscience came when it commissioned a study led by Ipsos to determine how direct mail stacked up against digital-only campaigns, how consumers engaged with different direct mail pieces (ie: flat versus multi-dimensional, ) and even how campaign sequencing—in other words, conducting a direct mail drop after digital ads were in market—affected consumer receptivity and engagement.

Those findings were presented in a 2016 white paper entitled Connecting for Actionwhich included among its findings:

  • Integrated direct mail and digital campaigns elicit 39% more attention (time spent) than digital only campaigns;
  • Brand recall peaks when direct mail follows email, outperforming the average for the other single and integrated media campaigns by 40%;
  • Direct mail offers a personal, sensory experience. It held participants’ attention for 118% longer, and stimulated 29% higher brand recall than digital advertising alone;
  • Consumers in the study spent 26 seconds with the email advertisements, which was 30% less time than they spent with direct mail.

Studies like this are constructed for the purpose of presenting the commissioning entity in a flattering light, but Justin points to continued endorsements by clients like Wayfair as proof of direct mail’s continuing viability.

Among the endorsers are Gabriela Mercer, manager of e-commerce and marketing analytics at Roots Canada, who noted that online sales from postal codes the apparel retailer targeted through Canada Post were “considerably higher” than from non-targeted postal codes.

The tilt towards neuroscience is among a series of advancements made by Canada Post with an eye towards enhancing its advertising products, says Justin. These range from investments in data assets, to technology and digital printing capabilities that gives brands the ability to combine the timeliness and personalization of online media with the tactile nature of direct.

One of the challenges, she says, is educating younger agency staffers who may not have been exposed to direct mail but are keenly embracing the physical in an increasingly ephemeral world.

“So many [young agency staffers] are just not learning it in school because they’re digital natives, but there is something about going analogue,” she adds, citing the rise of vinyl culture.

“Everything we’ve been reading about them, they’re more about experiences over things so we wanted to give them an experience that would help prove the relevance of direct mail in today’s market.”

Anyone with even half a brain can see how that might work.

Chris Powell