100 Years of Finding Just the Right Words

"Nightline" visits Hallmark headquarters as cardmaker celebrates centennial.

Feb. 11, 2010 — -- In a conference room in Kansas City, greeting cards are born.

It's just before Valentine's Day, but the creative team at hand has already moved past the Feb. 14 holiday. On a recent morning, they were tackling birthdays.

"After a while birthdays are like mesh shirts on fat guys, nobody wants to see them," suggests one writer. "Sorry, happy birthday anyway?"

"Hope your day is as exciting as Larry King's visit to the suspender store," tries another.

The team members are former professors and waitresses and youth ministers and flight attendants... all hired to get laughs.

Ninety percent of their ideas won't cut it. But the few that do will wind up in your mailbox, with just the right words to mark some special occasion.

Welcome to Hallmark, where sentiment is mass-produced. The company turns 100 this year and, despite hard times and changing technology, shows no signs of slowing down.

Hallmark, it seems, has always had a harness on sentiment. Those famous TV ads? They reduced so many of us to tears.

And they're part of the reason we've become customers for life. They've trained us to buy cards when someone's born, and when someone dies, and for just about everything in between.

Diana Manning, a senior writer with three decades' experience, was composing a Christmas card. After 32 years of this, you'd think she'd run out of ideas.

"So far I've got, 'Besides all the jolly and the merry, this season is a time for reflecting, for feeling grateful, for embracing hope-filled new beginnings,'" Manning said. "'However you celebrate, hope this season will be just what you need it to be for you this year.' Now I'm not done with that, but that's my first version and I'm playing around with more versions of it."

'It's Mostly Happening in Your Head'

We asked Manning if she ever gets writer's block.

"Oh, absolutely," Manning said. "I mean, every day I think I have writer's block. You sit there with the blank pad of paper or the blank computer screen and you just think, 'Oh, what is there new to say that somebody wants to say to another person?' So that's when we have to tap into our inspirational -- our resources, and I've learned how to tap into those, whether it's e-mailing a friend and asking them about their relationships, which I do quite frequently. Going to our creative library, looking at magazine articles with people in their relationships ... or looking at some of the ads and new language."

From that, Manning and her colleagues -- all the painters and calligraphers and creative types running around Hallmark's headquarters -- become the authors of your emotions. It's tricky work.

"This is not really a very visual job," said Dan Taylor, whose title is writing stylist. "People think it sounds like fun, and it is fun, but there's not much to see because it's mostly happening in your head."

Fact is, Hallmark probably deserves its own "Congratulations" card, for surviving in an industry that, just a few years ago, was all but pronounced dead. It was predicted that e-cards, and cards you can print yourself at home, would kill the business. But Hallmark made it.

"The greeting card industry is very vibrant," said Don Hall, Jr., Hallmark CEO. "People are still sending about 6 billion greeting cards in the U.S. alone."

Hall pays close attention to those numbers, just as father did before him, and his father before him. Joyce Clyde "J.C." Hall started the card business that would become Hallmark 100 years ago.

"My grandfather stepped off a train from Norfolk, Neb., and came to Kansas City because he saw this was a great opportunity to start a business, and began selling picture postcards," Hall said.

J.C. Hall's intuition, as we now know, was right. Hallmark became an empire. The company owns Crayola. It employs 14,000 people around the world. And those 6 billion cards sold every year? Hallmark sells more than half. Thanks, in part, to the company's stranglehold on what some critics call entirely fake holidays: Boss's Day, Mother's Day and Father's Day, and, of course, Valentine's Day.

'We Have Not Created a Single Holiday'

We asked Hall whether he takes offense at the notion that Valentine's Day is the ultimate "Hallmark holiday."

"I think it's wonderful that you want to brand Valentine's as the ultimate Hallmark holiday," Hall said. He rejected the idea that the holiday is a commercial fabrication. "We have not created a single holiday," he said. "We would love to, but we have not created a single holiday."

Despite the financial crunch customers face in today's economy, Hallmark hopes new technology will keep them coming back for more. This year, the company is introducing 3-D cards that interact with your computer. And cards that have video screens built in.

Hallmark is also doing something once unthinkable: giving away product for free. Freebies include popular Hoops and Yoyo e-cards.

"I think it's only helped," said Mike Adair, Hoops artist, of the free offer. "In the long run, people are buying Hoops and Yoyo paper cards too, because they got interested in the characters online for free, and so now they're able to capitalize on that interest and [the] fan base is now buying cards and are responding to something they already know about."

It's more sound strategy from a company with a centurylong track record. Hallmark has proven that when it comes to putting our feelings down on paper, they're no joke.