Against the widespread perception that mail-based advertising was Junk Mail, the idea behind Matterbox was to create a new kind of physical advertising, one where creativity would be both encouraged and mandated — advertisers were required to create physically meaningful items in exchange for a superior level of consumer engagement.
The idea of a physical language began to take shape within Matterbox, advertisers were given a simple creative brief: If your brand were an object, what would it be? Matterbox was free to join for consumers who were asked to share lifestyle information to help better targeting of what they’d receive. To reassure consumers their personal data wasn’t going to lead to a deluge of unwanted spam and junk mail, only Matterbox was allowed to contact them.
As a media experiment, it uncovered some interesting truths:
1. The attraction of meaningful and intrinsically valuable communications was very popular with consumers — over 200,000 signed up with no acquisition strategy at all.
2. Consumers are very willing to share their personal data provided they know their trust won’t be abused — 98% completed the questionnaire, even though it was voluntary to do so.
3. Responsiveness rates were way above regular direct mail levels — the final Cadbury Matterbox ilicited a participation rate of 300%.
4. Physicality is closely connected to emotion — when asked whether the items in the Matterbox altered perceptions of the brand, the items made the brand more appealing.
5. Inverting the traditional transaction — we’ll give you something and then we’ll ask you to give us something — proved to be very successful. Typically 40% of Matterbox subscribers responded to questionnaires following mailings.
Matterbox made some bold attempts at challenging many of the accepted wisdoms within advertising with varying degrees of success. In many ways, it was ahead of its time — before social media, which would have provided a natural digital outlet for consumer experiences — and it anticipated the explosion of mail-based subscription boxes that have become popular in recent years.
Its broader ambitions remain unfulfilled. The basic question it raises unanswered — might giving people something be an alternative way of communicating than telling people something? This might only be of value when it becomes clear that people aren't listening and though evidence is mounting, its effects are simply offset by declining media costs. The seventies truism, "I know half my advertising works, I just don't know which half" has been replaced with, "I know a small fraction of my advertising works, but it's so cheap, I don't care". There's talk about engagement and experience, but the old model isn't broken yet.
So, if anyone is experiencing this problem, I’d welcome a conversation with any advertisers, agencies, publishers or data holders who might wish to explore this idea further — if you're interested, please get in touch.