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One Mercantile

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Oatmeal Studios: Always Good For A Laugh

A trade show display.

By Lisa Green

When Oatmeal Studios gathers its team for a creative brainstorming session, it’s no ordinary staff meeting. The greeting card company based in Lenox Dale, Mass., has been in the business of making people laugh for over 35 years, and the writers, illustrators and managers involved never seem to lose that sense of humor.

“You’re crying, you’re laughing so hard,” says Nancy Crane, the company’s creative product manager, describing the tenor of those gatherings.

“We’re writing funny cards,” adds Joe Gallagher, the general manager. “You can’t take it too seriously.”

But make no mistake: this is a well-established, $1.5 million business, with its products available at 2,100 locations in the U.S. and abroad, and 140 independent sales representatives. Still, a pet rabbit named Oatmeal was the inspiration for the first card created by an artist in Vermont back in 1978, and that’s kind of amusing, right? In 2011, Excelsior Printing Company in North Adams, Mass. bought Oatmeal Studios and brought the lighthearted, brightly colored card company to the Berkshires.

Joe Gallagher, Nancy Crane, David Crane

“In 2010, David Crane [he of the Dalton, Mass. Cranes, who established Crane & Co., Inc. in 1770] asked me to look at the greeting card market because there might be an opportunity to buy Oatmeal Studios,” says Gallagher, who worked in product and business management at Crane for ten years. Excelsior was already printing the cards, so it was a natural transition for the company. (Later Excelsior Printing was sold to Integrity Graphics, which now prints the cards.) A little over a year ago Oatmeal Studios moved to its current location, so its offices are now housed within the Excelsior Integrated warehouse — a 58,000-foot fulfillment facility with David Crane as the CEO — that not only fulfills Oatmeal Studios cards but assembles and ships products for about 80 other companies, as well.

But back to those hilarious staff meetings. Everyone gets a say in what cards are produced.

“We’re a team, and we all vote on the designs,” says Nancy Crane (no relation to the famous family, although she was a product manager at Crane prior to joining the card company). “Everyone gets a chance to ‘ugh’ or ‘I love it.’” The team consists of Gallagher and Crane, sales and advertising folks, and a few of the original people from Oatmeal in Vermont.

Two of the bestselling cards.

The creative process starts with the written word, and what the team is voting on — while laughing hysterically — are the concepts submitted by freelance writers. After they agree they’re going to buy a concept, they start thinking about the appropriate image for the copy. Nancy assigns the job to one in her stable of illustrators, some of whom have been working with Oatmeal Studios since Oatmeal-the-rabbit days. Sometimes an illustrator will submit the whole package — graphics and copy, which are tweaked into the final product.

The company averages about 70 new cards a year, and there are bestsellers that have been in the line for years. Crane does the designs for the newer line of photo cards herself.

“We stick to humor,” says Gallagher “We don’t do seasonal cards, and some are more risqué than others. Some of our retails don’t want anything to do with them.” But with 300 designs in the line, there’s plenty for every kind of retailer to choose from.

Unlike your standard Hallmark cards, Oatmeal Studios sells its products in less traditional settings — liquor and hardware stores, car washes and UPS outlets. Locally, you’ve probably seen them at Guido’s in Pittsfield, The Purple Plume in Lenox and Salisbury Pharmacy.

“What also makes our cards different is that the insides are illustrated, they’re still made in the U.S., and they’re printed with vegetable-based inks on recycled paper,” Crane says. And, creatives in the Rural Intelligence region will be gratified to know that the illustrator gets a prominent shout-out on the back of the card. This is a company that appreciates its staff — even if they’re freelancers.

As with any printed product these days, you have to wonder how long the market will be there. Nancy Crane acknowledges that younger people are more likely to send electronic cards. But selling in so many unconventional locations helps business — you’re buying a gift or a bottle of wine for someone, and you need a card to go with it, and there stands a carousel of delightful cards.

“It’s definitely a mature product, but because we’ve kept it fresh and have a unique look, we’re still doing pretty well in the market,” says Gallagher.

And having fun doing it.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 08/01/16 at 03:25 PM • Permalink