KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Turns out love may actually be a universal language.
The world's largest greeting card maker, Hallmark Cards Inc., has for the first time analyzed individual cities' data for top-selling valentines, and it yielded a surprising result.
They were all the same - a result of the exhaustive research Hallmark carries out before any card goes on the shelf. It's a process of analyzing sales numbers and trend hunting in search of the perfect valentine.
Researchers at the Kansas City-based company expected the choices of customers to be as different as the cities they call home. But it turned out V330-5, one of the thousands of options Hallmark offered last Valentine's Day, was the top choice of consumers in New York and Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Miami, and virtually every other city in the country.
"We thought it would be a different card in every city,'' said spokeswoman Rachel Bolton. "It was just a surprising thing.''
Jessica Ong, product manager for the company's v alentine's card line, had an idealistic suggestion for the sales numbers' meaning.
"It speaks to the fact that people are more alike than they are different,'' she said.
The card's face is a deep red foil, with "For the One I Love'' across the top in black script, a large picture of a red rose in the center, and a thick black ribbon cutting through the middle. Inside, it simply states: "Each time I see you, hold you, think of you, here's what I do … I fall deeply, madly, happily in love with you. Happy Valentine's Day.''
The card's designer, Marcia Muelengracht, said she was not at all surprised the card sold five times better than the average valentine - so well it's being offered for a second year.
"I cut to the chase - what I would want to give and what I would want to receive,'' Muelengracht said. "A guy wants to say he still loves her. A gal wants to know he still does. She wants to get goose bumps. He wants to think he'll get lucky.''
It's never as simple as just artistic intuition, though. The National Retail Federation estimates 62 percent of Americans will buy valentines this year.
For every Hallmark card that lands on a store shelf, the company has scoured sales figures, conducted research and studied trends to make sure it belongs there.
"They aren't just spit out of a machine,'' said Paul Barker, the vice president of Hallmark's creative unit. "A lot of eyes look at it and a lot of care goes into it to make sure that we're saying the right thing and creating an artifact that consumers want to save.''
Hallmark Card's headquarters include three buildings, with the cubicles and offices of its roughly 4,500 workers as varied as the cards it offers. Crosses and Stars of David can be seen among the desks of those creating religious greetings, the separate building housing writers for the Shoebox brand includes rejected joke ideas on the walls, and those on the Sinceramente staff have Spanish-language signs in their workspace.
The components of cards get made all sorts of ways. Sometimes an artist or writer is simply asked to create general illustrations or messages for a designated occasion, sometimes they're given a specific card assignment, sometimes they collaborate to create a winning card.
The process of creating a card for Valentine's Day - the industry's second most popular holiday, behind Christmas - can begin up to two years before it finds its way to a loved one's hands. An 80-person research staff's analysis of Hallmark's 2004 card sales was the initial impetus for this year's line. That combines with more than 100,000 annual customer interviews, focus groups and in-store observations to lay the framework for roughly 2,000 cards in Hallmark's core Valentine's Day line as well as another 2,500 offerings through sister brands offered at supermarkets, Wal-Mart and elsewhere.
The process is not new. A research department was formally established at Hallmark in 1959, but the company says its origins may date to its 1910 founding.
"The founder, Joyce Hall, was pretty much a researcher at heart,'' said Dave Mihanovic, the company's director of consumer research. "If a person came out and didn't buy anything, he wanted to know why. And if they did buy something, he wanted to know what else they could have bought.''
Writers and artists and others at the company say everything they do is aimed at helping a consumer express a sentiment. That, of course, translates to sales.
The Hallmark staff's precision in creating a single card is on view in the daily valentine's line committee review - critiques that will finalize next year's line of cards not long after this Feb. 14 has passed.
At one recent review, production artist Carolyn Bergin presents two valentines - one for parents, the other for grandparents. A typography artist, art director, editorial director and a quality planner who ensures the card meets manufacturing standards order some adjustments.
The ladybugs have too many black spots. An ellipsis must be added. Foil lettering would look best in fuscia.
The final tweaks have been made. A valentine is born.