Mail Boxes Etc., Inc.

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Mail Boxes Etc., Inc.

6060 Cornerstone Ct., W
San Diego, California 92121-3795
Telephone: (619) 455-8800
Fax: (619) 546-7488
Web site:



Mail Boxes Etc., Inc. (MBE), a network of franchise centers that provided products and services for small businesses, generated widespread excitement among its primary customers by offering them a chance to win a free television commercial in the "See Your Small Business on the Super Bowl" campaign. Entrepreneurs were asked to write a brief essay describing their businesses and explaining what they would like to tell the public in a national television commercial. From thousands of entries Mail Boxes Etc. selected semifinalists, announced a smaller group of finalists several weeks later, and then named the winner a few weeks before the Super Bowl. Mail Boxes Etc. paid more than $1 million for a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl and gave the spot to the winner of the contest. The campaign allowed the company to demonstrate its dedication to the small businesses that made up the bulk of its clientele. Through news releases, promotions at Mail Boxes Etc. outlets, and word of mouth, the "See Your Small Business on the Super Bowl" campaign generated publicity for months before and after the single airing of the winner's commercial. The campaign was handled by Kenneth C. Smith Advertising. It was launched in 1997 and was still running in 1999.


"Making Business Easier. Worldwide," was the corporate slogan for Mail Boxes Etc., a company that provided one-stop business, communication, and postal services in convenient locations such as shopping centers and commercial complexes. The typical Mail Boxes Etc. center was an independently owned and operated franchise where customers could make black-and-white or color photocopies, send and receive fax transmissions, transfer money, purchase office supplies, have documents notarized, have passport photographs taken, use computer workstations, rent mailboxes, have items packaged and shipped, and receive packages delivered by companies such as United Parcel Service of America, Inc. (UPS). The firm had begun in 1980 when Anthony DeSio opened a small business where customers could rent mailboxes and buy postage stamps. The company soon began offering voice mail and other services for customers with home offices and small businesses, and within one year it sold its first franchise. Mail Boxes Etc. had 1,000 franchises in operation by 1990, double that number by 1993, and more than 3,700 by 1998, making it the largest operation of its type in the world. In November 1997 Mail Boxes Etc. became a subsidiary of U.S. Office Products Company, a firm that provided business services, office supplies, office furniture, and break-room products such as coffee to corporations, schools, and other organizations.

Early advertising for Mail Boxes Etc. included only sporadic use of television, but by 1996 the company was spending about $12 million annually for national television commercials. The tag line for most of its ads that year was, "It's not what we do, it's how we do it." A holiday campaign launched in November 1996 carried the tag line, "If you can dream it up, we can pack it up and get it there." Those television commercials emphasized that Mail Boxes Etc. could handle packages of any size or shape. Earlier in the year, during the Super Bowl, Mail Boxes Etc. had run a $1.2 million television commercial that featured the Oscar Mayer "Wienermobile," a 27-foot-long vehicle shaped like a frankfurter. The Wienermobile's driver was depicted as the "ultimate road warrior," a customer who depended on Mail Boxes Etc. to provide services that a business owner needed while making frequent trips. During the Super Bowl in January 1997 the company ran a pleasant television commercial that showed a seaplane charter service making photocopies, sending fax transmissions, and shipping salmon at a Mail Boxes Etc. franchise in an isolated Alaskan community. For the next Super Bowl the company emphasized its commitment to small business by giving its television commercial to one of its customers in the "See Your Small Business on the Super Bowl" campaign.


The "See Your Small Business on the Super Bowl" contest was open to U.S. companies with no more than 20 workers, self-employed entrepreneurs, and independent contractors who worked at home or in small offices. In a news release the company's president and chief executive officer, James Amos, said, "Mail Boxes Etc. is committed to serving the small-business market, and we wanted to demonstrate our dedication by featuring a small business during our commercial." In another news release Amos said: "Entrepreneurs … work long and hard to realize their dreams of owning a business. Small-business people are succeeding in every town in America. Their ambition and commitment deserve to be showcased on the Super Bowl, alongside commercials from some of the biggest companies in the world."

During the 1990s the number of small firms and home-based businesses in the United States increased rapidly. These consumers appreciated the convenience of a one-stop center where they could purchase office supplies, mail letters and packages, and use photocopy machines and other equipment that they did not have in their own offices. Many patrons used Mail Boxes Etc. to conduct business while they were away from home. In addition to its franchise outlets the company operated MBE Business Express centers in four major hotel chains for the convenience of business travelers. These unstaffed self-service centers—activated by the swipe of a credit card—featured photocopy machines, fax machines, computer workstations, Internet connections, and E-mail capabilities. Customers could also call a nearby Mail Boxes Etc. outlet from the business center to arrange for binding, packing, shipping, and other projects. In September 1998 Mail Boxes Etc. introduced MBE Online, an Internet site designed to help small-business owners with sales and marketing, business opportunities, human resources and management, professional and personal development, and strategies for investing money and retiring from a career. The package of services was intended to help entrepreneurs compete in the global marketplace.


In November 1998 Mitch and Tracey Spence of Windsor, Wisconsin, won $50,000 when they mailed a package at a Mail Boxes Etc. (MBE) franchise and were given a scratch-off game card. They used the cash as down payment on a home. The owner of the Mail Boxes Etc. location commented: "It is such a thrill to be a part of this. I opened this MBE center about seven years ago, and it is really remarkable to be able to give something like this back to one of my customers. It's not every day that you help someone realize the American dream of owning a home." Among 7.5 million cards that Mail Boxes Etc. distributed during the promotion, the Spences' was the only one that awarded the bearer $50,000 in cash. Other customers won prizes such as free photocopies, a laptop computer, and a Hawaiian vacation.


Mail Boxes Etc. dominated the business-services category. It competed with mail and parcel center franchise networks such as Pak Mail, Parcel Plus, PostNet, and Postal Annex+in addition to copy-service stores and office-supply stores. Companies that delivered letters and packages competed with Mail Boxes Etc. but sometimes also formed cooperative agreements with it. One of the nation's largest postal operations was the United States Postal Service, an independent government agency that reported sales of $60 billion in 1998. Mail and packages that customers brought to Mail Boxes Etc. outlets were transferred to the Postal Service or another carrier for delivery. Mail Boxes Etc. served as a drop-off point for UPS, one of the leading carriers. In 1998 UPS reported sales of $25 billion. Mail Boxes Etc. offered express shipping services through an agreement with another large transportation company, Federal Express Corporation (FedEx). For the fiscal year ended May 31, 1998, FedEx had revenues of $13.3 billion.

A primary rival for Mail Boxes Etc. was Kinko's, Inc., a network of business service centers with estimated sales totaling $1 billion in 1998. Kinko's had started by providing self-service photocopy machines to the public but had expanded into package mailing, binding and finishing, custom printing, computer rentals, and other business services. A large percentage of its customers operated small or home-based businesses. Kinko's installed high-speed Internet connections at its outlets and in 1997 formed a partnership with Microsoft Corporation's Hotmail to begin offering E-mail and communications services via the World Wide Web. Access to the Internet was included in the $12-an-hour fee that the company charged to use its computer workstations. The new service was publicized via online advertising, direct mailings to 300,000 customers, screen savers on computers at Kinko's centers, and promotional materials in Kinko's stores. The firm's general advertising slogan, "The new way to office," was introduced during the Super Bowl in 1996 and ran through 1998. The $20 million campaign was intended to emphasize the company's technological capabilities and to depict Kinko's as the best one-stop business center for consumers in the age of "virtual" offices.

Another major competitor, TRM Corporation, operated more than 33,000 TRM Copy Centers in outlets such as drug stores, hardware stores, convenience stores, gift shops, and stationery shops. Each TRM center featured a self-service photocopy machine, a machine stand, and promotional signs. TRM had sales of $57 million in 1998. In addition to photocopy centers Mail Boxes Etc. competed with office-supply stores, which often featured self-service photocopiers and other business equipment. One of the largest was Staples, Inc., which sold everything from pens and paper to telephones, computers, and software. Its humorous and popular "Yeah, We've Got That" advertising campaign, aimed at small-business owners and the general public, began airing on national television and occasionally on the radio in 1997 and continued into 1998. It was the second largest office supply store in North America that year, behind Office Depot, Inc., and ahead of OfficeMax, Inc.


In the "See Your Small Business on the Super Bowl" campaign, owners of small businesses throughout the United States were invited to describe in no more than 100 words how their operations showed the entrepreneurial spirit, why they should appear in a Mail Boxes Etc. commercial, and what they would say about their businesses to Super Bowl viewers. Entry forms were available at Mail Boxes Etc. franchises and at the company's Internet site. For the 1997–98 contest each of three finalists received $1,000, while the winner received a 30-second commercial and an additional $10,000. For the 1998–99 contest the second and third place winners received $2,000 each, while the first place winner received $5,000 and a free commercial. In 1998 Mail Boxes Etc. budgeted $16 million for advertising, according to Adweek. The company also used news releases and media coverage to generate excitement among entrepreneurs as the sweepstakes progressed. "On Super Bowl Sunday, during the big game, after a grand half-time show, in front of a huge audience, and among commercials for some of the largest corporations in the world, a monumental event will occur for one very small business," said one news release.

From several thousand contestants who entered the sweepstakes during September and October of 1997, 10 semifinalists were filmed in mini-commercials as part of the screening process, and three finalists were selected in early January 1998. The first made unique dog carriers; the second made customized bicycles; and the third made pocket-size air pumps that could be used to inflate basketballs, the liners of football helmets, and other sporting equipment in locations such as playing fields, parks, and beaches. The winner, Pocket Pumps, was announced on January 21, 1998, at the Super Bowl media party hosted by Mail Boxes Etc. at Sea World California. Robert Lange and Charles Davey, the owners of Pocket Pumps, appeared in the $1.3 million television commercial within a commercial during the Super Bowl on January 25, displaying their hand-held, squeezeaction air pump. In addition to demonstrating how the pump could inflate sports balls, the ad used trick photography to show the pump inflating and deflating Davey's head. The spot was produced on a low budget but was seen by an estimated 140 million viewers at a particularly exciting moment in the third quarter of the game. "It may be the biggest advertising touchdown any small business has ever scored," a news release noted. "Pocket Pump may also claim the unofficial title of 'Smallest Business to Advertise on the Super Bowl.'"

During the spring of 1998 other press releases tracked the progress of Pocket Pumps after the airing of the commercial, and the continued media exposure maintained public interest in the sweepstakes. Mail Boxes Etc. followed with the "See Your Small Business on the Super Bowl Search II" from August 1 through October 15. Twenty semifinalists were selected in November, 10 finalists were announced in December, and Jeremy's MicroBatch Ice Creams was named the winner on January 11, 1999. The home-based enterprise was owned by Jeremy Kraus, a 22-year-old entrepreneur who had used a mailbox at Mail Boxes Etc. as his business address when he sold ice cream during his years as a student at the University of Pennsylvania. Kraus wrote on his sweepstakes entry form: "Using MBE on the Penn campus made it possible for me to juggle school and my business. I am now my own boss, and heading a rapidly growing and delicious company." The $1.6 million commercial for Jeremy's MicroBatch Ice Creams aired during the second quarter of the Super Bowl on January 31. In conjunction with the second contest Mail Boxes Etc. also ran a national sweepstakes that awarded a trip for two to attend the Super Bowl game at Pro Player Stadium in Miami. The contest was not limited to owners of small businesses. The winner, announced in January 1999, was selected by random drawing from more than 18,000 entries. The prize included round-trip airfare, four days' and five nights' lodging, and tickets to the Super Bowl.


Advertising Age called the "See Your Small Business on the Super Bowl" campaign the best idea among all the commercials that ran during the Super Bowl in both 1998 and 1999. The first winner in the contest, Pocket Pump, had received about 10 telephone orders a day for its product before the commercial aired. After the Super Bowl the company's orders skyrocketed to more than 6,000 calls a day. Pocket Pump's revenues for the first quarter of 1998 were 150 percent higher than its total revenues for the previous year. When Pocket Pump donated $5,000 of its newfound wealth to a San Diego burn center in April 1998, Mail Boxes Etc. matched the donation, a gesture that generated news coverage in several publications. In 1997 Mail Boxes Etc. ranked eighth in Success magazine's "Top 200 Franchises." For several years Entrepreneur magazine listed Mail Boxes Etc. among the top 10 franchises of all kinds, and in 1997, 1998, and 1999 the magazine named Mail Boxes Etc. as the number-one postal and business service franchise.


Associated Press. "Advertisers Go Long in Super Bowl Spots." Chicago Sun-Times (Financial Section), December 9, 1997.

Garfield, Bob. "High Voltage: A Shocking Development for the Budweiser Frogs: Bud Lizards Electrify Super Bowl Ads." Advertising Age, January 26, 1998.

―――――――. "Super Bust: How Bad Were Bowl Ads? Best Starred Losing Candidate, Pigeons, Mosquito." Advertising Age, January 27, 1997.

Gantenbein, Barry. "Contest Can Give Small Business 30 Seconds of Fame." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Business Section), October 13, 1997.

Goldfisher, Alastair. "Super Bowl Commercial up for Grabs." The Business Journal-San Jose, September 14, 1998.

Johnson, Christina S. "Local Entrepreneurs Pumped over Ad During Super Bowl." San Diego Daily Transcript, January 27, 1998.

"Mail Boxes Etc. Announces Second National Search for a Small Business to Feature on Super Bowl Commercial." Business Wire, August 3, 1998.

"Pocket Pump Named Winner in Mail Boxes Etc.'s 'See Your Small Business on the Super Bowl' Search: Small-Business Owners Featured in Mail Boxes Etc.'s Super Bowl Commercial." Business Wire, January 22, 1998.

"Super Bowl Ad Meter Results." USA Today, January 31, 1999.

"Ten Entrepreneurs Named Semi-Finalists in Mail Boxes Etc.'s 'See Your Small Business on the Super Bowl' Search." Business Wire, December 1, 1997.

                                              Susan Risland