Enveloped in Profits

A Hawaiian greeting card company appeals to da local ‘kine’ people.

April, 2001

In a $7 billion industry where 85 percent of the market share belongs to Hallmark, Gibson Greetings and American Greetings, a Hawaii-based greeting-card company has captured the hearts and wallets of local consumers. Maile Way Products Inc., named after a street on the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus, is the brainchild of four former UH students with a shared passion for art and humor. Their greeting cards star cartoon characters that behave and speak in ways that only Islanders would understand.

Albeit Maile Way cards are available at more than 80 major drugstores and retail outlets across Hawaii, competing against national brands still is a challenge. “Hallmark and American Greetings are the giants, and whatever leftover space these stores have is for Hawaiian cards,” says Gayle Machida, president of Maile Way.

The company maximizes store displays to their full capacity. Approximately 48 different card designs can be accommodated on a standing spin rack, while a wall rack can hold about 36. And the strategy works. “We have a defined niche market,” Machida says. “All the other cards from Hawaii have Hawaiian designs and are meant for tourists. We offer something different to our customers. Our cards have an understanding of the local culture.”

When a new card design is launched, it doesn’t land at stores overnight. “It takes a long time,” Isono says. “The cards go back and forth between the artists and the graphic artist until we think it will sell.” About 1,000 first editions are printed before Maile Way managers decide whether or not to run a second printing.Maile Way Products are available at select stores in San Francisco, Seattle and Las Vegas. That’s impressive for a 4-year-old small business that operates out of an Ewa Beach home and is staffed by three artists, two managers and four merchandisers who monitor sales on the neighbor Islands. While Machida and Vice President Paul Isono rely on their illustrators for the artwork, the duo splits marketing and administrative duties. A typical day may find them all over Oahu, promoting cards and restocking store displays. “Our formula right now is to take orders within half an hour to an hour, from the point of entering the store to the point of marketing the cards in the store,” Isono says. “That’s what it takes to be successful. You have to go to the stores and sell the products. You can have a great design in a card, but if it’s not for sale, you’re not going to make money.”

Money cards, a new concept this year, were popular during the holiday season. Pre-packaged cards sold in sets also were a hit. “We’re getting better in figuring out what will sell,” Isono says.

That’s an improvement from Maile Way’s start-up days, when it designed cards for all occasions, such as Children’s Day and Las Vegas vacations. Some prevailed, while others failed — such as sympathy and consolation cards — where humor wasn’t exactly appreciated.

Today, thank-you notes and birthday greetings comprise more than 50 percent of sales. The company’s most popular birthday card depicts a local guy in shorts and slippers. The message: “Auwe! I no can believe you dat old. You look so good dass why.” It’s a simple illustration but a universal message spoken in Pidgin English. Recalls Isono: “We’ve had that card since day one. It’s the local language, the T-shirt, the slippers that do it. We’ve sold thousands and thousands of that card.”

Not every card depicts stereotype islanders, however. In fact, some don’t even feature human beings. Take for example, a Chinese New Year’s card that debuted this year. On its cover is a drawing of a traditional Chinese dragon dance. Nothing is unusual about the illustration — except that the dancers are dragons, and they wear human heads. Another card shows three bonsai trees holding beer cans in their hands (or branches). The message: “Bonsai! Tree cheers for your yakudoshi.”

As long as consumers appreciate the humor in Maile Way Products, the company’s founders say they will continue to market their cards. This year they hope to launch a stationery line as well as a Web site, where customers can order items on line. “Cards are one of the low-tech wonders of humankind,” Isono says. “People will always buy cards, every generation buys cards.”


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Cathy S. Cruz