This Is a Mostly True Story About… Business Cards
Think Covid kills the centuries-old practice of sharing cards? Think again.
No one has been murdered yet.
It is late in the morning. Roughly half a dozen sharply dressed vice presidents from investment banking firm Pierce & Pierce sit around a mahogany conference table, trading thinly veiled barbs and humblebrags disguised as small talk: the hot new restaurant where one of the lowly VPs improbably snagged a reservation, the status of an ongoing deal. Then the real measuring contest begins.
One of the vice presidents — a young, well-dressed man named Patrick Bateman — whips out a 2-by-3.5-inch white rectangle as if unsheathing a sword. “New card,” he says, beaming from behind his stylish Oliver Peoples glasses. “What do you think?”
“Whoa, very nice,” says one of the vice presidents admiringly. Another compliments Bateman on the color of the card. “That’s bone,” Bateman says proudly. “And the lettering is something called Silian Rail.”
But his satisfaction doesn’t last long. “It is very cool, Bateman, but that’s nothing,” boasts another vice president, David Van Patten, slapping his own card down on the table. “Look at this.” The others ooh and ahh over the crisp, white cardstock and tasteful typeface as Van Patten turns to Bateman to ask what he thinks.
“Nice,” he mumbles, his discomfort starting to manifest physically.
“But wait,” teases another vice president, Timothy Bryce. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Price sets his own card on the table as he rattles off its attributes: “Raised lettering, pale nimbus, white.”
By now, the other vice presidents have been humbled. But Bateman, his face wracked with anxiety, can barely bring himself to speak. “Impressive,” he stammers. “Very nice. Let’s see Paul Allen’s card.” Allen produces the trump card: an elegant, ivory-colored rectangle with embossed letters.
“Look at that subtle off-white coloring. The tasteful thickness of it. Oh my God, it even has a watermark,” Bateman thinks to himself. He holds up the card, but his hand starts to shake, and the card falls to the table.
“Is something wrong?” one of Bateman’s colleagues asks. “Patrick . . . you’re sweating.”
Though that scene — from American Psycho, starring Christian Bale as Bateman, the titular psycho — is now 20 years old, it remains arguably the most famous scene in American cinema to pay homage to the humble business card, those simple paper rectangles that convey, at a minimum, where we work, what we do, and how to reach us.
Few staples of corporate culture can boast the longevity and sheer durability of business cards, which, according to various historical accounts, date back five centuries. Remarkably, business cards have fended off one technological advance after another, from US Robotics’ Palm Pilot — a handheld personal communications device rolled out in the late ’90s that went the way of cassette tapes — to various would-be card-killer apps that launched to great fanfare, only to quietly fold just a few years later.
Indeed, at the start of this year, business cards seemed more popular than ever. A Wall Street Journal story published in January incredulously marveled at their “extraordinary staying power.” Executives from DIY business-card printing companies MOO and Vistaprint told the paper that sales growth for their card-printing divisions was strong and growing.
That was, of course, before the coronavirus pandemic began in earnest. As the virus began to spread globally, corporate offices worldwide shut down almost instantly, and face-to-face meetings, conferences, and other networking events vaporized overnight. The exchange of business cards also vanished like one of Patrick Bateman’s victims.
What does this drastic turn of events mean, then, for the future of business cards? After hundreds of years in existence, and numerous failed technological attempts to render them obsolete, will the coronavirus finally kill the humble business card?
As a professional public speaker and founder of SMB Strategic Media, which provides branding and communications strategies for midsize and large businesses, Brown views business cards as an important tool for generating leads. When she speaks at conferences, Brown likes to offer a freebie — say, a quick reference guide on the topic she’s speaking about — in exchange for an attendee’s business card. Since many of the organizations she speaks to don’t provide attendee lists, this helps her build her own.
And as a visual person, Brown says they help her make mental connections with the many people she meets. “I call myself a business-card savant,” she says. “I literally can meet someone and I associate what they look like and what they said to me with their business card, so when I come across their business card on my desk or the little envelope I keep things in, I know exactly who they are.”
But even as a die-hard business-card fan, she has her doubts about their future, owing to the lack of face-to-face meetings. And that’s not to mention the possible fear of germ spread from the physical contact a business-card exchange requires once meetings do start happening again. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is possible to contract the coronavirus by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching your mouth or nose, or possibly your eyes, though this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.)
Says Brown: “The business card is on life support.”
Consultant, author, entrepreneur, and design professor Nathan Shedroff agrees that they are in trouble — “Given what’s going on now, it’s certainly a more reasonable, rational time to be questioning business cards than in the past,” he says — but he thinks they will pull through.
“I don’t actually think business cards are going to go away,” says Shedroff, who teaches at the California College of the Arts. “They’ve survived this long miraculously already, in the face of technology trying to kill them and social convention trying to kill them. I think that’s mostly because it’s a nice ritual. It’s this moment of gift-giving back and forth, hopefully reciprocally, that there’s no replacement for.”
That ritual traces its roots back to China in the 15th century, when the Chinese began to use calling cards as a way of telling people they planned to visit. By the 17th century, merchants in Europe had developed trade cards that served as advertisements for their businesses.
In some cultures, the ritual of exchanging business cards is downright ceremonial. “The importance of this small object in modern Japanese society is such that I cannot help but compare it to the katana — the sword of ancient feudal warriors, once considered the soul of the samurai,” observed social anthropologist Maxime Polleri in a 2017 essay in Anthropology Today, noting that while a business card “does not empower its holder to behead those without one for a lack of respect,” not having one is considered unacceptable in the Japanese business world. So is exchanging cards haphazardly.
“Accepting the business card with both hands and taking the time to read what is engraved on it is a ritualized practice that is taken seriously in Japan. A business card is, in many ways, accepted as a gift, and implies reciprocity such that it is never simply received, but always exchanged. Not adhering to this pattern is also perceived as a major blunder in Japanese etiquette.”
Dominique Mielle, a former partner and senior portfolio manager at investment firm Canyon Partners, confirms this, having spent years doing business in Asia. She says that while forgetting to bring a business card in the U.S. and Europe is not a big deal, in Japan “it would be like if you refused to shake hands.”
The exchange of business cards in the U.S. is far less formal, of course — as are the cards themselves. Some are downright irreverent, particularly in the creative and technology fields.
Take the early business card of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. According to a 2015 Economist article, the card read simply, “I’m CEO, bitch.” (Zuckerberg now carries around “a sensible, grown-up version,” according to the article.) Or those handed out by Lego employees (minifigures stamped with contact details), McDonald’s executives (shaped like an order of the fast-food chain’s famous French fries), or a Canadian divorce lawyer whose cards can be torn in half — one for each spouse, the Economist article noted.
“A good business card has a lot of personality,” says Shedroff. “They give an opportunity for someone to express something about themselves or their company that doesn’t come in just exchanging your contact info.”
A bad business card can do the opposite: Think background colors that clash with the type, tacky typefaces — or, perhaps worst of all, the square-shaped card. (When I once ran into a contact I hadn’t seen in a while, I asked him for his new card. “I’m sorry,” he said sheepishly as he handed me a square card, explaining that it wasn’t his idea.)
“The one design decision that I think ends up working in people’s favor almost all the time is to use a noticeably thick paper,” says Shedroff. “It’s sort of like a firm handshake. It’s immediate. It doesn’t derail your attention that much and become its own focus, but it’s a nice reinforcement of quality.” (An added bonus: “It’s awesome in raffles,” he says. “If you go to a sandwich shop or a restaurant that has a ‘put your business card in for a free lunch’ [contest], often when people rummage around in those things, the thicker the card stock, the easier it is to grab.”)
But a good business card can also perform a far more important function, according to Edouard Robbes, partner and chief commercial officer at derivatives brokerage and capital introduction firm Thalēs Trading Solutions.
“It’s kind of a first impression,” he says. A good business card “has a certain thickness to it — while remaining quite simple, with a thoughtful design that reflects on your brand.” And in times of distress, your brand is more important than ever.
“Your brand is what’s there when nothing else is there,” he says. “Your brand is what will save you when you’re in a drawdown.”
“If we are all going to be working from home and meeting on Zoom, why will we need them?” asked David Frankel, who describes himself in his bio as an entrepreneur and adviser.
David Snow, partner at Privcap Media, responded: “They are toast. So is the tie. So are all-male C-suites.”
But the business card, as I learned, also has many passionate fans. There’s something about them that can be oddly emotional, whether stirring up memories of past jobs and colleagues or serving as bittersweet reminders of more optimistic times.
“I launched a new business six months ago, a month or two before the shutdown,” explains Adam Weiner, founder of Arrowpath Advisors, a strategy and communications firm. “I have a box of business cards that’s been securely ensconced on the far corner of my coffee-table/auxiliary desk since February. They are a visible reminder to me that things don’t go as planned, and you have to adapt.”
Karen Witham, director of communications at the Defined Contribution Institutional Investment Association, described how she felt when, while packing for an upcoming move, she stumbled across several binders filled with old business cards. “Looking through them was like finding old letters,” she says. “There’s an emotional, sentimental attachment for something tangible. The pragmatic side of me thinks they should and might possibly go the way of the Rolodex and the typewriter. But sentimentally it’s nice to have something tangible.”
She’s not alone in her thinking. Adam Depelteau, senior product manager for business cards at Vistaprint, said in an email that while his company suffered a decline in demand for business-card printing services as the shutdowns began back in March, the company has since seen a rebound in demand, including some “new and reinvigorated use cases,” including for contact-tracing information.
“If we do have physical meetings again and we don’t want to shake hands, but we are sort of okay exchanging papers and documents, in a way business cards could be a replacement for the handshake,” says Mielle, the former Canyon partner.
To that end, Thalēs’ Robbes points out that business cards have survived prior pandemics, including the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918. What’s more, he says business cards have a practical function that goes beyond the purely ceremonial. Robbes says the cards have begun evolving in an intriguing direction, one that “marries the old world with the new,” as he puts it.
One example: Some asset managers have begun stamping QR codes — those black-and-white squares that can be scanned to beam information into your phone — onto the backs of their business cards, Robbes says. When prospective clients scan a card, they are taken to a registration page for an investor portal. After their bona fides are confirmed, they suddenly have access to a sophisticated, secure website that features the manager’s latest letters, presentations, risk reports, and pitch books.
Meanwhile, investment professionals can see exactly which potential clients have accessed the portal, how much time they’ve spent there, and what documents they’ve viewed, allowing them to more efficiently target their marketing efforts — rather than employing the spray-and-pray approach of sending different emails to everyone they meet at an event, for example. And the use of the technology makes them look savvy to prospects.
“Indirectly, if you have that QR code and that platform, it sends the message that you are technology driven, so if you are a sophisticated firm — and lots of hedge funds claim they are, and use technology in their process — you message that by using technology for your clients. And all of this on the very traditional business card,” Robbes enthuses. “It’s better than Patrick Bateman’s.”