From an early age, teen brothers Chase and Cruze Brown noticed a lack of diverse representation when it came to birthday and holiday cards. So the New York City artists decided to do something about it: They launched 2 Brown Boys, a line of greeting cards elevating Black joy with a Gen-Z vibe, which has brought them enthusiastic support in the form of local press coverage and online shoppers.
"We never saw [authentic] versions of ourselves, as Black people, or any other minorities," Chase, 17, tells Yahoo Life about what inspired them to get into the business. And they're not alone.
Hundreds of new card companies are launched each year, most by Millennials, according to a 2020 study from the Greeting Card Association, an 81-year-old U.S. trade association for the $7.3 billion industry. And as new lines evolve "to meet the needs of the selective consumer," that means creating products that appear to have been "produced just for them or their loved ones," notes the GCA website.
Given that Millennials and Gen Z have a "very different approach" to inclusion, explains Nora Weiser, executive director of the GCA, they also have high expectations when it comes to seeing diversity reflected in products they purchase. It's why the association aims to elevate independent card makers through funding, industry partnerships and other initiatives — such as its Black Pitch Program, which has cultivated collections like the Black Joy Papers.
"Millennials, surprisingly, buy a lot of cards," says Weiser. In fact, since 2015, those born between 1981 and 1995 have purchased more cards than any other demographic in the country, according to the GCA. And those consumers expect a more "personal experience" with cards than in generations past.
Enter the new crop of card makers.
Some major brands in the greeting card industry have expanded their collections to be more inclusive, such as Hallmark’s Mahogany line, which celebrates Black womanhood.
Still, some experts say it's been a slow burn to see the growing diversity reflected on shelves of U.S. retailers — and that there's a variety of reasons why, beginning with the physical size of some.
"They don't have space for a zillion different cards... so I think, for some of the stores, it can be challenging," says Ginger McCleskey, a sales rep and retail consultant in the industry for over 30 years, about smaller boutiques. While the "traditional" model has been to stock stores with generic birthday, graduation, get well or congratulatory cards, McCleskey says as the consumer population shifts, so will the variety of their products.
"It depends on where they are, what their neighborhood is and who their customers are. Certainly some of them will know their customer base well enough to say, 'Hey, I definitely have a market for this,' and they'll embrace that,'" she explains.
Susana Sanchez-Young, an art director at the Los Angeles Times, tells Yahoo Life she was inspired to create more space for Latinx greeting cards when she saw there was nothing there for her.
“I didn't see something out there that was accessible for someone like me,” she says. “I thought to myself, maybe I should try to make something.” That idea eventually became the Designing Chica, an online store she began 11 years ago while pregnant with her first child, selling greeting cards and other merchandise elevating the Latinx community.
“The response has been amazing,” Sanchez-Young, who is half Nicaraguan and half Honduran, says of her designs, which feature images celebrating holidays like the Day of the Dead and other Latinx themes. “When people see my cards, they say, ‘I’m so thankful I met you because you have cards with things my abuelita [grandma] says, things my mom says.’ You don’t see things like that in larger markets or in large stores.”
Another card maker, Jesus Ruvalcaba, a graphic designer and the son of two Mexican immigrants, remembers seeing a major gap in Latinx representation in 2016, when he went looking for a birthday card for his mom.
“They had a pretty good selection of Spanish-language cards, but I couldn't find anything that was a fit for my mom's personality or her sense of humor," he tells Yahoo Life. A year later, Ruvalcaba launched Paper Tacos, a greeting card business focusing on Mexican culture and traditions, now available online and select stores across the U.S.
“We're a lot more than just the [Spanish] language,” he says of the Mexican-American community. “We have our own culture, which incorporates food, the language and the music that we listen to.”
Personal connection seems to be key to Paper Tacos’s success. In one design, Ruvalcaba used inspiration from a song his mom sang to him whenever he got sick as a child: “Sana sana colita de rana. Si no sanas hoy, sanarás mañana” (“Heal heal little frog tail. If you don't heal today, you will heal tomorrow”). That get-well card wound up being one of his top sellers.
“Me and every buddy that comes from Latin America knows this song,” he explains. “So, I used that as a ‘get well’ card and people loved it. They see it and they're like, ‘Oh my god, I remember my mom used to say that to me, or my grandma used to sing that to me.’”
He adds, “I've had people literally cry when they see one of my cards, because they reminisce on what that meant to them."
Fear of being 'too political'
Such cultural specificities can help card recipients "feel less alone," believes Janine Kwoh, the owner and designer of Kwohtations, an inclusive greeting card company based out of New York City.
"It's a way for me to tell myself the things I think I need to hear," Kwoh tells Yahoo Life of her thought process behind designing cards, which she's done full time since 2018. "In response, I think a lot of people say, 'Oh, this is me,' or 'I'm also going through this,' or 'I also needed to hear this.'"
Kwoh's simple, whimsical designs touch on an array of experiences, such as non-traditional parenting, death and other life transitions, often using humor to deal with an array of relatable topics from quitting your job to surviving generally hard times.
"I think there's still a misconception that cards that feature people of color or interracial relationships or celebrate things like gender transitions are 'too niche' to have actual market demand, which I disagree with," says Kwoh, whose cards are sold in indie shops in 39 states. "I think there's also fear of being, like, 'too controversial' or 'too political.'"
"I don't really think there's anything controversial about making cards that celebrate people for who they are," she adds.
That's a thought that resonates with British-based Zimbabwean designer Avila Diana Chidume, who says that, growing up, she never received a card with authentic representations of Black culture. It inspired her to launch Avila.Diana, offering cards, stationery and other gifts celebrating Black beauty and culture now stocked by retailers across the U.K., Germany and Nigeria.
“It's amazing to see the general support of people who are finally waking up to the fact that all these marginalized groups exist — that everyone has a birthday," Chidume tells Yahoo Life. “Why can't we have products that are more inclusive and make people feel wanted or special?”
“[People] get so excited when they see a card that looks like them,” she adds. “They have the same hair, they have the same outfit and everything, and they just got so excited saying, ‘Mom, that looks like me.’ My heart, to this day, feels like it's gonna explode whenever I think about that.”
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