Card sharp

spring2015 cards The rolodex may have rolled off the desk. Your diary may have had its day. Yet the good old business card is proving remarkably resilient.  For swapping  business cards remains as close to a universal ritual as you can find in the corporate world.

Apparently the Chinese invented calling cards in the 15th century to forewarn of a visit. European merchants invented trade cards in the 17th century to act as miniature advertisements. Even today the design and quality of a corporate business card is as important if not more so as the cut and cloth of your suit. A pocket presence. A pint-sized reminder of a first meeting.

Of course their range is as diverse as the employees that carry them: printed on one or two sides; in two languages; any number of colours; with or without cut outs; embossed or not; 200g, 300g or 400g weight; smooth or textured; matt laminated or not; gold or silver leaf for the flashy; scented even for the floral...

Yet, the deeply rooted business card has nonetheless evolved with the times and technology. Consider the ease of QR capture to a LinkedIn profile – that square bar code forced unceremoniously on reluctant designers. Contrast the care with which a Japanese businessman will present you his card – with the flippancy of throwing one’s card into some reception desk bowl in the hope of a special prize.
And today its role goes wider. Despite the reach of LinkdedIn, today’s job seekers are still advised by outplacement firms and recruiters to consider a personal business card, with lasting personal details in anticipation of a chance meeting that may promise more.

While companies in Europe may be flat and seemingly enlightened, status still counts in some spheres such as Asia. There, business cards have become something of an obsession. The Chinese are following the Japanese in treating them as semi-sacred objects. Some businessmen hand out 24-carat gold cards. Nursery-school children sometimes carry cards not only with their own contact details, but also with the job titles of their parents and even grandparents.

Some companies succeed in turning their cards into miniature promotions for their products and services. Take the handkerchief manufacturer with a plain white square; the personal trainer whose card has a detachable paunch; and the landscaping firm whose card includes a pocket with grass seeds. Or McDonald’s, whose business cards are shaped like a portion of fries. Employees at Lego give out miniature plastic figures with their contact details stamped on them. To cap it all, there’s a divorce lawyer who gave out cards that can be torn in two—one half each for the warring husband and wife.

You would think that the slight business card would have bitten the dust by now in this age of swapping data via smart phone. Though others would argue that today it’s even more important.

As The Economist columnist Schumpeter1 points out... That business cards are thriving in a digital age is a forceful reminder that there is much about business that is timeless. Take, for instance, the eternal and inescapable question of whether you can trust someone. The number of things that machines can do better than humans grows by the day. But they cannot look people in the eye and decide what sort of person they are. And they cannot transform acquaintanceships into relationships. A good deal of business life will always be about building social bonds—having dinner with people, playing sport with them, even getting drunk with them—and the more that machines take over the quantitative stuff the more human beings will have to focus on the touchy-feely.’

The rapid advance of both globalisation and virtualisation means that this trust-building process is becoming ever more demanding. Managers have to work harder at establishing trust with people from different cultures: chief executives of global organisations routinely spend three out of every four weeks travelling. They also have to get better at using personal meetings to reinforce bonds that were first formed over the phone or internet.

Cards can also act as a physical reminder that you have actually met someone rather than just Googled them. They’re also evidence that hierarchy still matters. Indeed swapping business cards is not just a way of sparking a conversation. It is a way of placing people correctly in the pecking-order without the embarrassment of asking them their formal title. ‘As “wearables” go, this is a killer app,’ says Schumpeter.

1Schumpeter, The Economist, 14 March 2015