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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Buying a greeting card for someone's birthday, anniversary or if they're feeling under the weather is pretty straightforward.
But what if they're undergoing chemotherapy or struggling with depression?
"Get well soon" probably won't cut it.
Likewise, most cards lining the store shelves don't work on such occasions as someone leaving an abusive spouse, undergoing drug rehab or declaring their sexual orientation.
Hallmark Cards Inc., which has built its $4.2 billion empire on sentiments for life's happier times, is releasing a new line of cards that will speak to those and other situations that the company says have either been ignored by greeting card companies or received only a smattering of attention from niche players.
For illness: "Cancer is a villain who doesn't play fair ... but it can't dim your spirit, and it can't silence prayer."
For eating disorders: "All I want is for you to be healthy -- healthy and happy with yourself. Please take it one day at a time until you are."
For depression: "When the world gets heavy, remember, I'm here to help carry it with you."
The 176-card collection, called Journeys, went on sale Thursday at Hallmark's 3,800 Gold Crown stores.
Cynthia Musick, the editorial director who oversaw Journeys, said the cards' writing provides more personal messages of support, encouragement and hope, for which the company's research showed there was a demand.
Theresa Steffens, an assistant product manager at Hallmark, said a majority of online and focus group respondents said they couldn't find what they were looking for when needing an encouragement card.
"Either the consumer said they were walking away from the display or they were just unhappy with the card that they purchased, so we saw this as a huge opportunity," Steffens said.
Customers said they wanted cards dealing with more real-life situations.
"They said, 'I don't know what to say during a difficult time, so I don't say anything at all,'" Steffens said. "So again there's an opportunity there to help them talk through these tough situations that they're dealing with and to foster that communication."
The $7 billion greeting card industry already brims with tiny niche players who make and sell cards dealing with such things as serious illness or thanking caregivers, said Barbara Miller, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based Greeting Card Association.
But she said none of them have the ability to reach customers searching for those types of cards across the country.
"My guess is it's a breakthrough for a large company like a Hallmark," she said.
The new line includes cards tackling cancer diagnoses, quitting smoking, caring for an aged parent, miscarriage, anniversaries of loss, loved ones in the military and traumatic loss, such as someone dying in an accident or homicide.
Others are more happy and even humorous, celebrating a year being cancer-free, nearing the end of chemotherapy or general encouragement for teenagers. There are even a few birthday cards encouraging the recipient to celebrate even though they've had a rough year.
Some cards feature whimsical or inspiring photographs -- a baby making faces, a marathon runner -- but the majority feature abstract designs or just words in flowing script. Card designers said they aimed for bright colors that matched the mood of the card, ranging from bright orange for the more hopeful cards to purples and blues for somber notes.
Writing the cards proved a challenge because the messages were designed to take a more personal approach than the standard sympathy card, said card writer Sarah Mueller.
"You can't send somebody who is seriously depressed a 'cheer-up' card because it's insulting and it doesn't help," Mueller said. "That's what depression does, is it makes you feel like you're all alone. So just being able to write something, the attempt was just to say, 'I'm here."'
Fellow card writer Linda Morris said society has become more open to discussing people's feelings on difficult topics, such as divorce or drug recovery or serious illness, which is why people are demanding cards that deal with those issues.
"There was a time when we weren't so detached, when writing a note to someone was very simple, when picking up the phone and calling was just what you did," Morris said. "So cards fulfilling that need in that specific way may not have been quite as intense. But now we need to know and we need to pull back from the electronic age and we need to be more specific because it's not as detached anymore."
No topics were off-limits, said company spokeswoman Rachel Bolton, noting two cards that could be sent to gay people who have disclosed their sexuality. The cards don't directly refer to homosexuality, only extolling the person to "Be You" or "This is who I am" or featuring a rainbow, a symbol of gay pride.
Bolton said the writing is general enough for other uses, however, with one focus group member saying they would send it to a friend starting a new job.
"Our findings determined that people didn't want to be labeled or identified," Bolton said. "We want to be inclusive and not exclusive."
Steffens said Hallmark is limiting Journeys to its Gold Crown stores because research showed those customers devoted the most time to selecting a card and Journeys invites a great deal of reading. But she said the company may eventually target a smaller range of the cards for hospital gift shops and some drug stores.
While Miller, with the Greeting Card Association, said the greeting card market is largely stable these days, Steffens said the Journeys line could help Hallmark move the needle a little bit, especially with customers who haven't bought cards because they couldn't find what they needed.
"We're aware (Journeys) won't be as successful dollarwise as (humor-related line) Shoebox because they're more specific," Steffens said. "We're prepared for that. We believe it hits a completely different market."