A business card is an extension of yourself, even if you’re a Wall Street investment banker who commits murderous sprees in your spare time. We’re referring to a piece of fiction, of course – dark comedy horror satire American psycho, in which Christian Bale embodies a suavely solipsistic Patrick Bateman.
“It’s bone,” he describes the color of his newly printed card, while trying to impress his materially wealthy but culturally bankrupt fellow executives. “And the lettering is something called Silian Rail.”
The scene is surprisingly iconic because status-obsessed Bateman is immediately discouraged when the other men all spring out of the same fantasy. It turns into a male ego showdown as they flaunt their expensive, but largely indistinguishable cards. While most saw this moment in pop culture as an all-out display of nonsensical male competition, printing presses around the world saw it as an aha moment that sparked more creative approaches to their craft. Ultimately, a humble business card can reveal a lot about yourself, more than you think.
This cornerstone of business stationery, which we casually stuff into our pockets and consider little more than face value, has been around for a long time in one way or another. Visiting cards were invented in China in the 15th century to announce the imminent arrival of a guest. English merchants used them as miniature advertisements in the 17th century. In present-day Japan, the card-exchanging ritual called 名刺交換 (meishi koukan) is as strict as a tea ceremony. Rather than a simple gesture of courtesy, it must be done before any formal discussion.
Exchanging business cards is as close to a universal custom as you can find in the corporate world. But with more people exchanging handshakes than handshakes on social media these days, is the longstanding business etiquette really irrelevant?
As we move into a world of digital goods and virtual interfaces, the DNA of a tactile business card is rapidly unraveling. Augmented reality (AR) beacons are affixed to cards so that 3D objects – either the employee’s face or the products being promoted – emerge when viewed with an app. In China, the practice of exchanging cards is almost obsolete as businessmen now scan each other’s QR codes, directing one to their WeChat app profile, which can also be used to book hotels and transfer money. The professional social networking service LinkedIn makes it easy to share contacts in person using Bluetooth while newer sites like Hi hello and Contexts allow users to create virtual business cards.
The pandemic has opened as many doors as it has closed. Team meetings and industry conventions can happen anytime in the world, but face-to-face networking has been reduced to a social exchange on a screen with a fake backdrop of our dream vacation . As white-collar workers flee to their home offices, global printers suffer a setback – Dutch e-tailer Vistaprint has admitted sales fell 70% earlier this year and have yet to fully recover . A post-pandemic scenario does not look promising either. Is it safe to distribute cards to potential customers? How do we disinfect them? What would well-bred Japanese people think?
Contrary to tradition, “it’s time to change people’s minds”, says Sansan Global Pte Ltd regional CEO Edward Senju, who was born to Japanese parents but grew up in Mexico. Tech start-up Unicorn Sansan (whose name is a play on the honorary title Mr or Ms in Japanese) is creating a larger digital infrastructure to fully utilize the connections established by businesses. Founded by Chikahiro Terada, Sansan designed a hybrid system that digitizes physical business cards with a scanner or mobile app. Your contact data will be securely uploaded to a cloud database and become a permanent resource that can be shared internally with colleagues. In addition to capturing basic contact information that can be integrated with other online platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Google Calendar, the Sansan app records a contact’s hobbies and even preferences that can be used to strengthen future relationships.
Although customers no longer receive the physical business cards they can scan and add to the system in this era of social distancing, Sansan adapted and launched virtual versions in the middle of last year. More than 4,300 businesses have subscribed to its QR code-based system, which can be easily placed next to your face during a video call. Your recipient just needs to scan the code on your screen for the details to appear.
Gen Z is already helping C-suite managers close more deals than expected. Los Angeles-based start-up Popl, designed just before the pandemic, leveraged Tik Tok users to promote its modern alternative to business cards. Instead of a scanner, the Popl device is a Near Field Communication (NFC)-enabled hardware tag that sticks to your phone to make sharing contacts as seamless as using Apple Pay or Apple. AirDrop. According to co-founder and CEO Jason Alvarez-Cohen, a UCLA graduate with a background in computer science, Popl has sold more than 700,000 units and generated $2.7 million in sales for its digital business card technology.
Like Popl, there are more inventors who think they have the solution to transform the traditional business card template. TouchBase Technologies, which makes paper cards with “conductive ink” that stores another person’s information by typing it on a device, maintains the presence of an actual card while using today’s touchscreen technologies. There are also other affordable wireless exchange apps that don’t require the purchase of a phone that can read NFC tags, such as Evernote’s scan feature (it costs $45 per year to scan unlimited) and CamCard (free for a limited number of scans) but they don’t provide exact customer information or work beyond recording your business encounters.
Even though a digital revolution foretold the paperless office, the rotating card file – the best known is that of leading brand Rolodex – is a trophy to display its connectivity and the size of its corporate network for the world can see it. If Steve Carell’s on-screen character, Michael Scott, in Office taught us something is that the physical business card has a logistical advantage because it’s much easier to press the paper to the palm because not everyone is equipped with the same funky apps that will invariably send an email on site to share their contact details.
Technology has reinvented the (rotary) wheel by bridging analog and digital, but new era innovations usually come at a steep price. Even if you can’t afford fancy stationery (again, the color isn’t white, but “bone”), seriously giving away a two-handed physical card is a no-cost strategy that will always make a first impression. sustainable.
This article was first published on November 1, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.