Looks aren’t everything

Your company’s brochure should be about more than flashy design. It should reflect your corporate identity, but at the same time be concise and accessible to readers, says Ian Whiteling

How many corporate brochures do you have cluttering up your office – falling out of cupboards when you open the door, taking up valuable shelf space or propping up wonky tables? Go on, count them – and try not to think about how expensive they were to produce and how few you actually sent out.

You thought that all you needed was to sell one big job on the back of the brochures and they would be paid for. But not a single person’s called you on the strength it.

So why does any company decide to produce corporate literature when there are so many other options available, such as direct marketing, online campaigns, advertising or telesales.

“It was thought that new media would signal the death of corporate literature, but companies still need something to hand over because many clients want to receive something they can hold, feel and compare easily”, says Mark Turnbull, partner of London-based design consultancy Ripley Turnbull. “The Internet simply can’t do this, so the demand for corporate literature is bigger than ever.”

“Potential customers want something tangible from a company before they choose which to use,” adds Martin Rice, chief executive of design consultancy The Solution in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear. “It helps them feel good about the company they decide to work with. The Internet is better for the second stage, for servicing the client once they’ve decided to go with you.”

London designer Redhouse Lane’s head of design Raf Amato takes a more primal view. He says: “The human ritual of gift-giving and receiving itself is a compelling reason for creating a marketing brochure.”

Assuming that your company does need literature to promote its business, how can it be made to work and how can you avoid the whole process becoming a marketing horror story?

Several factors are crucial – one of the most important is to find a design consultancy that is not going to view the job as a purely cosmetic exercise. Your literature may look good, but if it doesn’t match your corporate image or market you might as well wallpaper your house with it – then at least you’ll get a reaction of some sort from visiting friends and neighbours.

“You’ve got to do a lot of thinking before you begin designing,” says Satkar Gidda, marketing director of brand design consultancy SiebertHead. “You must do your homework and look into the background of the company. This enables you to interrogate and challenge the brief and get the right result more quickly.”

You should expect a design consultancy to research your market to better understand the look and feel of the necessary literature and also to make sure that it’s different than your competitors’.

Although SiebertHead specialises in brand packaging design, the consultancy was recently asked by bank UBS Warburg to produce literature for two of its financial products. Gidda says: “We approached the job by taking the customers’ point of view. We discovered that Warburg’s products provided a full service to customers, which its competitors could not match, and came up with the visual idea of tools, because the products provide all the right tools for the job in hand. We then worked this idea into literature that was distinct, as striking as the market would allow and that fitted in with Warburg’s existing corporate identity.”

Tangential views

But why did UBS Warburg choose a company that didn’t normally produce corporate literature? “We wanted something inspiring,” says UBS Warburg marketing manager Stewart Hepburn. “SiebertHead took a tangential view and added consumer brand awareness to create a brochure that is visually intriguing with a theme that can be extended to other products.”

Choosing an agency that was clearly brand aware, Hepburn knew he would get literature that reflected the company and its market rather than just having a pretty cover.

A good way of drawing up your initial shortlist of design consultancies, and one that further emphasises the usefulness of corporate literature, is to choose those with the best brochures. After all, they should practise what they preach. Then question them about their approach. If it doesn’t involve some investigation into your market and competitors, forget it. Then ask if you can contact one or more of their clients to find out if they’re happy with the work that’s been done for them. If they refuse, what have they got to hide?

Once you have selected a good design agency that approaches its work from a marketing perspective, it’s vital that your brief is thorough. This doesn’t mean specifying size, shape or the look of the literature you want – other than supplying brand guidelines – because that’s what you’re paying the agency to think about. However, you need to specify exactly what you want the literature to do. Is it presenting your company above the line or pushing certain products? What business do you hope to gain from it? And most importantly, what is your perceived target market or markets? Once you’ve established this, don’t be afraid to look beyond the literature to different media, which may be used to support the introduction of a brochure, for instance, to a particular audience.

Core messages

“Companies are failing to maximise the opportunities that different media offer for targeting their range of literature at different readerships,” says Bernard Guly, managing director of London design consultancy View. “Take an annual report, for instance. The professional audiences of analysts and the media will be happy to access the information online. Shareholders, however, will prefer well-produced literature that will make them feel safe, secure and comfortable about their investment. As long as the core brand messages are agreed and adhered to consistently, you don’t need to stick to one medium.”

It also helps the agency if you have an idea of what you want to say. But remember – less is more. So don’t go into too much detail unless it’s absolutely necessary. Turnbull says: “If I had a pound for everyone who’s told me no one reads corporate brochures I’d be a millionaire. But that’s the whole point. Brochures are there to give an instant impression of the company. That’s why the design is so important and why it has to speak the language of the market.”

Your brochure should communicate without being read, but if it’s designed well it will also draw the viewer into the text after the initial visual impact. So the text needs to be clear, clean and precise.

SiebertHead’s work for UBS Warburg is copy-heavy because the products are complex. But striking imagery and clear diagrams get the message over quickly and effectively. How you say it is as important as what you say, so it’s crucial to strike the right pitch and tone of voice, particularly with general literature designed to introduce a company rather than being product-specific. Avoid the ego-massaging “me, me, me” pitfall and put your company in context by explaining how you can help your target market.

Raising morale

Done well and appropriately targeted, from product catalogue to company brochure, it’s amazing how effective corporate literature can be. Leading plastic flower-pot manufacturer the Stewart Company approached Ripley Turnbull to redesign its catalogue in the late Nineties. Turnbull says: “The company was being slaughtered by competition from overseas and its products were looked on as cheap. We simply made the product the hero, by putting it in context. When a flower pot is overflowing with blooms and foliage, what it’s made of becomes immaterial. Not only did the new catalogue go down well in the trade, it gave the whole company a fresh profile, raising staff morale. The Stewart Company used it to lift its identity and extended the look on to exhibition stands.”

The Solution took a similar approach when asked to produce literature for the JJ Group, an engineering company that manufactures tools for injection moulding. Rather than going into soporific details of the company’s expertise, it used artistic shots of the end-products. “Can you take photos of our machines?” Rice remembers being asked initially. But research showed that customers could tell far more about the quality of the company’s work by looking at close-up shots of the plastic parts produced by the machinery. Once again, the visual identity of the engineering company was developed through this abstract photography, which ended up setting the style of its brand.

Developing brand identity

Both these examples show that if you produce a well thought-out brief and give the design agency a relatively free rein visually, you can get literature that does more than say what you do or how you do it, and which develops your whole brand identity. However, a good design agency won’t shy away from challenging the brief. After all, you may think you need a brochure because your competitor has one, whereas in fact there are several forms of corporate literature that may be more appropriate, such as direct marketing material. So keep an open mind. If you have a clear idea of what you want to achieve with the campaign, a design agency should be able to advise you on the right route to take.

“When anyone asks me to design a corporate brochure,” says Rice. “I ask them why. No one really wants a brochure, they want a tool that delivers the required outcome, which could be more of the right kind of business or a higher market profile. One engineering company involved in the aerospace market approached us for a brochure and was keen to get business from a limited market of just ten key companies. So instead of producing a stack of brochures, we produced ten bespoke versions, one specifically designed for each target company.” Two of those companies are now customers.

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