Business stationery printers looking to create stand-out products are increasingly taking their cues from the world of high-end social stationery
Here’s an easy question. Which would you be more offended by: Pizza Express sending you an electronic birthday greeting or Aunt Gladys doing the same? The answer most people will quickly agree is the latter, and so the natural extension of this logic would seem to be that while our love of the printed greetings card, wedding invitation or thank you note will never wane, we’re much less attached to the idea of business stationery.
But in fact, this is not quite true. Business stationery sales aren’t lagging behind the still very buoyant social stationery market anywhere near as much as you might expect. People, brands are realising, don’t magically transform into digital-only robots as soon as the message being conveyed isn’t a personal one, and in fact engage with business printed stationery in many of the same ways as they do with social items. So the humble, seemingly outmoded format of printed business stationery is gaining increasing recognition as an important marketing tool.
"We’ve seen a lot of business stationery coming through recently," confirms Julia Noble, co-owner of stationery printer Noble Fine Art. "That’s grown over the last couple of years as more people want to stand out from the crowd."
One of the key attractions of print over digital, even in a corporate context, she reports, is that a piece of print can be potentially much more beautiful than an email or a LinkedIn invite. No one should underestimate how impressed people still are by a well-designed business card or event invitation that is a thing of beauty in its own right, no matter what message it contains, says Noble.
"Often when people hang onto a piece of social stationery it’s because of how attractive it is, as well as its sentimental value, and so print doesn’t need sentimental value to be treasured," she says. "A photographer mentioned to us the other day that he’d actually stopped putting his business cards out at network meetings because people were taking them all just because they looked so lovely."
"When you go into a drawer looking for a business card it’s the ones that are nice that stand out. It does make a big difference," she adds.
And there is something undeniably high-end about a beautifully printed piece of stationery, which means that not only will the recipient be more likely to look at it whatever message is being communicated, but will also receive a stronger message about what the brand in question is like. This is, of course, key for companies wanting to be associated with luxury. But it can also simply ensure the recipient knows the company stands for good quality, says Noble.
"I don’t think it matters whether the company is high-end or not, it’s about standing out regardless of where you’re positioned," she says. "We make business cards for a woman who runs a cake company and she’s no different from any of the others, but wants to differentiate herself through print."
In fact the beauty of a piece of print is that it can convey, with its infinite combinations of colours, textures, shapes, finishes and even smells, exactly what an event will be like and what a company stands for or, whether that’s luxury or affordable good quality, much more descriptively than a digital screen.
In using printed stationery to market a brand or dress an event, brands are effectively reclaiming a subtle yet savvy marketing tactic back from the bride-to-be, explains Michael Johnson, owner of stationery printers Piccolo Press.
"In the wedding market, it’s very important that the look of the invitation conveys the style of the wedding, whether the couple are getting married in a castle in Chianti or in South Africa," he says. "The same applies to corporate events: whether you are launching a new yacht or announcing a film premier you do need a card that reflects the occasion."
Emma Thompson, founder of Precision Printing’s dedicated wedding stationery offshoot Hue Two, agrees that businesses should take their cue from how valued the descriptive wedding invite still is. "A nice invite can convey how nice and classy a wedding is going to be and that applies to other events," she says.
But it is not only their love of print’s beauty and its ability to conjour an impression that people take across with them from the world of social stationery to their experiences as consumers and employees engaging with business stationery. In fact, the more savvy marketers are realising, as a result of the fact that businesses are more likely than a friend or relative to replace printed stationery with digital, such an item will often evoke a personal feel.
And some brands have really started to capitalise on this by adopting a social stationery format, such as an informal-looking party invite, for promotional materials that previously would have been designed as more conventional direct mail pieces, for instance.
"We have a number of clients who at one point or another have all used a real invite to communicate a marketing message," reports Helen McCall, client services director at marketing agency Tangent Snowball. "They use printed invites to invite customers to actual events, but also sometimes they’ll use similar design cues to invite someone to a sales event or competition or promotion. So it’s a good way to target people and make them feel wanted."
But capitalising on people’s receptivity to the sensory, descriptive and personal appeal of printed business stationery, is more complicated than simply switching to a print-first policy here, with print not necessarily inherently more beautiful, expressive or personal than digital. Rather, to achieve these qualities, careful thought will need to go into combining printing processes and special finishes.
Grant Harrold, former butler to Prince Charles and director of upmarket catering, etiquette training and interior and garden design business Nicholas Veitch, discovered this the hard way: "Initially, I had cards that were very thin and looked like I’d designed them myself. I was handing them out and people would just put them straight in their pockets, and I thought they were probably fine," he reports.
"But then I commissioned some cards from Piccolo and I’m having much better reactions already; I had a huge complement recently when a multimillion-pound businessman said ‘wow, I’ve been in business for a long time and I’ve never seen this kind of quality’."
In this instance, Piccolo used foiling, die-stamping and embossing to convey the traditional values of the company. But Piccolo’s Johnson explains that, while traditional techniques like letterpress are very popular at the moment for social and business stationery, there is also an ever-expanding range of newer processes that can be used to create stunning print that also doesn’t misrepresent a brand keen to convey a more affordable or modern image.
"Even a simple raised litho print can be transformed with Caslon glitter inks for instance and we can offer all sorts of foils and burnishes," says Johnson. "There are a lot of new techniques coming through."
And many of the elements that might be used to create stunning print reminiscent of a social stationery item, aren’t as expensive as people might expect.
"Varnishes and soft-touch laminations are all fairly cheap depending on how many you want to do, and blind embossing doesn’t have any extra materials involved, it’s just creating the dye and that’s fairly inexpensive," reports Steve Middleton, director at Celloglas, a trade finisher that prides itself on unusual effects. "Adding a fragrance, for example, is very inexpensive because we can do it on our Heidelberg machine," he adds.
But the problem people like Harrold have, according to Middleton, is that it’s often not clear to businesses what’s out there in terms of special techniques that will transform print from a more expensive but no more inspiring from of communication than email, into something that can really enhance perceptions of a brand.
"Someone ringing up the average printer and asking what can I have on my business stationery is just going to get somebody saying, ‘not sure, you could have a bit of foil on it, but we don’t do it, you’ll have to put it out’," he says.
Marketers will need, then, to be tenacious in uncovering those with a more innovative and design-led approach such as Noble and Piccolo. And printers should be hanging onto work –albeit work they might have to outsource for finishing – by encouraging businesses to see the subtle value of high-quality business stationery.
Of course the key phrase here is ‘high-quality.’ Run-of-the-mill print will be ignored as readily as an email and do as little to communicate a brand, but a special piece could prompt real engagement. And this could be more akin to the impact created by a social greeting, invite or thank you note, than you might at first expect.