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Helen Dugdale
Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Diversification: is it a buzz word we’ve become obsessed with or an unnecessary evil if a print business is to thrive beyond 2018?

Speak to most printers these days and there is a strong possibility they’ll offer you another service that is more than just putting ink on paper or packaging, be it graphic design, stock management or mail fulfilment. 

If you’re considering moving into different areas how easy is it to start to offer additional services and what are the key steps you can take to build a stronger and more sustainable business? We asked three print businesses to reveal the secrets of their ongoing success.

How easy is it to diversify?

Mark Lancaster, marketing director of Ripon-based Colour It In believes that clients just expect it these days: “All printers collaborate to get certain jobs done which means they have a vast amount of knowledge and resources. So, moving their businesses into different market sectors is usually an easy task. For us, this arrived within the first few years of starting the business. Back then print was still seen as an expensive item so to ensure margins were achieved we had to add services to keep ink on paper viable in the eyes of the client. However, the big change arrived when the internet became the pre-eminent business marketing tool. We moved into supporting clients’ digital marketing needs and eventually we began to build websites and supply digital marketing services.” 

At Ruddocks, an integrated design and print agency, clients started to really take notice of their additional services after the firm won a high-profile project to rebrand its home city: “We were a traditional B2B print house, but over the years we heavily got into design and diversified. While some of it was planned, most of it happened organically. We’ve offered design for over 20 years, then we won a big project to rebrand the city of Lincoln and people began to recognise that we were an agency for branding and design, not just print,” says managing director, Paul Banton. 

Sixth-generation family business, GH Smith & Son has always offered a portfolio of services due to the remote location of the business, as co-owner Rupert Smith explains: “Established in 1866, we’re based in a rural location in the middle of a Yorkshire market town. So, over the years if we’ve wanted something doing, we’ve had to do it ourselves. 

“As well as design and print work we own two local newspapers, which my grandfather started in 1892 and for which we write, design, print and sell the advertising. We also own an educational book division, Newbie Books which we print, market and sell.”

Look the part

It’s not enough to just offer the different services, clients old and new need to have belief that you can deliver. Looking at how you market your new offering is key. Mark Lancaster has worked at Colour It In for 19 years and says that client confidence has always been high in the firm’s ability to offer a breath of services, which is vital for success: “The principals of our business have a marketing background, so our business approach is always consultative rather than hard sales lead. 

“This approach made sense and clients can see the benefit of using a company that looks after their brand in print to develop their digital assets. Selling to new clients was easier as we adjusted the strap line of the business from ‘Design - Print - Manage’ to ‘An Alternative Creative Company’. When we asked clients new and old they said they felt they were working with a company with the confidence to deliver projects rather than just supply a product.”

Ruddocks has made changes to its own branding to make sure that it fits the bill: “We look more like an agency now and we often lead with that element – particularly with bigger organisations because it buys a different kind of loyalty,” says Banton.

“I think it removes the element of price. It becomes more about how we can help a business with its strategy and ideas. So, you go in with that kind of dialogue and it changes the conversation from the outset. Whereas if you go in talking print it’s not always about the great quality we offer it’s more about price. If you’re in a marketing or design agency you’re further up the river, if you like. You’re closer to the source. You’re dealing with a group of different people – you can inspire them with ideas and talk about things like social media, digital or fulfilment. You become a trusted business advisor and supplier. We’re now the people they turn to.”

As GH Smith & Son found, not all clients will instantly want to buy into your new offering – it may take some time: “We still have clients that we offer just a traditional print role and they use other design agencies. We remind them that we have a design studio and occasionally they will pass work over to us if they’ve been let down. There has been the case that we’ve picked up the design work after doing the print. Print isn’t just about ink on paper anymore it’s about the whole gamut. It’s about: here’s a logo for your website or an app. Our clients tell us what they want and if we can do it all we will. If we don’t offer the service, then we’ll find someone who does. We’re up-front about this and the clients are usually fine. I think if you can deliver people the right product at the right price – they will come back,” says Smith. 

Use case studies

Ruddocks has found that time and strong case studies have really helped to crack a wider geographical market for work. “Picking up localised graphic design work is easy to find. Once you start trying to get into larger organisations to do brand management it’s harder. Especially when you’ve got no proven history and you’re pitching against bigger agencies. Over time people have seen what we’ve done and recognised us as a talent. Now we’ve got momentum and an accepted name, it’s easier. We rebranded British Steel and won a wide range of awards. We now work with the NHS, England Golf, British Cycling and British Canoeing. It just takes time and I think that you need a lucky break,” continues Banton. 

Think before you invest

There will obviously need to be an element of investment to grow the business, and as Ruddocks found you can’t always rely on the customers who say they’ll use your new service: “To grow of course you’ve got to invest and that can be expensive. With any large investment there is a risk to you as an organisation if it goes wrong. For us it was stock management. We invested in inventory technology and online ordering controls. It was one customer that wanted it, that got us into buying it, in the end they never actually used it. But we thought we’ve got this and we need to make more of it,” reflects Banton.

Colour It In’s Lancaster says that instead of trying to constantly avoid the pitfalls, embrace them and learn to use them as an advantage: “To move any business on you need to know the skills and resources you have available. If you haven’t got everything you need, do you train your existing team or recruit? We chose to train the team as this was the fastest route to market and our clients were confident talking to the same people. We tried very hard to avoid pitfalls but inevitably something will come along that you were not expecting. In our case, we built quality, mainly brochure-style websites, which clients loved, but we had severely underestimated their need for SEO services which meant more training. We now offer these services which makes the whole sales and delivery experience more reassuring.” 

Top tips for diversifying

Colour It In 

If you are sat there reading this, looking for some magic formula for success, you need to do something about it. If you are seriously looking to add services and it’s something you have little knowledge of, educate yourself and then go and ask your clients. They will tell you if they are likely to buy from you or not in the first place. You also need to invest time in finding new clients but either way it’s clients that drive demand.”

GH Smith & Son 

The worst thing is when people buy a machine and then because they’ve got this new piece of kit they instantly think that their business is going to take off. I would offer the service and then bring it in house as soon as you can. Don’t take on too many people. Gradual investment.” 


It’s very easy to buy all the kit but it’s not too easy to identify the customers who need the service and sell to those businesses. It needs careful planning. Make sure you’ve got the resources to roll it out. Build it, sell it in and settle it down, prove it and refine it.”


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