Has print climbed back to the top of the media pile?

Simon Creasey
Monday, June 15, 2015

When television sets started to become ubiquitous in the aftermath of the Second World War people warned that they heralded the death knell for radio. When CDs were launched in the 1980s they were labelled “vinyl killers”.

Similarly, when email and the internet started to become increasingly commonplace in the early 1990s, doom-mongers claimed that it would be the death of print.

However, today vinyl sales are on the rise, radio audiences continue to grow and after a few barren years, during which time many brand owners turned their back on the medium, print has bounced back with a bang. 

Rather than killing off print once and for all, a growing number of brands are starting to realise that digital simply cannot compete with ink on paper – to the extent that some purely online brands are launching printed products. So what’s behind this recent drive and is it a trend that’s likely to continue in the future?

The two most high-profile examples of brands that have recently revived their print offer having previously pulled the plug on printed versions of their flagship products are news magazine Newsweek and US retailer JC Penney. 

In 2012, Newsweek announced it was stopping printing the magazine citing dwindling circulation, but then in late 2013 the company revealed it was reintroducing a limited-run print edition of the news weekly. JC Penney announced a similar turnaround earlier this year. Five years ago the retailer announced that it was phasing out its iconic printed catalogues in favour of an online only version, only to reverse the decision after data showed customers preferred to look at print then go online to order.

Here in the UK, fashion retailer Next, a long-time standard bearer for the power of catalogues, started using direct mail again last year because it has proved an effective tool for increasing sales. 

And it’s rumoured that a number of other iconic brands are poised to make print comebacks after ditching the medium over the past few years. Then there’s the growth of those purely online brands moving into print to factor into the equation. Internet-driven entities such as Net-a-Porter, Uber, Airbnb, Allrecipes and Politico have all launched print titles of varying descriptions.

So the big question is: why are so many brands suddenly turning to print in this increasingly digital era? “Some brands are coming back because we believe they found their switch to digital advertising saved them money, but wasn’t as productive,” says Patrick Headley, managing director at GI Solutions. “They are now increasingly including print and mail in their campaigns to improve response rates, but as integrated campaigns using many channels to market as appropriate for their customers.”

Then there are those who have recognised that some channels – particularly direct mail – are less crowded than they used to be so it’s easier to engage consumers.

“Print delivers cut-through in a crowded market. There is a tangibility to receiving a piece of well-targeted well-drafted mail that engages customers,” he says. 

Digital deficit

It’s ironic when you consider that because digital communication has increasingly taken over from print as the default communication medium, its sheer ubiquity means that it’s not as effective as it once was. And this effectiveness looks set to dwindle going forward, due to the sheer volume of digital noise that consumers have to deal with on a daily basis. These factors will help to further fuel print’s comeback as brands look to differentiate from their rivals and rediscover the unique qualities that ink on paper offers. 

“As printing has become an option rather than a necessity, some companies seem to be revisiting printing and discovering that its physical presence together with the choice of creative and tactile options, offers them the opportunity to produce communication pieces of greater permanence, impact and effectiveness,” says Richard Owers, director at Pureprint. “The result is a return to print for image conscious customers who are using the wide range of processes, substrates and formats in ever more creative ways to show their brands as bespoke, individual and personal.” 

But this drive isn’t just about making something tactile that looks great; it’s also about the all-important ROI. A look at the latest market data sheds light on why marketers at some brands are reassessing the power of print. The Royal Mail’s recent Private Life of Mail report found that print has a much longer shelf life than digital – printed advertising messages are kept by households on average for 17 days, 38 days for door drops and 45 days for bills and statements.

Furthermore, BrandScience analysis of more than 500 case studies across Europe showed that the ROI on TV advertising by FMCG groups increased by 61% when used in combination with print advertising. 

Compelling figures such as this are why, according to a Nielsen survey, 63% of US retailers say that print is critical to their marketing strategy. It’s also why figures from MediaRadar, which examined 177 national consumer magazines in the US last year, showed that the number of print advertisers grew by 9% over January-September 2014.

Thanks to this mounting evidence, going forward it seems more likely the ink on paper revival will continue – at least in the short-to-medium term – with printers anecdotally reporting that more customers are reassessing their print requirements. 

“We have definitely noticed that four or five financial companies have returned to print,” says Headley. “They saw the detrimental effect of not having physical mail as part of their campaigns and they’re now using mail campaigns to increase their response rates.”

It’s a trend Fraser Church, head of creative development at DST Output UK, has also detected. “Never have we seen so much interest in print as a form of communication,” says Church. “To help spark clients’ creativity DST runs creative DM workshops that explore the numerous creative opportunities available to them. Over the past month we have had attendees from financial, retail, utilities, telecoms, travel and charity sectors as well as a number of representatives from marketing agencies who want to learn more about the power of print and how it can deliver their clients’ return on investment.”

He adds that the company enjoyed a 15% increase in the number of packs it mailed in 2014 versus 2013, with customers increasingly being “supportive of print as a key medium in their marketing mix”. 

That’s not to say that we’re on the verge of the industry returning to its halcyon days of a few decades ago. Run lengths are still down and they’re expected to stay down, and potentially even decrease further in the future as companies explore different ways to get more ‘bang for their buck’.

Weldon Molony, a buyer in central purchasing at Toyota (GB), confirms the company’s print volume and spend fell in the past and has not regrown in recent years.

“I believe this is partially due to the fact that the economic downturn coincided with much of the demise and marketing budgets are often still not being increased, so marketers are tending to do the same as they always have done, which on a cost basis is often a request for buyers to concentrate on doing more for the same, or even doing less for the same if prices have increased, rather than an opportunity to rethink the strategy and start from scratch,” says Molony. 

Tighter targeting

And even those companies that rigidly stuck by print, and see it as a vital part of their business model, are still seeing run lengths decline. “The White Company has always stayed with printed brochures as a core part of the marketing mix, but over time, in common with others, we have produced more targeted brochures, so more versions and shorter runs,” says Andrew Laws, the retailer’s print and production manager.

The approach that Laws outlines is something that Headley has picked up on from the company’s customers. “We have noticed a few more long runs, but also more increased frequency in the number of campaigns reflecting more targeted mail with more relevant messages,” he explains.

Even with this recent slight return to print, it’s clear the industry has a job on its hands if it wants to convince more people about its unique powers, admits Mark Cruise, head of print management at Sky UK.

“Over the past few years, or decade even, all of the noise has been about digital, email and social media and the decision-makers have come through to the positions they are in today having grown up knowing, understanding, relying and innovating change utilising digital platforms,” says Cruise. “Print got pushed to the back of the queue and has not always been considered, because somewhere in that time print became, or certainly became perceived, as expensive.”

Yet that isn’t necessarily the case argues Cruise. “I recently got prices together for a brochure and went to a friend, outside of work, who had earlier said they couldn’t do print as the brochure would ‘probably cost at least £25k’ and eat up far too much of their budget. The actual cost was £12,000 printed and delivered. The result was the brochure was printed and added to their mix and has had a better than expected response. In isolation this looks nice, but it is just one example, although I’m sure there are more out there. But essentially we probably need to re-educate people on the merits and actual costs involved in using print.”

Based on the number of companies that have already done a u-turn on previous decisions and come back to print, it’s clear that the channel is still considered a viable route to market by some and has a key role to play, but it has to work harder than ever and will have to keep on adapting and changing going forwards, if it wants to continue to justify its position in the marketing mix.

“Print is not dead,” says a defiant Cruise. “No more than TV killed the radio, nor did email/digital make DM and printers obsolete. Print is here to stay.” 



Usually when magazines turn their backs on print they do so for good, so when Newsweek announced its intention to launch a limited run (70,000 copies) print edition of the news weekly in late 2013, it came as a surprise to everyone. The magazine’s owners broke the news that it was switching to an all-digital format in October 2012, due to plummeting circulation and dwindling profits. The then editor Tina Brown explained Newsweek, which has been around since 1933, had reached a “tipping point” and that it was more efficient and effective for the mag to go all-digital. But reader demand convinced Newsweek’s owners to reinstate a print version of the title. 

JC Penney

The company may not be that well known on this side of the Atlantic, but in the US, department store operator JC Penney is a major player, so when it announced that it was ditching its ‘big book’ catalogue in 2009 and was phasing out distribution of 70 smaller catalogues in 2010, it was headline news. Thankfully, earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) broke the story that the retailer intended to bring back a new 120-page printed catalogue that would be sent to selected customers from March. According to the WSJ report the move was prompted by data that showed many of the retailer’s online sales were inspired by what customers saw in pri

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