There can be little doubt that the trends shaping today’s UK commercial print industry are complex and multi-faceted.
But at the very heart of understanding what the future holds for the print industry — full of passion, history and technical excellence — are some fundamental questions: Where will its growth come from? What will tomorrow’s print buyer look like? How will we generate new non-commoditised print volumes?
The answers to these questions are inextricably linked to one over-arching challenge: How can print businesses influence the marketing mix in order to better promote print?
This is the question that Canon and the Independent Print Industries Association (IPIA) posed to panelists in a roundtable debate that took place in the former IoD headquarters in Leeds last month.
Stepping out from behind presses
Roundtable chair and IPIA general manager Brendan Perring summarised the fundamental challenge facing those in the sector: “For decades, a majority of business owners and managers in our sector have viewed our industry as a watering hole that was once fed by a great river, but has now been largely cut off and is slowly shrinking. The mission as they see it is to push and shoulder their way closer to the receding water in the hope that they can be the last standing.
“What they simply do not realise is that hundreds of print businesses have lifted their heads just long enough to realise there is a torrent flowing just meters away.”
A good summary of the ‘torrent’ characterised by Perring is given by professional print buyer and Nutshell Creative managing director Lucy Swanston: “I have always made it a practice in agency life to involve the printer in the creative process from day one. After all, they work every day with new innovations in finishing processes, paper stock and technology; their knowledge is invaluable. I cannot think of any better way to inspire new ideas — or to build trust and cement relationships.
“Collaboration right from the start ensures a shared understanding of what the customer is trying to achieve. This human interaction, rather than an emailed brief, enables us collectively to propose stand-out initiatives that deliver on objectives.
“For their part, I would like to see more printers step out from behind their presses and be seen as integral to the creative strategy. They are a fantastic creative resource; however, because they are working on print jobs day-in, day-out, their value is often overlooked. And printers have every reason to be evangelical about their worth.”
Tackling the challenge
A key challenge for many is that their customers, even when they are professional print buyers, will do the opposite to the approach suggested by Swanston: only using them as a factory where information is punched in and a product is punched out at the tightest possible factors of cost and time.
The result, agreed those in attendance, was that opportunities to improve the effectiveness, value and the ultimate ROI of an investment into print-based marketing and communication products are often missed.
Two key sticking points were raised in particular by Kevin Hart, production director at commercial printer Aspen Corporate and John Conray, managing director of marcomms specialist Claremon, both diversified print-service-providers that can offer a full creative consultancy when needed.
The first is that many in the industry do not see it as their place to be offering proactive advice to customers in order to achieve the ideal scenario described by Lucy. And second is that some customers would react, as Hart put it, by responding “what is it to you?” in response to asking collaborative questions such as: “What are you ultimately trying to achieve with this campaign, marketing product or print-based communication?”
In order to tackle this issue, Kath Doran, managing director or card specialist Spectrum Plastics advised: “At Spectrum we train our customer-facing team to gently probe and challenge our clients when they ring in with an order that we know could be done more creatively. Ultimately, we want to communicate that our passion is adding value to their business through the prism of printed marketing products.”
Doran: adding value is key
Sometimes you are not going to win, was another point the panel agreed on. The local fast-food take-away that just wants 5,000 A5 door-drop flyers printed as cheaply as possible is not going to be worth trying to upsell to. But, there was consensus that if every customer conversation and enquiry is met with a positive and proactive desire to understand what they are trying to achieve — and then clear and transparent creative consultancy is provided to them as to how their outreach could be strengthened — then you will win more work, and it will overall be higher value.
Conray added: “Critically what you will achieve with this approach, which is something we push as well, is that the product will ultimately work better for the customer, and they will then value your input and become a repeat customer.”
Not just ink on paper
Key to this approach is an understanding that the ‘product’ provided by the print business is not simply ink on paper. The ‘product’ is adding value to a customer’s business using printed marketing or communication products.
To clarify this understanding from the panel chair Perring used an analogy derived from the now virtually extinct Blockbuster home-video rental brand: “It was once a giant of the high street with a near monopoly on this sector and a multi-billion-dollar estate of shops and revenue. But it vanished almost overnight when Netflix and its contemporaries offered internet-based video streaming.
“It had fundamentally misunderstood its ‘product’. Its directors thought that tapes and then CDs in boxes with some upsold snacks, with its profits made from late fees, were its product. No, its product was a comfortable night at home being conveniently entertained. What it thought was its product was merely the method of delivery for it.
“When Netflix and its peers significantly improved that method of product delivery, they wiped out the giant. It was David and Goliath stuff, but it is a very important lesson our industry can learn from.”
This view was seconded by Adverset business development manager John White, who explained his goal at the Scarborough-headquartered promotional print specialists was to carry out that role not just for his own company, but for his customers: “I certainly agree that this mindset is much needed in our sector and it is something we embrace. We service our customers to death; we understand their pain points and what they are trying to achieve.
"Our philosophy is very much to have 100 very engaged customers we deliver a high-value product to, rather than 1,000 that we quote, perhaps print for once, and never hear from again.”
A polarised picture?
This comment fed into the next stage of the debate in regard to market polarisation, and a discussion around whether the sector was being split into those who offer this premium consultative-based approach and those who, increasingly using web-to-print models, print large volumes on small margins — with very little in between. This is a key area of research for Canon, which commissioned a large piece of research through Savanta in 2018 that pointed towards an increase in such polarisation.
This point was picked up by Sarah Kilcoyne, head of sales and integration at online giant Route 1 Print, who commented: “While we can see this trend has been growing, we do not think it will necessarily continue. It is our responsibility to educate consumers and provide them with alternatives that balance cost and production time with the level of finish they require.
“From our view as one of the largest web-to-print service providers in the country, there is huge potential in the ‘middle ground’ of print. Very often the difference between a premium and basic product is simply the packaging it comes in and the perception built around it.”
Kilcoyne explained Route 1 offers a suite of options that its customers can choose from that alter variables on price, delivery time and the quality of the finished product. The result is that first of all they are informed these variables exist, and secondly they can visualise what the end product will look like and get the very most out of the variables they are constrained by.
As Aspen's Hart pointed out, it may constrain Route1 Print in its ability to offer a truly bespoke service, but on the other hand it provides a good answer to improving the delivery method for customers when offering a national service on such a scale.
When the discussion moved on to what were the key actions trade associations such as the IPIA and technology developers such as Canon could do to promote the story of print, and its power to cut through the digital maelstrom and engage the consumer, there was a clear answer.
“While it is of course your job, with your leverage and reach, to go out directly to the potential print buyer and generate new print volumes through education, it our job to capitalise on that work. Only we can make the choice to change and benefit from your activity,” said Iain Schofield, marketing and customer services executive at direct mail specialist DMP.
Hart added: “It’s not your job to take on the responsibility alone of diverting that torrent. We need to be the ones to challenge our customers, take on board this education, and make the difference in our own businesses.
“You can educate them about the capabilities of print all you like, but if they contact their local printer and get more of the same, then it will not work. The problem is in our businesses, and we need to be the ones to solve it by being proactive, asking for help from associations such as yours, and suppliers such as Canon, to educate ourselves.”
Saxoprint head of international sales Tim Webster added: “Another important point is that if you cannot say ‘yes’ to the educated customer when they ask you to produce a complex and creative job that entails multiple formats, they might just go and ask someone else who can.
“You need to say ‘yes’, then have a trusted network of partners to help you deliver. I think that is why initiatives like these where we come together, network and share our experience and understanding are fantastic, they create the impetus and energy that we as printers can pick up and run with.”
Matthew Birtwell, managing director of trade printer Birtwells, concluded with his view on the subject: “I see outreach working on two fronts. First of all, you are preparing the ground so that we as the printer have a more receptive audience. Then second you are educating us about how changing the way we interact with customers can bring about positive results.”
Spectrum’s Doran returned to the central question in debate to conclude the session, with her comments receiving unanimous support: “How can print businesses influence the marketing mix? Accepting that change is needed must be the first step. Then ensuring we educate every customer about how our technical abilities and knowledge can help them engage more effectively with their target audience.”
A clear finding from the roundtable was that a trend is continuing to build that is seeing a range of marketing and design professionals, in addition to brand managers, returning to print from digital-based media to deliver better results.
To capitalise on this trend, what is needed is a realisation that we as an industry can generate new print volumes through leveraging our immense experience and capabilities to demonstrate that print-based marketing and communication is a strong and effective channel, one customer at a time.
How can Canon help you to promote print?
To help print businesses educate their customers about the power of print, Canon believes it’s essential to support and encourage conversations not only inside the industry, but more importantly outside of the industry too. In one of its campaigns called Elemental, Canon developed a guide to show how print is helping brands tell a more compelling story, through a fictitious cosmetic brand. To request your copy of the report, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
For more insights from Canon, www.canon.co.uk/business