03 April 2020 Business

Reports from the front line of the design war

Designers and printers do not always speak the same language with many in print thinking that cost is the only factor. Designers think differently.

Designers are the accelerator – printers are the brakes. It is a sentiment that few printers would support, but one that many designers would from personal experience endorse. For the good of the industry and for the use of print for more than the communication of information, changing this attitude is necessary. Marketers and advertisers are already turning away from print and designers believe that printers are helping drive that trend.

This is scarcely a surprise. Demand for print has fallen and will continue to shrink. Printers with high overheads in the form of expensive presses, premises and staff, need to find work to keep those assets busy. And the easiest way to do that is through price, and a lower price than the rival up the road. Competitors under cutting on price continues to be printers’ biggest issue of concern according to the BPIF’s Printing Outlook survey.

There is a historical basis for the behaviour. A generation ago demand for four-colour printing outstripped supply and printers did not need to fight hard for work. The ability to print in register, close to the colour of a pass sheet and close too to the delivery date, was enough. Printing was relatively difficult, demanding assembly of films, contact plate making, accurate plate mounting, ink duct adjustment, ink water balance and so on. Good print had a value. A print salesman might survive by showing his company’s equipment list. Professional buyers able to interpret a Cromalin, to pass on press, would appreciate that Heidelberg presses were the best in the world. Printers who had struggled to print on Solnas aspired to run a Speedmaster.

That is now a world away. But printers will still advertise for sales reps with £500,000 of business or will call up a prospect and ask if there are any four-colour brochures that need to be printed that day or next week. And if the answer is yes, the next step is to match or undercut the price a rival has offered. It percolates into RFQs. Companies will lowball an estimate to give them a better chance to win the job, probably without knowing precisely what costs will be involved.

Buyers are unable to distinguish between print businesses. All advertise themselves as high quality printers who are service oriented to buyers who cannot understand any differences. It can mean stasis. Buyers remaining with a company because to change would be too much of a risk.

“Print today is happening in so many different places,” says IPIA board member Graham Reed. “It is not being used in commoditised ways in B2B. Messages that are communicated have to be specific to customers or customer groups. And print has to be both fit for purpose and to stand out so that when the marketing company follows up with a phone call, people recall the item of print.”

This opens the way to added value techniques, from a special or high impact additional colour, in the use of varnishes, in how a product is finished. “Print has to stand out,” Reed says.

Some products lend themselves to commoditisation and are ideal fodder for online printers: flyers, simple leaflets, posters, pop up banners business stationery, the majority of business cards. But when work needs to stand out in the reader’s hands, a more bespoke approach is needed.

And even an A4 piece of print is larger than an iPad, let alone a smart phone in the hand. One does not exclude the other. Reed, with experience in integrated marketing, adds: “When agencies and marketers are running an integrated campaign, it’s all about the outcome and what is the value proposition. But printers rarely see what the aim of the job is. All too often their gambit is “Have you any work we can quote for?”

Inevitably, that is followed by a pitch based on price. Not all are tarred with the same brush. Some, according to Reed, understand the value and can have the upstream conversations which reduce the reliance on price. That can include how print integrates with the digital communication, personalisation or at least variable print, augmented reality and links to websites.

He finds that where print businesses are in the hands of younger generation of leaders, these issues are more likely to be to the fore than with companies where the print technology is still considered a key differentiator. But for buyers this is not a factor. Registration, colour accuracy and consistency are a given.

The approach should be built on enterprise selling where the printer’s proposition is inline with the aims of the company he is trying to sell to, in short a partnership with transparency and open communications and trust. This is, of course, more of a slow burn strategic approach and where the ability to understand the intended outcome of any campaign is essential.

At this point the approach will be built around showing a prospect a piece of work produced for another company with details about the impact generated, not just the print techniques used. Do not leave the sample with the prospect, however. “If a printer approached me in this way they could be sure of an appointment inside two days. But no printer has ever approached in this way – ever.”

Thinking in this way works on all levels. It is not beyond the reach of relatively small companies that might not be able to afford to commission a marketing agency. Reed describes a campaign produced for a friend who owns a handful of pubs. The aim of the campaign staged at the end of the year was to get emails and details of customers who otherwise come into the pub and leave again with almost no trace.

The point of sale material about a chance to win drinks (underwritten by the wine supplier) in Dry January, resulted in 400 connections via a QR code and the opportunity to market offers to encourage one time visitors to become regulars. And if that offer brings in more people, it can result in more data and an expanding pool of customers to market to, using digital or print means.

“I don’t see too many printers wanting to come to us to build that kind of relationship, but it’s where they have to be and it can make a good contribution to turnover without chasing after sales.”

It is also about changing the conversation. “We commissioned another printer to produce a high quality brochure for a stud farm on a good uncoated paper. We told him ‘you’re not producing print. You are supporting the high standards and ethics of the equestrian industry through the high standards of print production’.

“That concept can be taken to other similar establishments and before long you become much more relevant to that sector, and you are not seen as another printer chasing business on price.”

A flash of foil can make a difference, a choice of laminate that the client had not considered, a spot varnish or one of the other digital embellishment techniques that are now available and underused because they are not understood by specifiers.

Says Reed: “I’m still optimistic for print’s future. But we all have to work harder on relationships with customers and remember that we are selling the outcome.”

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