22 October 2021

Do glossy brochures still work, or has digital marketing killed the power of print?

Clare Methven
Written by Clare Methven

Clare Methven is the Co-Founder of The Marketing Centre and specialises in working with small and mid-size businesses. She has over 25 years’ experience working in PR and marketing agencies focussed on construction, financial services and travel companies.

Marketing Director, Lance Hiley writes:

There’s one thing that almost always hits you straight away when you pick up a glossy brochure and flick through its pages – that glorious smell of printed ink. When it comes to intoxicating aromas, those printed pages are up there with freshly baked bread, ground coffee and newly mown grass.

But in these days of rapidly evolving, game-changing marketing and with much of it taking place online, do brochures still have the power to hit us in the most important way of all, persuading us to part with our money and make a purchase? Are they still a valuable, cost-effective component in our marketing armoury?

Brochures have long been regarded as a crucial tool for business-to-customer contact and a highly effective way in which to showcase goods or services. For generations of customers, this printed material has traditionally played a major part in their decisions to buy, providing all of the information needed to make an informed choice. They’ve always been integral in business-to-business contact too, particularly at trade shows, even where the sheer amount of literature handed out has meant they’re at risk of getting lost and unnoticed in a sea of Helvetica.

Trends come and go, but marketing specialists and their clients have tended to prefer printed brochures to leaflets or flyers as a means of displaying many more beautiful photographs and a wealth of detailed information. Designed to be retained and referred to again and again, they’ve generally offered greater longevity too, keeping potential or actual purchases at the forefront of the mind.

The role of printed material has changed…
Today, though, some businesses understandably worry that printed brochures might look old-fashioned, that they’re too costly and timely to produce, not least that they are environmentally unsound. Flagging up on a brochure that the paper used to produce it is responsibly sourced, however, will clearly support a firm’s green credentials.

Some have opted instead to give away memory sticks pre-loaded with often non-erasable content, ensuring there’s enough space left over for it to be a really useful tool and thereby kept by a customer for reuse. Some business premises, however, do not allow third party USB sticks to be used with company computer systems. These days there’s also the easy accessibility of content via tablet and mobile-friendly apps, or the option to email brochures to potential customers (though if they then print them themselves, of course, the quality is likely to be inferior).

Arguably there’s still a place for professionally produced and printed literature, albeit a different place or role to ten or even five years ago.  Millions of brochures continue to be printed and distributed in the UK, though clearly not in the volumes they once were (revenue in the printing industry is currently expected to decrease at a compound annual rate of 3.6% over five years, according to IBISWorld).  However, significant content such as top-end corporate brochures and white papers are still being printed.

Digital promotion can pack a punch certainly, particularly as the techniques and effects that are used become ever more sophisticated, but much of the associated browsing through online portals is anonymous. In 2015, the printed brochure represents what marketing experts call the ‘engaged’ customer – if you manage to persuade someone to take a brochure, you have probably moved that person to an engaged status. It’s an indication of a commitment to finding out more than simply clicking on (or away from) a website.

Brochures are popular for high-risk and high-value purchases…
Consumers and businesses now use brochures, it seems, for more ‘considered’ purchases, such as cars or furniture. Every other smaller purchase is likely to be supported by online content, reviews and comparisons. And whereas a customer would once have toured a number of shops, picking up brochures to look through back at home, the likelihood now is that they will do their research online first and then seek out brochures from just a couple of shortlisted businesses from which to potentially buy.

Interestingly, marketing research suggests that consumers still want and need a brochure to support their purchase decision, particularly for high-value or high-risk items, especially where the time taken between making the decision to purchase and actually experiencing the product can be lengthy. For example, those paying out for a cruise up to to eighteen months in advance could worry that they won’t like it or will even feel claustrophobic at sea. They may use a brochure to help them to understand what it will feel like to be on-board a cruise ship before they commit to it, and then to reinforce their decision after they’ve booked. It has even been known for cruise ship passengers to take their brochures with them – though whether it’s the best poolside reading matter is debatable.

Essentially, it seems that a brochure in the current market can tap into a more aspirational post-purchase feeling. The buyer keeps the document at hand and flicks through it as they would a lifestyle magazine and the physical ink-on-paper aspect is intrinsic in their relationship with their purchase. It might, some say, act as a tonic for ‘buyers’ remorse’ after splashing out on big-ticket items and make the purchase feel important.

A brochure isn’t an information bible anymore,” says Fiona West, a marketing director who’s extensively researched brochure usage. “That’s what the website is for. It’s a high value takeaway for someone at the evaluation or trial stage of the purchase process, and has particular benefit in reinforcing the emotional side of the decision. So it makes sense to use the medium to its best effect: evocative imagery, high quality print, fewer and better pages. There’s almost always a more effective way to spec a brochure.

Fiona suggests getting a printing expert involved at the briefing stage to understand your needs and budget early on. This can also help determine what inserts can be included and reprinted down the line, for example revised price lists, so massively reducing wastage and costs. “Digital print means you can personalise a brochure, but that doesn’t mean you should,” she adds. “We tried lots of variants and they invariably came across as cheesy.”

Fellow marketing director Rob Furness believes that printed material is still key – used hand in hand with digital channels.

If trade shows still work in your sector, a leaflet is still the minimum you need to try to achieve post-show consideration,” Rob emphasises. “When that branded tote bag from one of the big sponsors gets emptied onto the desk, before all the paper goes in the recycling, there’s no guarantee but if your piece of print is there you might still have engagement. Clearly scanning the visitor’s badge and then re-marketing them via an email campaign is essential.”

Print and digital sit side by side…
Used to their best effect then, printed brochures can compliment digital strategies – a nice accompaniment to the pre-sale negotiation, but they can’t be everything. Companies now often regard them as an aide memoire for a sales team, to ensure that all major talking points are discussed.

Content in a brochure can compel a reader to learn more about a business online or can provide them with an offer that is exclusive and can be traced to that printed material. A5 rather than A4-sized documents are considered easier for a customer or client to tuck away into a pocket or bag. If easily to hand they may be more likely to be read by those killing time on a journey back from a conference across country or overseas. They are also easily distributed at an event or meeting (though perhaps best handed out at the end to press home what’s been said rather than distract while the key messages are delivered).

And when all’s said and done, let’s not forget that some prospects simply prefer a hard copy and want to read information in a printed format instead of staring at a headache-inducing LCD screen.

Brochures can maintain their gloss in this increasingly digital world, but not necessarily if used in isolation from other marketing tools. It’s the sum of the parts and not simply a well-produced brochure that will ensure success, and you need to be sure of its value and clear about what you’re trying to achieve before you commit. Faced with intense competition in today’s marketing environment, even the glossiest of publications has to be thoughtfully planned for maximum impact.

This article was prompted by a real email discussion among part-time Marketing Directors from The Marketing Centre – many thanks to our author, Lance Hiley, and Marketing Directors Fiona West and Rob Furness for their contributions.  If your business needs strategic advice or hands-on implementation in print or digital marketing, please do get in touch on 020 8166 2530 or info@themarketingcentre.com.   



Ready to take
your marketing seriously?

Since 2010, we’ve helped business owners make sense of marketing.
To make smarter decisions and make the most of their investment.

So if you’re tired of switching from one thing to the next hoping one will stick, maybe it’s time to try a different approach.