Corporate copywriting, Maslen on Marketing

What links corporate brochures to ancient Greece?

What is it about corporate brochures that makes them both hideously expensive to produce and virtually unreadable?

I suspect the culprit is our old friend hubris. In ancient Greece, hubris was the worst crime imaginable – desecrating your enemy’s corpse to inflict humiliation and boost your own image. Nowadays it’s come to mean any act or behaviour stemming from overbearing pride or arrogance.

Now, it may be a stretch to get from classical Athens to the average 24-page A4 glossy piece of corporate puff. But the fact remains, most corporate brochures say more about the company’s opinion of itself than anything else.

And guess what. That opinion is usually – or at least if you believe what you’re reading – extremely proud. And, therefore, extremely BORING.

Don’t get me wrong, your business may have discovered a drug that cures cancer. You may have a team of people so accomplished at what they do that they are sought out as advisers to governments. Your products may contribute to the wellbeing of whole societies, relieving gun crime, voter apathy or racial prejudice.

It’s just that the dreaded corporate brochure seems to exist in a special world, where everyone involved in its creation has forgotten a simple truth.

People aren’t interested in what you think of yourself.

People are interested in themselves. It’s why the best direct mail letters speak directly to the reader – about their hopes and fears … their motivations and reservations … their deepest desires and secret feelings.

Why do we have corporate brochures?

Here’s what I think happens when a company embarks on a corporate brochure. First comes the rationale. This varies, but could be:

  1. “We’ve had a great year – let’s tell everyone about how great we are.”
  2. “Our parent company has forgotten we exist.”
  3. “I saw a brochure our competitors put out with their CEO on page 1.”
  4. “Investors are losing confidence in us.”
  5. “If we don’t use up our corporate marketing budget, we won’t get it next year.”

Next, a protracted series of meetings involving lots of board directors who should be busy running the company, where they toss around concepts like “key messages” and photo shoot locations.

Finally, a team of writers, photographers, designers and printers (let’s not forget the printers – they’d be feeding their families on scraps for half the year if it weren’t for corporate brochures) is assembled, briefed and set to work.

Roughly six months later (it takes this long because the CEO, having ignored the detailed running of the communications department for much of the year, suddenly discovers a long-held affinity for editing and art direction), the brochure is unveiled to much tarantara and champagne (the vintage and quality of which determined largely by whatever’s left after the brochure has been printed).

Clients receive them in the post. Exhibition visitors have them thrust hotly into their unwilling hands. Investors and journalists get them in goody bags at swanky receptions.

And guess how many people actually read them? Well, some, I suppose, if we’re being charitable. But how many then go on to behave differently towards the company that issued them? I’d say none. Why is this?

It turns out that wading through page after page of the usual hubristic business-speak leaves your average punter looking for some drying paint to watch as light relief.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Here are a few ideas for a brochure that actually achieves something.

Three tips for better corporate brochures

One, begin by thinking about your reader. Once they have finished reading your brochure, what would you like them to know, feel and commit to?

Do you want them to feel excited about doing business with you? Reassured that their money is in safe hands? Do you want them to pick up the phone and arrange a sales meeting? Send you a cheque for fifty thousand dollars? Apply for a job? Drop that investigation under Sarbanes-Oxley?

It’s all possible. But only if you begin with your reader, not yourself.

Two, remember that for many people, photographs of your directors or office block are of limited interest, however beautifully they’re lit, however artfully they’re composed.

So, for that matter, are abstract or high-art concepts, unrelated pictures of wildlife and the whole panoply of stock images – especially those involving models in business attire or hard hats whom you pretend work for your company.

Three, most corporate brochures are just that. Brochures. And most brochures tend to be produced in a very small range of formats. Choose A4, for example, and you’ll be aligning your business with hundreds of thousands of others.

Your brochure can be shuffled into a deck with all the others before being launched in a graceful parabolic arc … into the bin.

So be creative with the format. A bit creative might mean a square brochure. Very creative might mean ditching the brochure altogether and producing some completely new format. A food package. Or a toy box. A toolkit. Or an artist’s easel.

And I’m telling you this because?

Corporate brochures can serve an important purpose other than demonstrating a company’s overweening pride in its own achievements.

To do so they must focus on the reader, just like a good direct mail letter. Given where most end up, it’s humbling to think how much money gets spent creating matt-laminated, art-directed, foil-blocked, full-colour bin liners.

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