Get The Cobbler Some Shoes! (or, Marketing with Smarter Design)

September 28, 2015 Written by Joe Menth

Ah, marketing. The last priority on the list of to-dos for the small business owner. It eludes even we who offer graphic design for our clients’ marketing efforts.

I started my “real life” in the “real world” while I was still in college, going to an art school nights and working full time at a high-tech corporation in marketing. Technically, I started in admin assistance (read: lackey), and then found myself somehow in IT, and then was taken under the wing of the former VP of Worldwide Marketing at HP back in the day, who had come to our little tech company to teach us a few things…

In the beginning, I didn’t know squat about marketing. The education I was getting touched on graphic design, but not marketing, and I wasn’t a sales guy that could be “groomed” for marketing.

But I understood the technology our company sold, and I was in art school. So this hotshot former VP decided I could be molded into a corporate marketing guy.

Fast forward past the dot-com crash (the first one), past the biotech bust, the two layoffs in two years, the unemployment downward spiral, and I wound up on Whidbey Island starting a gallery with my family. Fast forward another three years and we’d morphed the gallery into what is now Fine Balance Imaging, designed from the start to provide artists with the services and products they need to make a living selling their art.

Though things have changed a bit over the years – evolved, rather. I chose a couple of years into our little printing endeavor to begin offering design services. It started small, but I pulled on those early years of tech marketing to polish up my skills and provide some leverage for assisting some artists, small businesses and local non-profits with what I thought was pretty good branding advice. After all, I’d helped with the corporate rebranding of two big tech companies when they merged (of course, my marketing department was laid off as part of the fallout of the merger, but they used us to rebrand the new company before letting us all go).

Early on, I thought I was pretty slick with the “branding” and “marketing” I was offering. Got knocked down a few times, got a little humility, and decided to re-evaluate my design and marketing education.
Read a lot of books. Studied a lot of design. Realized I had a lot to learn. And then I learned it.

Fast forward again, and here we are, ten plus years into a printing studio where graphic design services and the resulting marketing, promotion and branding printing we do makes up almost half our revenue, alongside all of the fine art printing, photo printing and other in-house high end large format work we do.

I’ve helped some local non-profit organizations completely rebrand themselves.

New Stories brand development

New Stories brand development

Not just a quickie logo design, but a complete user interface for their website too (coded by a developer, but designed by me), as well as a style guide for the use of the types of imagery, type styles, and the like, that make up the whole package of a “brand”.

Smaller quickie design jobs for all kinds of local businesses are commonplace. Yes, I can knock out a simple logo in a few days, maybe a couple weeks.

Salon Bella logo on copper foil business card

Salon Bella logo on copper foil business card

I much prefer the “not on a budget” longer-term jobs where I can get to know the people – the passion behind the businesses – to really get into a design and craft something worthy.

I really love graphic design. It’s one of my favorite things to work on. I love choosing from the thousands of typefaces to find one that’s just right (Extensis Suitcase is great for that, by the way). I love working a concept through multiple iterations until it just clicks with the client and they know intuitively that’s exactly what they were thinking, even when they couldn’t find any words to describe what they wanted.

But try as I might, year after year, I cannot seem to market my own way out of a wet paper bag.

Most of my clients don’t know half of what we offer in the studio because I can’t seem to find a way to tell them.

I’ve tried again and again to come up with brochures, rack cards, flyers, posters, and even the wording and images on our own website here just…aren’t…good…enough.

It’s like the cobbler who can make and fix anyone’s shoes, but whose children have none of their own. Heck, his whole family is shoeless, and yet he toils day in and day out making beautiful footwear for the whole damn town.

An aside: that particular phrase, “the Cobbler’s children have no shoes”, supposedly originated very early on – 1546 in fact – but it was the wife who was lacking in the soles… To wit: “But who is wurs shod, than the shoemakers wyfe, With shops full of newe shapen shoes all hir lyfe?”
from John Heywood’s Proverbs part i chapter xi, published in 1546 (and quoted later by Richard Graves in The Spiritual Quixote, published in 1773…these guys found it here.

But I digress.  I do that a lot.

So…we have this great opportunity to be a vendor at a printing conference where I’m actually bumping elbows with some industry bigwigs and am leading an educational seminar myself alongside some photography, printing and marketing experts.  And I need some brochures.

I’m trying again.

Here are the sketches…

And the first draft of the first brochures out of three I’m trying to come up with and get printed in under a week (because our own marketing of course always comes last, which means last minute design and ordering of the printed materials).

Rhiannon took a look at it and offered up some big suggestions.  Right in line with what I say but never do. It’s about the benefits…not the features.

Back in the day, in corporate marketing, I learned one big thing that they’ll tell you in any sales or marketing education: talk about the benefits, not the features.  Engineers and sales people always want to list off all the features…what tech specs the product has…how powerful it is…the size and shape of it.  Or a big list of every single product a company offers. In a product matrix.  It’s horrible.

But we’ve learned, haven’t we?  Look at one of the most successful easy go-to examples of good product with good marketing.  Of course, I’m talking about Apple. It’s obvious, I know.  But it’s because of what they’ve done with the emotional hook.

Think about it.  Their marketing is short, sweet, to the point, and it hooks you. They talk about it in one-word nuggets. “Thin. Light. Epic.” is the latest…or “Light. Years ahead.” See what they did there? Nothing but fluff. But it makes you want to know more.

And I’d fallen down the rabbit hole of trying to list all the products.  Well, I do somehow have to list all the products…or, services rather. Still. That’s no hook.

Rhiannon, bless her, brought me back from the brink. We worked it together and overhauled the brochure design to focus on the emotional hook, the “why” of working with our studio, before leading into the “what”.

So here’s the latest iteration. It’ll probably change a bit, but it’s getting there. Also, it’s smartly using upcycled design assets I’d already used in other forms on the website and our in-studio display banners. So I’m not reinventing the wheel.

Oh, and those benefits of great design I was referring to? In the end, it has little to do with the “features” (the specific products or services you offer). Here are some takeaways:

  1. Great design pushes you outside of your own bubble; it challenges who you think you are (or what your business or brand represents).  Getting uncomfortable with something new, and having the right messaging and “look” can stretch you to find the best possible way to relate to your clients or customers.
  2. Working with someone who has good design sense – a heightened aesthetic – can breed innovation. Co-creating something leads the way for deeper collaboration, sometimes resulting in whole new ways of looking at your existing skills, services or even whole new product lines.
  3. That co-creative inspiration often reveals new perspectives on your own work, brand or messaging. This can assist in differentiating you from your competition in pretty big ways.
  4. Simplicity is an emergent phenomenon of throwing complexity at the wall and seeing what sticks. We all want to start with too much: too many words (I’m especially guilty of this!), unnecessary product matrixes and tables and charts, the ever-present plea to “make the logo bigger”, or the desire to list every last possible thing you offer all in one piece of marketing material. Working the problem with a good designer allows simplicity to emerge from the ashes of chaos.
  5. It’s more about the experience you’re providing than the products you’re selling.  We champion this in our business all the time through the talk…but the walk shows it to be true: we care more about the relationship with our clients than the list of services we’re trying to sell them and what the profit is.
  6. Identity is everything. Especially today in a world where transparency is becoming paramount: be who you say you are and show it’s true through the way you speak about yourself. No one likes false advertising.

So, we arrived at the final design for brochure number one by refocusing on the customer experience. Rather than listing the products and services we sell up front on the first panel of the brochure, we changed the messaging to these simple hooks:

“Your Art has Unlimited Potential.
Your Photos have Life Beyond the Screen.
Your Designs want to be Seen and Touched.
Your Business has a Creative Partner.
No Minimums.
No Limits.”

That feels so much more intriguing than a list that says “Fine Art & Photos, Metal & Wood Prints, Canvas Gallery Wraps, Design & Layout, Banners & Posters, Decals & Wall Cling, Custom Dye Sub Printing, All Over Shirt Printing”.

See the difference?

I guess, in this case, it’s a really good thing that this cobbler’s soon-to-be-wife can make her own shoes. And help the cobbler fix his when they’re broken.