The Pandemic Effect on Folders, Brochures and Other Printed Items Exchanged Between Hands
There’s an old expression: “I’ve got your six.” For those unfamiliar with military speak, it’s another way of saying, “I’ve got your back.” This sentiment got Will Brueske through some tough times when he served as a U.S. Army captain. But now it has taken on a different meaning for the current sales manager of North Mankato, Minnesota-based FolderWorks, Powered by Navitor, as he and his industry peers weather the pandemic.
“From a direct sales approach, this is the mentality we’ve implemented for our external clients and internal partners,” Brueske said. “From a marketing perspective, we’ve developed ideas and initiatives to convey a more consultative approach to our distributors. ... It’s who we are and what we do.”
There are stark differences between the COVID-19 recession and the Great Recession. In 2009, the U.S. economy dipped because major structural issues were exposed and a large portion of the financial system collapsed. The decline, though gradual, resulted in widespread business closures and job losses. There were no roles waiting to be filled when recovery began. With COVID-19, there were no obvious warning signs. Closures were abrupt for reasons beyond companies’ control.
“COVID hit the economy like a spigot,” Mardra Sikora, CEO of Pocket Folders Fast, Omaha, Neb., remarked. “Everyone was tooling right along and then: off. Not only did no one really see it coming, but businesses were inclined to stop everything, assuming it would be only a metaphorical moment.”
In the tale of two recessions, there is one common theme: slashed marketing budgets. As printers of folders and brochures—products that rely on human interaction and the exchanging of hands—can attest, it’s not a memory anyone wants to revisit.
“From a folders perspective, there were no real surprises,” Brueske admitted. “We knew we would take a tremendous hit once everything shut down.”
“As an essential business, we were able to keep our doors open and our presses running for the duration of 2020,” he said. “But the impact of the pandemic closed many of our customers’ doors (some temporarily and some permanently). We have not seen a dip in volume this significant in the life of our company.”
Investing in the Future
As Sikora pointed out, companies quickly found themselves not only needing to reach their clients, but also their own employees. Short-run projects that involved personalization, a technique that Sikora is fanatical about, were often inward-facing communications rather than outward marketing pieces.
“[The] Pocket Folders Fast team worked to help clients connect via personalized folders and short-run packaging options that required quick turns to solidify the end-users’ messages of community, most often utilized during shifts to virtual events and year-end gifting,” she recalled.
The migration to remote work presented a different set of challenges. Since many people were working from home, their access to marketing materials was limited.
“The need was there, but the physical access was not,” noted Kendra Bringman, vice president of distributor development and relations for The Leslie Company, Olathe, Kan. “People got creative on shar[ing] information with others and more marketing materials were sent to personal homes [as] opposed to generic offices.”
She explained that pre-pandemic, companies would bulk ship pocket folders to the office to be collated and filled with the miscellaneous marketing collateral on-site. Following the onset of COVID, manufacturers were providing the fulfillment and drop shipments of the complete pocket folder marketing materials. The Leslie Company team asked thoughtful questions about the purpose and goal of the entire project to brainstorm ways to execute marketing initiatives in the most efficient and safe manner possible.
Other folder and brochure companies redirected their focus to pandemic-inspired print collateral to make up lost revenue. For example, Independent Folders designed and went to market with several Social Distancing Cue products, including countertop displays, floor graphics, yard signs and posters. After that, they responded to the heightened need for packaging caused by the flux of online orders and curbside services.
“We added to our packaging offering (products like premium litho-wrapped packaging) and participated in educational webcasts on Packaging 101 led by two of our veteran sales managers,” Gingle said. “In fact, we are currently producing a COVID test kit box for one of our trusted distributor partner’s customers.”
FolderWorks used the downtime to examine their capabilities. Over the past year and a half, the supplier invested in its capital expenditures—upgrading current equipment while adding new services.
“We now have more efficient and cost-effective processes in place for advanced finishes involving foils, laminates and Scodix,” Brueske said. “These new capabilities allow our clients to offer their end-customers more high-end finishing options at an even lower price point with quicker turnarounds. Shop time for folders with added embellishments like lamination and foil have now been cut in half.”
Knowing Where to Go
Fast forward to late 2020. Vaccines were on the horizon, and it was the snippet of good news the country needed. But business hadn’t caught up. FolderWorks surveyed its distributor partners, and the results were troubling, with more than half of participants ranking themselves “low” on the ability to generate new business. That same amount wanted content ideas and recommendations for channels like social media, emails and blogs, prompting FolderWorks to launch Outreach Kits.
“The response was outstanding,” Brueske enthused. “The Outreach Kit walks our distributors through things like verticals to target, personas to reach out to and tips on various things like drafting effective email communications, social media posts and days/times to post based on social medium, calling on prospects and customers, hosting video meetings, upselling and cross-selling, etc.”
At press time, 48.4% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. Travel is resuming, in-person trade shows and events are returning, and business activity is increasing.
“I have always said that folders are a barometer of what’s going on in the national economy,” Sikora maintained. “Last April, nearly every folder on our floor was medically related. Once the stimulus loans were being discussed, we saw bank and attorney folders pick up, and so, earlier this year when hotel ‘key folder’ orders began again, I admit, I danced in the aisle.”
According to Sikora, any market that transacts, estimates, contracts and includes introductions or education (internal and external) benefits from branded pocket folders. However, one area that’s picking up, she observed, is local marketing. Many are itching to travel this summer, but some vacation goers want to stay closer to home. Sikora urged distributors to check with their local travel bureau and chamber of commerce to make sure they have all the tools to lure drivers as opposed to fliers. (Speaking of staycationers, we’d be remiss to mention the spike in folder requests from realtors due to the real estate boom.)
And while the medical vertical remains hot, the demand has evolved. Again, distributors should think local—as in clinics and specialists. Sikora suggested dermatologists, dentists and orthodontists, sleep specialists, eye centers, podiatrists, physical therapy facilities, behavioral health, cosmetic surgeons and sports medicine.
“We’ve seen an influx from these markets, and it only makes sense, as many people put off non-emergency medical treatments over the last year, so I’m sure they are seeing an uptick in their busy scheduling,” she said. “Also, this group involves higher consumer involvement in the choice of provider, therefore requiring clinics to provide educational and marketing materials for consumers to make their decision.”
It is also important to remember that the industries that have been slow to recover are just now using their back stock of product.
“Reorder business is just delayed, not gone forever,” Bringman reminded. “It is our job to be proactive with our customer, communicate the current climate of our industry and be ready to go when it’s time for the order.”
Earning the Business
Right now, the most common emotional messages brands want to convey revolve around trust and safety, connection and innovation. Sikora said this can be accomplished tactilely through stock, design and finishing choices that tie a brand to a person’s senses.
“Heavier stocks convey a sense of security,” she said. “Messages emphasizing community and connection use soft-touch finishes. Innovation is demonstrated via dimensional effects and custom sizes, windows or other enhancements that differentiate.
“Interestingly, soft touch began as a tactile trigger for luxury—used most frequently in retail and high-end automotive markets,” Sikora continued. “However, soft touch evolved to mainstream and solidifies messages of connection and community, often used by hospitals, real estate, and retirement or assisted living centers. Throughout 2020, soft touch seemed almost Freudian in its virtual touch from business to client/consumer.”
Sikora gave the example of a bank that may be using a folder to communicate introductory information. Financial institutions, along with attorneys, traditionally opt for deep blue or forest green linen stocks, offset by metallic ink or foil. Package it all together and the final product may look like this: a deep blue folder exhibiting long-term security via gold or silver foil, and 100# cover weight for the stock to earn trust and awaken the tactile senses.
“This is based on true studies, but you should also demonstrate it to your clients with sample options,” Sikora advised. “Personal comparison solidifies any study finding.”
Gingle echoed this sentiment. “We continue to encourage samples, samples, samples—seeing, touching, feeling sells,” he stressed. “We have an extensive sample library that includes printed products [and] target market kits, as well as mock-ups and digital proofs.”
He said he is encouraged by the upswing in folder and brochure orders he’s seen over the past couple of months. Beyond packaging, Independent Folders is testing anti-microbial laminations and coatings that are suitable for folders and other printed products excluding e-flute materials (e.g., brochures, folding cartons, key cards and binders). Of course, it’s impossible to guarantee “germ-free” products, but Gingle believes these advances will provide an extra layer of reassurance to end-users and their customers.
As with any product, embellishments are nice, but it all comes down to what distributors do with them—and that is the best predictor of their 2021 success.
“We can all be doing more to help our customers,” Bringman concluded. “Mix up the communication style. If you feel most comfortable texting, change it up with a quick phone call. If your marketing outreach is primarily email blast, send a postcard in the mail. This challenges all of us to get out of [our] comfort zone and recharge the creative thinking with our customers.”