Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

The Plight of B2B Marketing Collateral

At a recent trip to OpenWorld in San Francisco, I collected printed brochures from over 70 companies to see how businesses small and large are represented themselves through the printed medium. And while there are a few bright spots, the vast majority of the companies lacked any unique brand voice to separate themselves in the market.

I recently spent a day in San Francisco at the OpenWorld conference, which is Oracle’s big annual meeting of application users, server admins, database nerds, consultants, Larry Ellison fan boys, and about a jillion vendors all hawking some technology related to the red mothership. Since my company was represented in the latter group, I traveled to the Bay City to see our big booth in action and to do some reconnaissance on competitors.

There were two full conference halls of vendors, and booths ranged from small 10’ x 10’ footprints to monstrous 60’ x 60’ three-ring circuses hosted by Intel, HP, and other major sponsors. It took me a full four hours to walk every aisle.

At the end of the day, my show bag was straining with datasheets, white papers, case studies, corporate profiles, and folders stuffed with technology specs, business cards, flyers, and more. Overall, I collected the following:

  1. Printed collateral from 73 companies, plus two CDs
  2. Ten pens and one automatic pencil
  3. A dinky USB hub that I promptly gave away
  4. One stuffed monkey

Not all companies stocked brochures, and I’m sure I missed a few others. But I tried to get as fair a representation as possible. Since I lead the print designers at my company, I am intensely interested in how companies both smaller and larger present themselves through business collateral. It’s a fascinating subset of the design field, but unfortunately not for the right reasons.

Looking at my new collection from a bird’s eye view, I see three categories of material. First, a few of the top-tier companies like HP and EMC had classy, professional stuff. At the bottom dwelled non-designed, color-photocopied datasheets that just looked like crap, several of which belonged to multi-million dollar businesses, like Perot Systems.

In the middle, and comprising the vast majority of companies, was a sea of conventional, redundant, and totally uninteresting material — completely indistinguishable from each other except for the logos. Common characteristics of this taupe wall of “business design” include the following:

  • Companies either do not understand or do not care about true branding. A few take some baby steps with consistent colors and some selective type choices, but there is no effort to take it the next level through unique design elements, unexpected use of color, differentiating photography or illustration, or out-of-the-box typography. It all just runs together like oatmeal.
  • Stock photography is a tool that is misused by almost every single designer. The same photos appear over and over, and almost invariably include some JC Penny fashion reject staring with conviction into the camera because she — more than anyone else — understands your business needs and knows just how to leverage your infrastructure investment to deliver enterprise-wide ROI. No one is using stock photography with any attempt at originality.
  • The abuse of typography continues. How designers routinely and predictably fail Typography 101 and still retain jobs is beyond me. The scourge of Arialvetica continues unabated. Kerning is a lost art. Rags are jumpy, over-hyphenated, and replete with widows. Text runs to the edge, fills every nook and cranny, and sends white space running to the corners. Worst of all, stuff is just hard to read.
  • Production values ranged from pretty good to last-minute Kinko’s run. There were a few bright spots — nice paper choices, spot varnishes, and even silver foil stamping on one. But most were printed on crap stock on a crappy offset by a crappy pressman who could not even match colors in the same piece. Worse were the companies who had a decent design but just printed it out on the office laser.
  • Content is as bad as ever. Overly complex language continues to run rampant as writers struggle to inflate the importance and impact of their products and services. Clarity is rare. Humility is rarer. Brevity, lightness, and even humor are nonexistent.

Every company in the middle is piddling forward with their no-nonsense, quasi-religious approach to business-to-business marketing. Some have better designs, some have stronger content, and some have a stronger over-all presentation. But they are mired in a swamp of taking themselves too seriously, and they all stubbornly refuse to relinquish the bad habits of stock photos, the color blue, and fucking Arialvetica.

a few high quality companies, a few terrible companies, and a lot of mediocrity inbetween

I blame this vast middle ground of mediocrity on creative management. The creative department is quick to blame marketing management clamoring for big headlines and blinking starbursts and no white space. But it is creative management’s job to drive forward-thinking design, brand voice, and a unique visual identity. B2B designers are not being challenged. The status quo reigns. Creative directors, art directors, and senior copywriters must get out of this rut.

Those that make the effort to elevate their collateral will be rewarded with success in the market, because visual branding, presentation quality, and clarity are noticed by prospects, and ultimately a contributing factor in attracting new business. It’s not easy having a unique voice, which is why so many don’t bother, or fail at trying. But good creative leaders will take their companies to the next level, and probably never look back on that doe-eyed stock model staring into the camera.

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commentary + criticism


wrote the following on Wednesday November 14, 2007

It’s disheartening to hear that software companies are some of the least creative, yet have some of the largest resources. However, a quick scan of some of the world’s largest companies’ websites and you see that internal marketing departments care little for “creative direction”. Most of it is just a sea of bold-faced, underlined, italicized, quoted starbursts.

It’s a wonder when people will actually start paying attention to the studies that almost universally say that design-conscious companies perform better in the market than those who don’t care. UX Magazine recently wrote an article that stated their design-conscious portfolio performed at about 39%, over 10% better than the NASDAQ 100.

Makes you wonder what would happen if design-conscious people were in charge of companies instead of monkeys.


wrote the following on Wednesday November 21, 2007

Arialvetica? Am I missing out on a new swear word :) ?

Why the hostility towards the old Swiss lady and her young American niece?


wrote the following on Wednesday November 21, 2007

Arielvetica? No hostility. Just noticing that one particular font reigns like the fiery eye of Mordor. Not unlike the commentary coming from Jessica Helfand about the over-use of Futura in student work.


wrote the following on Friday January 18, 2008

Your graphic for this article made my day.

Do mid-tier software companies even have creative departments? Back when I was doing prepress, these clients’ files almost invariably came in as Word, Publisher, or — heaven forfend — Corel documents and were clearly an afterthought. Of course it’s been a while so maybe things have changed since then.


wrote the following on Saturday January 19, 2008

As to whether they have marketing and creative departments, I have found that it completely depends on the company and the philosophy of its management. Too many corporate leaders are convinced that their superior product / engineering prowess / customer service is enough to sell the company. In reality that may be true for a certain acceptable level of growth, but to go to the next level, a proper inhouse marketing and creative team is key. I think (and my experience is anecdotal) that companies for the most part, are getting smarter about this.


wrote the following on Tuesday May 6, 2008

You were in geek heaven, looking at companies that are heavy with technology, logic and processes. They are run by technolgy experts and engineers who feel that marketing and sales should be done in a manner that addresses their interests and logical way of doing things. Show me the specs, “speeds and feed” and use cases are the norm. Design is a secondary consideration, slow changing and mired in “what” type thinking instead of “why”. I spend my days working to change that in a company that could have been(but was not)there.


wrote the following on Thursday May 15, 2008

Sadly I do agree with you Edward, I work for one such company and design to them is how much information we can pack into the smallest amount of space. How can we be as complex and wordy as possible to make our solutions seem impressive to perspective engineers? My answer: KISS – Keep it simple stupid

I am doing my best to change the norm with regards to design, print and web marketing but it is an uphill battle that is often met with large degrees of scrutiny and general disdain for “creative” thinking. If you want a challenge, try working for an entire staff of engineers that think they know how to do your job but won’t let you actually apply your experience because their vision(which they don’t tell you cuz its your job to read their minds) is whats important.

So with the respect to what you are seeing at these trade shows, the collateral materials are largely done by people with either engineers over their shoulder saying thats too frou frou or its been farmed out to India where everything returns looking like shit.

And font-wise – Helvetica sucks hairy camel nuts – News Gothic std is a personal favorite – thin and shapely but strong and stately :)


wrote the following on Tuesday July 8, 2008

For whatever reason (price, accessibility of tech students) A huge number of technology companies call the Phoenix area their corporate home. Yet, there is an epidemic of Papyrus use throughout the valley. Landscaping company, High-end technology supplier, it doesn’t matter. They all love their Papyrus, even in primary colors. I welcome Arialvetica with open arms. I think I might marry Univers at this point.