Back in 1988, when I joined the new marketing team at The Mayflower Theatre, just about the first thing we did was redesign the season brochure. (It’s something new people like to do.) We hired a top local designer. Everyone thought it was beautiful. I thought it was beautiful. It was beautiful.

But when I look back, I realise just how poor it was. This was not the designer’s fault. He did as requested and created a brochure that was superb to look at. It was our fault in not understanding that a brochure should be about compelling shows, not corporate classiness.

Since then, I’ve carried out research and I’ve read research, volumes of it. I now know so much that I get called upon for advice by theatres who want to improve the effectiveness of their season brochure. The funny thing is, though, we marketing people often know less than the person in the street about the basics of a good brochure.

There may be a lot of subtle stuff going on regarding the psychology of colours and the science of eye tracking but everyone knows whether the cover made them want to pick it up and read it. Except the marketing people who already have it in their hand.

The public know whether the pictures were attractive or boring, whether the headlines and straplines engaged their attention, whether the copy told a story that made them want to see the show or buy the product.

The reader knows whether he or she could actually read those words. This is a good moment to stop the litany of woes and dwell on this point. To me, it is plain common sense that the text needs to be big enough and contrast enough with the background to be able to be read.

This is without the research that proves comprehension drops dramatically along with smaller type sizes or a change from any colour other than black on white. I don’t entirely blame the designers. They sit in front of their Apple computers which either show the letters magnified when they’re working on detail or as a block when they’re considering the overall design. I do blame you- the marketing guy, the business owner- who should provide the bridge between aesthetics and the real world in which we communicate with customers.

You don’t have to go very far to find this surrender-to-the-designer syndrome. Look at any rack of brochures in a Tourist Information Centre. Tiny red type on a black background or white reversed out of a multi-coloured photo looks lovely, unless you want someone to actually read the it. In these times of reduced funding, arts venues can’t afford to produce print that people can’t read.

The good news is that, as the baby boomers get older, attitudes are changing. I find it interesting that many magazines have got the message that their customers need clear type. Take a look at Woman & Home or the Radio Times now and a year ago and see the difference. Hopefully the rest, including arts venues, will follow their lead.

In a few years’ time, another generation on, it probably won’t matter because we will be looking at electronic forms of brochures where we can zoom in on the type and probably even change the colours if we don’t like them. But in the meantime, brochures with their power to be picked up randomly, sent in the post, browsed through and conveniently left on the coffee table, are still a powerful tool.

If you doubt that, consider that Next have just sent me two telephone directory size hard cover catalogues and even though Argos have cut their catalogue print run from 20 million to 16 million, they still reckon 85% of customers buy from it.

Catalogues, brochures, call them what you will, are not going out of print just yet. So, for the time being, if you’re publishing one, you might as well make sure your audience can read it.

 

This blog was written by Paul Lewis, owner of the marketing consultancy The Lewis Experience and online retailer Your Life Your Style, and former Head of Marketing and Operations at The Mayflower Theatre. You can connect with him on Google+ and LinkedIn.