Classy Outfit...Classy Brochure?


Marketers gain the most mileage from their corporate brochures when they focus on the reader - and on how the company can solve customer problems.

by Robert W. Bly



“Every company should have a corporate brochure,” advised Howard G. “Scotty” Sawyer in his book, “Business-to-Business Advertising.”  “A small company in order to become better know, a big company in order to give a clear picture of what has probably become, in the course of growing, a complicated and confused situation.”

Each year, thousands of companies follow Sawyer’s sensible advice.  But unfortunately, the end result leaves much to be desired.  Pick up any firm’s “corporate capabilities brochure” and you’re like to find a brag-and-boast document that puffs the corporate ego but fails to provide useful information to the prospect...a document that’s heavy on superlatives and light on short, a document written for the advertiser - not the potential customer.

To understand why most corporate literature is so bad - and how yours can be better - it helps to know what the corporate capabilities brochure is, and what it is intended to accomplish.

First, you should remember that a brochure - or any single marketing document - cannot do the whole job of selling your company for you.  Your sales success depends on the sum of all your sales and marketing activities, plus the quality of your products, service and people.  It will not be determined simply by what you say in a brochure people may glance at for only a few minutes.

With that in mind, here are four things that corporate literature can do for you - and do well:


·         Save time.  If people don’t know your company, you may find yourself reciting your corporate mission, charter and purpose over and over to new prospects, new people at client companies, vendors, and new employees.  By putting this corporate background on paper, you can save time and quickly communicate who you are and what you do.

Think about whether your target market really needs to know about your firm before they buy your product or service.  If you run a messenger service in New York City, you probably don’t need a corporate brochure.  But if you sell mainframe computers, you probably do.

·         Establish credibility.  Hundreds of thousands of small firms will be started this year and hundreds of thousands will close their doors.  For that reason, prospects are cautious about placing important business in the hands of unknown vendors.  A brochure goes a long way towards establishing credibility.


“Anyone can spend $50 to have letterhead and business cards printed up,” an entrepreneur once told me.  “But a brochure says to your client, ‘Hey, this is a real company!’”

The week I started freelancing, a frantic owner of a small company approached me and said he needed a corporate brochure in a hurry - within three days, if possible.  Why the urgent deadline?  “We pitched a big contract,” he explained, “and the buyer now tells us that our proposal must include a corporate brochure.  If we don’t get one by Thursday, we lose the contract.”

Out of curiosity, I asked how many copies he needed by Thursday.  “Oh, just the one,” he replied.

That isn’t the way to go about getting a brochure produced, of course.  But it does show that, in some situations, having a company brochure can mean the difference between getting the contract and losing the sale.

·         Generate more business.  By highlighting all of your problem-solving activities in a single marketing document, the capabilities brochure helps generate additional sales.  Customers who buy one of your products read it and say, “Hey, I didn’t know you guys also made purple widgets!  Can you give me a quote for 5,000 units?”

By presenting the full spectrum of your capabilities of a glance, the corporate brochure can pull additional sales from current buyers and also help open new accounts.  A company that’s well known in one area may be obscure in another, even though it has an excellent product or service to offer.

The corporate brochure is an ideal forum for highlighting your obscure products and capabilities.  You can give prominent mention to those products or services in your brochure - or even cover them in a separate section for added emphasis.

·         Get your message across.  The corporate brochure is effective for communicating a single message convincingly and forcefully.

A large electronics manufacturer once hired me to write an elaborate corporate brochure on one of their smaller divisions.  I was surprised to learn about the large budget.  It seemed way out of proportion, considering the division’s modest sales.

But, the client told me, “There have been rumors in the industry that we are planning to abandon this product line.  That isn’t so.  The purpose of this brochure is to get the message out that the company is in this technology for the long haul.  We are deliberately making the brochure expensive and elaborate, so that people will realize that we wouldn’t be investing so much money in a brochure unless we were really serious about this business.”  His logic made sense.

And on the flip side, here are two things a corporate brochure cannot do well:

·         Transmit a lot of information.  Because corporate literature gets low readership, your corporate brochure is not the place to tell a detailed product story.  Separate product brochures should be used for selling individual items.  Specific factual references should be incorporated into the corporate brochure, but only to explain or build credibility for the central message you want to communicate.

·         Build image.  A corporate brochure can enhance your image, but won’t build it single-handedly.  “Image” is a perception prospects and customers have of your firm based on all contacts with your firm, both personal and through advertising and promotion.  A single brochure, soon filed or forgotten, can add a touch of class or comfort, but it will not change the reader’s perception of you overnight.


If you really want to change your image, the place to start is with the quality of your product and the courtesy of your service.  The executives at many companies say they want their brochure “to portray an image of being helpful and friendly.”  But too often, those are the same firms that have the rudest receptionists, the most indifferent salespeople and the least helpful customer service departments.

Image is a reflection of reality, and a brochure can only reaffirm what prospects believe about you, not contradict what their real-life experience has been.



Now that we understand what brochure can and cannot do, let’s look at the four basic factors that will help make your company’s brochure an effective marketing tool.  Too often, executives slap together a brochure without asking:

“What’s the brochure’s purpose?”  The overwhelming majority of corporate brochures have no visible purpose or mission.  They simply present information and reproduce attractive photographs.

The key to success is to start with an objective.  I recently wrote a brochure for a firm that prefers civil engineering service to municipal clients.  I asked the president why he needed such a brochure in the first place.

He replied: “When an elected official has to decide which engineering firm should handle a municipal project, he needs to be confident that he is making the right decision and that the decision can be logically defended in case something goes wrong.  The purpose of our brochure is to give that person a comfort level so he or she will not be criticized for selecting us and can defect the decision.”

That is the type of clearly defined objective that is a prerequisite for producing any successful marketing document, include the corporate brochure.

“What information will show prospects how our company can solve their problems?”  In another assignment, a chemical company asked me to write a brochure describing the capabilities of their glass coatings division.  “We want this brochure to be an idea-stimulator,” the client explained.  “Anyone with an application that we might be able to handle should, after reading this brochure, come away with the impression that we can solve their problem for them.”

Problem solving is what 99% of all business products and services are about.  As Bob Donath, editor of BUSINESS MARKETING, points out: “Your readers are looking for solutions to their problems, not information on your people or your company.”  Yet too many corporate brochures talk only about the firm’s excellent staff or reputation or years in business, never showing what the firm can do for the reader.  That’s a mistake.

“How can we make the brochure inviting to readers?”  Corporate brochures typically get low readership.  Engineers, executives, and other business buyers have mentally trained themselves to study product documents but ignore corporate capabilities brochures, which they perceive as self-serving and not containing useful information.

*              Once you understand that the reader is not sitting around waiting to read your new company brochure, you can overcome that built-in uninterested by designing the piece accordingly:

*              Use descriptive headlines and subheads so the person who just skims the headings can get the gist of your story.

*              Break the copy up into very short sections, each with its own subhead.  Short paragraphs and sections get better readership than long blocks of text.

*              Use plenty of photos.

*              Whenever possible, put material in a table, graph, or chart rather than body copy.

*              Include an informative caption with every visual.  Captions get greater readership than body copy.

“Isn’t it best to base the brochure on copy - not design?”  Many art directors will disagree with this point.  But doesn’t it make sense to let form follow content instead of force-fitting copy to fit a design?  (Most artist’s comps, created before copy is written, are drawn to dazzle the client rather than communicate the material to the reader.)



Having said all that, here are 10 tips for creating more effective corporate documents:

1.  Start with a strategy.  What’s the purpose of this brochure?  What should the reader come away with after reading it?  Do we even need a corporate brochure?  Those are the questions you must answer before the first word of copy is written.  Too often, they are never even asked.

2.  Collect all pertinent data.  Facts are what make your message believable and hold the reader’s interest.  Without the facts at his fingertips, even the best corporate writer cannot produce an interesting document. 

Gather all the background material on the company (or division) that is the subject of your brochure. Some of the materials that will help your agency or writer include:


·         sales brochures on all products or services that your brochure will discuss;

·         previous corporate brochures;

·         annual reports for the last three years;

·         copies of employee magazines, company newsletters, customer bulletins and other such periodicals your company has published within the last 12 months;

·         copies of all press releases your firm produced this year;

·         tear sheets of all currently running advertisements;

·         copies of major articles about the company, press clippings and executive speeches;

·         scripts of corporate videos, films, and similar presentations.


Collect about ten times as much material as you think will be needed.  Although reading all of it is time consuming, you never know when a certain fact or statistic will illuminate your message.  A competent writer will study all your information.

3.  Fill in the gaps.  Determine areas of information not covered by the written materials.  Arrange interviews between your writer and company staff members who can fill in the missing details.  Tell the writer who will be interviewed, what that person’s role is, and the purpose of the interview - the nature of the information that must be uncovered during the meeting.

4.  Chicken or the egg?  What comes first - the outline or the layout?  Since you know my bias toward copy first, you know I’m going to say it’s the outline.

Is an outline always necessary?  Not for very short brochures, or brochures describing small organizations with just a few products, services or departments.  It’s also not needed when the company already has a clear vision of the direction and content of the piece.

But for large organizations, companies with a large number of divisions and product lines, or in cases where no one seems certain what should be included in the brochure, an outline is helpful.  Use the standard format of Roman numerals and letters (IA, IB, IIA, IIB, IIC).  That shows the reviewer what facts will be included and how the material will be organized.

Helpful hint: If you’ve deliberately left out certain topics or facts discussed in preliminary meetings, you might type them up on a separate sheet in alphabetical order and attach the list to your outline.  Preface the list with a short introduction that say, “Here are topics not included on the outline.  If you think they should be in the brochure, just add to the appropriate section of the outline.”  That eliminates the “panic” managers feel when they think you have omitted a topic because you were ignorant of it - when in reality, you made a deliberate decision not to include it.

5.  Assemble visual materials.  Go through your photo files and assemble a collection of existing visuals that can be used in your new brochure.

One of the biggest expenses for corporate literature is photography.  Often, however, many of the scheduled shots already exist in someone’s files, unknown to the person coordinating the brochure!  A little digging can save you the expense of duplicating photographs already shot and paid for.

Walk around the company and ask permission to go through the files of those people who keep the best photos.  Check existing brochures and other literature for visuals that can be lifted, and track down the originals.

Helpful hint: If you or your writer will be interviewing people to gather information, always ask them for visuals to illustrate the points they are making.  Even a rough chart or diagram drawn on a sheet of paper can easily and inexpensively be turned into a piece of artwork that embraces your document.  Ask people to show, not just tell.

6.  Tone tips.  Another decision to make is the tone and style of your brochure’s copy.  Should it be serious and “corporate?”  Light and breezy?  Friendly?  Humorous?  High-tech?

Actually, all good copy - whether corporate or promotional - should be simple, direct and easy to read.  My advice is to just write it in a clear, natural, conversational style - much as you would a business letter or an ad.

Don’t try to achieve a deliberate “style,” which will only sound phony and alert the reader that he’s reading “copy” rather than a message from one human being to another.  Above all, avoid the “brag-and-boast” style that pervades so much corporate literature.

7.  Just the facts.  The selective use of specific, factual information is the key to producing a corporate brochure that is both interesting and believable.  Here’s an example - the opening paragraphs from a corporate brochure for RKW Standardbred Associates:

“From British Columbia to Florida’s Gold Coast, from southern California to tranquil Prince Edward Island, the Standardbred horse racing and breeding industry is a multibillion dollar business and part of the third largest spectator sport in North America.”

“In 1986, attendance at harness tracks totaled just under 26 million people.  These people wagered slightly less than 5.2 billion dollars on more than 57 thousand different horses which raced for 511 million dollars in purses.”

The lazy copywriter would have been content to begin: “Horse racing and breeding is a big business in America.  And RKW Standardbred Associates is proud to be a part of it.”

Which opening do you think is more interesting to read?

8.  Future vs. present.  Another question that must be resolved is: Should the brochure talk about our company as it is now or about how we will be (or want to be) in the future?  Should we focus on our current business or our goals, dreams, plans and ambitions?

Readers distrust brochures that spend more time gazing into crystal balls than they do discussing the hard realities of today’s marketplace.  At the same time, what better place to share your plans with your customers than in a corporate brochure?

The solution is to write a brochure that’s firmly grounded in today’s reality but also takes a brief peak into the future.  As a rule of thumb, I recommend that 80 to 85% of your brochure should focus on current products and services, while 15 to 20% should discuss products, goals, and directions that are likely to come to fruition within the next three years or so.

9.  Build in a response device.  The back page of your brochure should include the address and phone number of your headquarters and all branch and regional offices, including those overseas.  After reading your brochure, the prospect may want to contact you, and I find it absurd that so many corporate brochures and annual reports don’t include any address or phone number.

In addition, you should include a reply card (either loose or bound in) that the reader can send in to receive a detailed bulletin on any product or service mentioned in your corporate brochure.

Many people tell me they think a reply card is inappropriate because the corporate brochure is for building image, not making sales.  Even so, some readers will have an immediate need for a product or service described in your literature.  Why deny yourself a sale by making it hard for those folks to reach you?

10.  Distribute the brochure widely.  Many people also tell me that they limit the distribution of their corporate brochure, treating it much like the holy grail.   “After all,” they note, “it’s expensive.”

But, as anyone familiar with production know, the real cost comes from printing Copy No. 1.  After that, ordering another 5,00 or 10,000 is really a minimal expense compared with what it took to get that first copy off the press.

According to Scotty Sawyer, the people who should receive your new brochure include employees, distributors, dealers, suppliers, customers, prospects, community business groups, local banks, elected officials, shareholders, financial analysts and trade journal editors.

So, why not print up a few extra copies, and get your message out?