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Do your clients view you as nothing more than a printer? Is that what you want? I don't think so. You're a service provider, and that service happens to be printed graphics. These days, customers care a lot less about which printing method you use, as long as they get the quality they want and get the product on time. Successfully branding your business involves more than just being a printer. So let's expand our focus beyond simply being people who produce and sell graphics. Let's consider why we should promote our overall expertise as our brand, rather than just allowing our graphics to represent that brand.

Where do you fit?

Are you known around town as the digital printer? The fact that you may specialize in transit graphics, outdoor signage and billboards, trade-show displays, imaging on fabrics, or point-of-purchase kits is lost on the customers who simply know you as a digital printer. My previous column talked about the importance of not being put into a box. To be labeled or categorized as a digital printer only assists buyers in comparing your work quotes to those of other vendors in the area. After all, they're digital printers too.

So, what is a digital printer? Well, buyers think of anyone who can switch on a wide-format inkjet and image onto a wide variety of substrates as a digital printer. They're basically right. And based on that assumption, if 20 shops in town operate wide-format inkjets, then buyers have 20 options from which to choose. The buyer controls the market. But how many of those 20 shops are truly experts at digital printing? What makes you the expert? It's what you do in addition to the printing that creates the expertise that will make the other 19 choices in the market less desirable.

The inkjet printer is a tool that enables you to produce all kinds of graphics, but the ability to design, prototype, and install the graphics makes you the top player in a crowded market. I believe the printing part of the business is not that complicated and requires the least long-term investment. In-stead, the people who create your businesses proficiency are the key, and they should be the real focus of your company's investment strategy. Your talent is valuable intellectual property.

Let's take a company that specializes in fabric printing as an example. Many digital devices can print directly onto fabrics or print dye-sublimation graphics that can be transferred to fabrics. Becoming a recognized authority in this niche requires specialized equipment, skills in design and engineering, knowledge of various fabric types and their characteristics, and experience and tools for sewing and finishing. Overlooking any of these mandatory elements renders you nothing more than a digital printer and an amateur. If you lack the expertise in these areas, then I don't see how you could speak with any authority to a customer who, for example, would like fabric graphics stretched and mounted on a uniquely shaped frame.

The ability to discuss the project with the customer, talk about options, and demonstrate how you'll deliver the quality and turnaround adds value way beyond just offering a competitive price. Can the other 19 print shops in town offer the kind of extra value that builds on a price that satisfies both the customer and the printer's bottom line? Not unless they can recommend the perfect material, come through with the sewing techniques that will prevent the product from wrinkling during installation, and create a prototype in close collaboration with the display-hardware manufacturer. But these tasks are no problem for your shop because you offer so much more expertise than just imaging on fabric. That expertise is the brand you need to use when you market your services. Building a brand around shaving a few pennies off the cost of a print run won't bring you much success.

Your brand is the cornerstone of who you are, what you do, how you do it, and what makes you different from the competition. It's your company's philosophy—its essence. The concept sounds easy to understand, but communicating it is another story. Quick and concise descriptions of how you achieve your final product will resonate with your prospective clients.

The message may take time to develop, but you can start by exploring a short cut. Search the Internet for your specialty (i.e., printing on fabrics). What do you find? Right before your eyes are hundreds of companies describing their focus on fabric decoration. Which shops did a great job of explaining in a sentence why fabric decoration is not just printing? Which ones lost the significance of the expertise? The description should create an image in the prospective buyer's mind of exactly how you want to be perceived.

On the flip side, clients and prospects also surf vendors' Web pages to develop a very quick understanding of what is available in the industry. The message you create for your own Website must be consistent with the pitch you make when you meet potential clients in person.

The new buzzword for the branding industry is customer-centric branding. Under this model, the job of a com-pany is to create value, communicate value, deliver value, and ultimately innovate value. The value message your company promotes must have the client at its center. Also note that companies that offer innovative value, which lawyers call intellectual property, are usually considerably more successful than those that do not.

Much of what creates value requires investment. That means spending money on knowledgeable and talented people, modern equipment, and up-to-date software. The big decisions you face are where you'll spend limited resources (remember, investment capital is normally finite) and how the customer-centric approach will take center stage in the process.

If we use the term innovative value as part of the assessment, the following questions fit perfectly: To create innovative value in our market segment, in which area should we invest? Do we need more printing equipment? Do we need faster printing equipment? Would software additions or upgrades create more value? Should we hire people who possess certain skills and knowledge, and will that create more value?

I truly believe that investment in intellectual property always creates more value for everyone. But if you simply want to be known as the most progressive digital shop among the 19 other shops in town, by all means move all of your money into bigger and faster inkjets. Just be ready for competition to increase as other companies around you do the same. What will you do when that happens?

Printing companies always have a difficult time setting themselves apart from their competition. Shops that specialize in digital imaging fall into this same trap and are often faced with greater challenges. For example, many of those who work in market segments such as offset printing have ventured into the world of large-format digital imaging. They have technologically comparable printing equipment, but many lack the expertise in, and understanding of, how the final print will be used. That is your big window of opportunity. Use your innovative value and customer-centric branding to shut out the shops that are content with simply being printers.


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