Once a staple of the direct marketing world, the catalogue is coming back, but this time it’s personalised and more effective than ever. Jim Bower spoke to two printers who produce them.

‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ says the old (and generally inaccurate) adage. Print-based marketing was supposed to have been killed off by electronic communication, and a clear candidate product for extinction was the catalogue. Why put your information in a bulky tome when it can be presented and collated online – and promotions based on customer searches and behaviour can be zapped directly to their desktops?

Well, there are signs that the printed catalogue is far from dead, and may be set to make a comeback, and it’s not just the short-term GDPR bounce which is driving it.

Aside from being one of the few companies in Europe with a full stop in its name, Nic.Oud is notable as the world’s first user of the Screen Truepress Jet 520HD following an installation in 2015.

The company lays claim to the top spot when it comes to direct mail in The Netherlands, having always specialised in this sector since its foundation in 1976. It employs 170 full-time staff at its factory in Heerhugowaard in the west of the country.


Growing ambitions

To this day the bulk of its activity is in mailing and fulfilment, but in the past decade the company has taken several steps towards production print – beginning with address labels and simple black-only overprinting, and then graduating to more sophisticated colour work using Xerox iGen machines. The arrival of the roll-fed Truepress represented a major shift as the company became a serious production printer capable of producing a huge range of work, and able to take on more ambitious print projects.

‘We were drawn to Screen because we felt they were focused on the graphical elements of the machine as well as other aspects such as the RIP and the transactional capability,’ says financial director Maurice Gelissen. ‘When we installed the Truepress we judged it to be the highest quality inkjet machine on the market, but ultimately we are judged by response rates, and the Truepress delivers products which work.’

The Truepress has enabled Nic.Oud to produce multipage magazines and catalogues which are collated inline, and incorporate an almost infinite level of variability. This has enabled Mr Gelissen and his team to find a niche – namely supporting online retailers with highly targeted product catalogues.

‘There is work to be done selling the idea of print to digital marketers, as they are used to the idea that print is a “one size fits all” product,’ says Mr Gelissen. ‘They can segment their database any way they like and target their online marketing with great precision. Our message to them is, we can now do the same with print.’

When Dutch online children’s clothing retailer Kixx took the decision to support its online activity with a highly targeted print campaign by Nic.Oud, the results were immediate.

Sixteen different variables went into the production of a mailed catalogue which was highly personal to each customer. If they had a six year-old daughter, and a nine year-old son, the catalogue only included appropriate items for those ages and genders. Other factors included brand and style preference, purchase history and location.

‘Sales increased immediately, and they stayed up for a far longer period than would be expected for online campaigns,’ says Mr Gelissen. ‘Print has an appeal which lasts – look at the Ikea catalogue for example, most people keep it for a whole year and when asked they know where they put it. The Kixx catalogues were 32 pages – so a lot more economical to post – and designed with a cover which appealed directly. As well as these gains, having a targeted product the customer wants to keep is a great way to reinforce a brand.’


Sleepers awake

Mr Gelissen cites a second example of targeted publications for the well-known cash & carry Makro. In this instance Nic. Oud produced four- or eight-page documents containing 20 product offers, selected from a full range of 200, and they were so well targeted that of 60,000 produced, only 35 were identical. ‘The objective with our Makro catalogue was to reactivate “sleepers” – people who had not placed an order for some time,’ he says, ‘which we achieved. The client was delighted.’

Closer to home, Pureprint Group is one of the UK’s biggest printers with a turnover in excess of £60 million and around 450 staff. Around £25 million of that turnover figure is accounted for by digital print, the majority servicing a healthy point-of sale market, but the company still produces digital print on paper to the tune of around £10 million value per year.

Pureprint has embraced HP Indigo technology and now runs six indigo machines, three SRA3 7800 machines, two B2 10000 machines and a 12000, also B2. Sales and marketing director Richard Owers considers the Indigo to be the ultimate high quality digital solution. ‘In the early days of digital we would have restrictions on the paper we could use, but now that’s largely a thing of the past,’ he says. ‘We’re also confident that we can match litho quality. With these factors being equal, the decision to print with the Indigo machines is usually down to run length, but with our help, customers are starting to realise the benefits of variable data.’

Mr Owers has several examples of how data-driven catalogue print has worked successfully for Pureprint and its customers, and like their counterparts at Nic.Oud, a principal source of this work has become the online world.

In the pre-internet era, travel companies would produce bulky catalogues for display in the typical high street travel agent, in the hope they would be browsed by the potential holidaymaker. Although this is still the case, nowadays people are more likely to browse the internet when holiday shopping, and often end up with a bespoke package, created online.

‘Effectively people can build their own holiday brochures and compile all the information they need in one place,’ says Mr Owers. ‘They can then have the option to have this presented to them in the form of a bespoke PDF which they can store and print – or increasingly, they can choose to have a hard copy professionally printed and posted to them. These are by nature one-off highly personalised documents. It’s better for us if we can batch print where possible but the technology allows us to run off one copy and then move on.’


Brochure of one

Gone are the days when variable data meant a simple text change – a library of colour imagery and design elements can be incorporated. ‘This type of travel promotion can be every bit as sophisticated as other kinds of promotional document in terms of content and print quality,’ according to Mr Owers. ‘Especially at the high end of the travel market, bespoke holiday itineraries have the look and feel of quality brochures.’

Another similar application of digital technology producing bespoke documents for mailing is the prospectus, a common task for Pureprint. ‘Rather than mailing a 300-page document with a high percentage of irrelevant information, it is much more sensible – and economical – to send a product with greatly reduced pagination. Again the content is driven by online selections.’

He continues: ‘It sounds almost counter-intuitive for a printer to say this, but we often find ourselves telling a client that they can achieve more by printing less! A document with fewer pages but containing better information, targeted well, can be more cost-effective.’

This new data-driven style of bespoke printing leads to challenges for the printer, who must seamlessly slot into a process – and it’s all about data handling.

‘We print, bind, fulfil and distribute, but we don’t generate the data,’ says Mr Owers. ‘We do need to be able to handle it correctly and ensure our systems link seamlessly with our customers, that’s why we employ a team of 11 specialist programmers.’

Of course, not all printers will have a team of programmers at their disposal. These examples show how larger wellresourced companies, who are also already well-versed in the logistics of data manipulation, can turn a profit from data-driven variable print and bring a tidy return on investment for their customers.

It’s a fair bet that what is at the cutting edge today will filter through to the mainstream tomorrow; when the majority of businesses are marketing to ever-narrower market segments, printers – even the small ones – will have to adapt and follow. The lesson is, know your customer, and know how to use their information to your mutual benefit. Don’t just print. Learn to use data, and well.

The good news is that the brave new world will contain plenty of print, if these examples are anything to go by. Richard Owers says, ‘There are growing signs that print is being seen as an effective way of cutting through the digital blizzard, where we are hit with so many messages all the time that engagement rates are really low. We deal with three or four very large digital customers who are getting into physical marketing – in other words, print – for the first time, and they are getting much better response rates than they have for electronic marketing.’