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Marchand--Now's Your Chance to Integrate Operations

December 1998
The good news: There's breathing room. The bad news: The breathing is difficult.

For the first time in more than a decade, there appears to be no entirely new printing technology perched just over the horizon. Printing executives have been given a breathing spell—time to integrate into their manufacturing and marketing operations the innovations that have engaged them ever since the arrival of desktop publishing.

In many quarters, this is a welcome development, leaving sales and marketing managers with the time to think about how they'll get laggard customers to avail themselves of capabilities that are poorly understood and little used. This is a task of Herculean proportions.

Take as an example the enormously difficult marketing problems created by the improved short-run efficiency of conventional presses. The ante is raised still further by fully digital presses with versioning and customization capabilities added to their short-run efficiency.

As this equipment came out of beta and into daily use, it soon became apparent that customers have a difficult time understanding and acting on the advantages these presses confer. (It might be helpful to note that for the purposes of this marketing discussion, I make no distinction between copiers and presses, toner and ink, or between conventional and fully digital equipment. The lines separating them are increasingly blurred and, seen from a marketing perspective, the differences will decrease still more in the years immediately ahead.)

Resistant Buyers
In corporate organizations, print production and print buying staff work within a prevailing paradigm. They seek to maximize the process as it came to be understood early in this decade. They are not paid to be marketers.

Already familiar with e-mail and soon thereafter with digital production, buyers and production staff were able to understand and adopt file transmission technology, even if more reluctantly than expected.

These technologies eventually speeded up and eased a complex process at a time when buyers were under unrelenting time pressure.

Short-run conventional and fully digital presses pose a different kind of challenge. To realize their benefits, customers must develop a new approach to marketing their products and services. Print buyers perceive the opportunities only dimly, if at all. They are not empowered to address such questions and, if they were, are likely to resist what may appear to be a threatening change.

Put simply, the applications of digital technology in this aspect of the print manufacturing process have outrun not merely customer utilization but their understanding too. Hence the difficult breathing in commercial printing companies that have adopted the technology but find it difficult to sell.

The difficulty verges on asphyxiation in more than a few smaller companies that have opened with plant and equipment built almost entirely around short-run digital. Many of them have been forced to depend on small business and consumers while waiting for corporate and large retail demand.

What to Do?
There are print users inherently able to understand the short runs, versioning and customization—direct mailers and catalogers foremost among them. AEC (architects, engineers, construction) belongs on the list, too.

In the long run, the greatest gains will come only when forces already at work elsewhere in our economy lead commercial customers to take advantage of digital presses. Shorter times-to-market, reduced cycle times, more frequent new product introductions and updating all point toward adoption, as do continued demands for cost-cutting in the form of reduced inventory, down-sizing and outsourcing. These tendencies and other competitive pressures will lead buyers to digital printing.

Meanwhile, it's necessary to do missionary work for short-run digital business. Moving upstream in the customer's organization is difficult at best and sometimes an outright political risk, requiring high-order diplomatic skills to keep threatened print buyers happy, while you conduct the education process with marketers in your customer's company.

If I were a commercial printer with a serious commitment to leading the way in this market, I would hire a rep from a package printer, someone experienced in introducing new kinds of packaging. Better yet, I might hire a marketer familiar with versioning and customization to lead a task force devoted to this project.

Adoption curves are always flatter than expected, especially when the technology requires a paradigm shift in the customer's process. Looking backward over a few years more than we had originally expected, the installed user base seems to have been achieved more quickly and to be wider than anyone had originally imagined. Which is the more accurate perception? It depends on where you are in the process and on whether you had the obstinacy and staying power to still be in the game when it became highly profitable.

Counsels of patience are seldom welcomed, especially by people who must produce sales this year, not next. But maybe the advice is appropriate and more welcome in this time of hope and good cheer. I wish you and your loved ones a warm holiday season and a prosperous new year.

—Jacques Marchand

About the Author
Jacques Marchand may be phoned at (415) 357-2929. His firm, Marchand Marketing, provides strategic consulting services, research, market planning, segmentation, lead generation, positioning and marketing communications to help companies in the printing industry increase sales. Send e-mail to jmarchand@marchand.com. Information about the firm's work for clients is also available on its Web site, www.marchand.com.
 

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