2013-12-Variable Colour Obstacles and Opportunities

//2013-12-Variable Colour Obstacles and Opportunities

2013-12-Variable Colour Obstacles and Opportunities




John Leonard
“The sweetest sound to anyone’s ear is the sound of one’s own name.” suggesting that the fundamental act of calling other people by their name puts a person or an organization on the path to establishing a sincere relationship. The concept of Direct Marketing and Direct Mail in particular is meant to embody this idea by communicating to people with their perspective in mind – creating a comfortable scenario that matters to the recipient.

Many of us understand the concept but struggle with the actual implementation aspects of creating relevant communication and therefore can shy away from the task in favour of simpler and maybe less risky methods of communicating. Direct mail in particular has been criticized for its complexity in production and “postology” and even time to market. But, to put it in simple terms, that time and effort is the investment in the relationship. Like any relationship effort and care needs to be part of the equation for both parties to enjoy the benefits. And while marketers still seek out quick-fixes that require less lead-time and less budget they may be less likely to develop true relationships where understanding and value travel in both directions. Let’s explore some of the reasons, challenges and opportunities that exist in creating relevant variable colour and strong relationships.

CPC regulations

Long ago in Canada, promotional mail (non-first class) was called 3rd Class Mail and “Identical Printed Matter.” In its initial stages what we know today as Admail was supposed to be identical. The postal system mandated that if a piece was identical, save for the recipient’s name and address, it could go at the discounted rate.

During the late 90s two things changed for the better. First, the term for promotional mail was updated to “Admail” and second, and more importantly, the definition was updated allowing marketers to take advantage of data and variability. This definition can still be found today on CPC’s website. Google: “When to say YES – That’s Addressed Admail™.” It was a decision that opened the door to fully variable content so long as the intent is the same (i.e. selling insurance is the intent, but selling house insurance to homeowners, rental insurance to renters, auto insurance to drivers).


Today the data we have access to in order to create meaningful communication is monumental, even overwhelming. This may be a challenge marketers face in this age of information – misaligned or nonmatching data creates uncertainties about the data.

Jennifer Campbell, General Manager, Direct Marketing Strategy with Canada Post has had numerous conversations with marketers over the years and believes that a couple of fundamental challenges face direct marketers today, especially at large organizations, around finding if they have the data and then getting at it. While these organizations are excited about the idea and what value they could bring to the relationships with customers, data is often in silos and can be difficult to access or tie together.

Possibly there is a bigger challenge, one of the fundamental disconnect between the data, production and creative camps. Maurizio Zomparelli of CAA South Central identified some of the barriers he’s seen being related to getting marketing, production and data teams in the room when the brief is being created. The traditional process of marketing creating a brief then handing it off to creative then to IT and Production to execute won’t yield the best results when the three disciplines are so intertwined in this digital age.

Over the last couple of decades the advancements in variable imaging technologies have been amazing. We were involved with what I believe to be one of the most advanced variable imaging programs (at the time) in the late 1990s with some 30,000 + variables being produced in grey-scale. The processing time required for that many images as well as the proofing efforts were counted in days not hours, for every run! The imagery was powerful then, what can be done today is simply breathtaking in comparison. The technology presents two challenges. The first is the timelines it takes to create these complex programs or even one-off projects and the second is the perception around colour. And of course the cost factor used to be a big hurdle for marketers.

The feedback I often receive when discussing digital variable is ‘it doesn’t look like offset, it looks digital’. And only clients themselves can come to grips with any trade-offs they may perceive that have to be made to provide variable relevant content.

I believe there is a mind set among many marketers that is a quest for the future, which might sometimes be at the expense of current opportunity. The race to be online may be an example. Some projections suggest that in 5 years as much as 40% of transactional mail may be electronic. While that number is huge, the corollary is that the majority (60%) in 2019 will still be via paper, so taking advantage of creating compelling communication that creates stronger relationships with customers (in this competitive landscape) is paramount both in transactional and promotional.


Overcoming the barriers is the most exciting part of this industry right now because it means there are many opportunities to grow as a marketer, bring more value to clients by helping them bring better communication to their customers and for those of us that are savvy, it provides a great business opportunity.

Explore a different approach to developing projects and programs that are more collaborative as opposed to linear. Zamporelli points out that he’s seen the best cases for success when the internal teams involve the three aspects of a variable colour piece (data, design and production) to fit together well and even play off of each other. Engaging the vendors) quickly after the ideas have been baked but well before execution in order to integrate and make the best use of technology for the specific application can yield huge benefits. Including the execution teams for off-line and on-line will also encourage a consistent brand look across media.

The discussion can be the data to which a company may have access, which can include:

  • Known data, NAB, previous purchases, service information, demographic and collected information
  • Segmented data, age groups, product versions, what you might be currently using to segment your databases
  • Analytical / Predictive data, what information might you be predicting via internal models about your customers
  • Stats data, what information can be pulled from statistical information and sources such as Stats Canada, list brokers or Canada Posts’ databases
  • Geography, as always what information is available from a geographic perspective.

By looking at all these hard and soft data points you will be in a position to create more relevant communications. Consider it in basic terms of what current “versions” you may be producing now. Versions can be eliminated and taken to the next level.

The industry needs more daring participants. The agency for the program mentioned earlier was daring at the time because it used some of the data points above but also made some assumptions. Today we can be fixed on accuracy and in this realm it may not be necessary. For example, consider an insurance communication – if we know there are husband and wife in a certain age category use imagery for that age category, if this is an assumption use it anyway. Some might suggest it could inaccurate. The designers are going to use a generic picture that could very well be inaccurate (like they have for decades) and that’s okay. The idea is that the recipient doesn’t know you’re trying to create an environment designed for them, it’s just an image, but if you get it right it will be that much more relevant. It’s all about subtle imagery, not exact imagery.

Consider the use of geography and imagery in relation to home (or contents) insurance. Multi-unit dwellings vs. single units vs. hi-rise (which can be ascertained from in-house data, stats and CPC), what imagery can we use to match the housing styles or look in given areas that make the recipient feel more like we’re speaking to people like them. Make no mistake, this is not about making the recipient feel uncomfortable by including a picture of their home (creepy) but by including homes that look like their neighborhood.

Today there exists equipment to produce variable colour quite cost effectively for mailers in Canada and the US. From sheet fed digital presses to large-volume, continuous feed digital presses. And more importantly than ever there are software tools that can help customers draw out data and employ analytics to create the imagery necessary for relevant and compelling variable colour for mail and online communications. One mustn’t forget the post imaging production processes as well after it’s been imaged, is it simply a letter into an envelope is it a booklet, or self-mailer. All need to be considered.

Zomparelli sees the progress of digital colour as having come a long way in the last few years but still believes there are strides that can be made in the execution to get the imagery closer to that of offset with things like prepress and even newer technologies such as matte toner.

All the professionals I spoke with for this article agreed there was a lack of talent when it comes to data driven marketing. Whether this is due to the technological understanding of datadriven communications or a mindset it provides an opportunity to the educators in the industry (university, college or even industry organizations CMA or DMA). These organization will have to figure out how to incorporate these concepts into learning – maybe the ideas around data-driven is one that can be applied to online and offline, thereby not sparking the debate between paper and digital – just get people thinking about relevant communication first.

I dare to suggest maybe our perception around timelines is not so much a problem with the consumer’s requirement for immediate gratification (unless it’s fulfillment or a response to something) but the industry’s need to satisfy their thirst for speed to market. As an industry we need to slow down our cycle, share success stories, think about what we’re trying to achieve, and encourage everyone to take a few minutes to understand the power of variable colour and appreciate the kind of relationship it is capable of building in this society of quick-hits, flashy headlines and immediate gratification – true, longterm relationships, value and margin. There are few real leaders in the market creating great value with variable colour, you can too.
John Leonard is V. P. – Sales & Marketing of Cover-All Computer Services Corp. where he works with his sales team and clients to develop relevant and effective communication by using data and technology. Having once worked inside the agency culture, partnered with a variety of printers and currently involved with awareness and education he is an advocate of direct marketing and the benefits of using data in communication to drive better results and establish stronger relationships. John can be reached at jleonard@cover-all.ca, 416.354.4210 or search him on Linkedin.

For further media information please contact John Leonard 416.354.4210

By | 2018-08-22T13:46:02+00:00 December 20th, 2013|Categories: Direct Marketing News|0 Comments
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