Print x digital: the role of print in the marketing mix

Print x digital: the role of print in the marketing mix

The debate around ‘print vs. digital’ is misguided. Pioneering luxury, fashion and direct-to-consumer brands are treating them as complementary channels, to maximise customer engagement and lifetime value.

“…the brand was concerned it wasn’t connecting deeply to its evolving target audiences — a mix of up-and-coming Millennials, high-earning Gen X’ers, and downsizing Boomers.”

In order to deepen these customer relationships and convey the quality of the brand, California Closets needed branded content that would raise awareness and convert customers.”

The language – branded content, ‘Gen X’ers’ – is of the age of digital marketing. The agency, Redbird Group, whose case study this quote comes from, is a digital-first business: founded in the mid-nineties, self-described as a ‘branded content firm’.

The brand in question, too, is well-known for its digital prowess. California Closets – which sells high-end, custom furniture online – is a ‘direct-to-consumer’ brand (DTC), a business model operated via online infrastructure and postal delivery of goods, and based on maintaining virtual relationships with customers based on their data.

Ideas of Order, California Closet’s annual print magazine and the subject of Redbird’s case study, has run since 2017, with the fourth edition going to print in March this year.

Noticeably, it’s not a sales brochure; the 2021 edition features an interview with a ballerina and some property investors. There is a heavy focus on interior design, but without the relentless product details in small italics – ‘Our model is wearing sunglasses by This Designer, £139 from A Retailer’ – common to traditional fashion glossies.

Nonetheless, Ideas of Order has been profitable; the magazine showed a short-term ROI of $42 in sales for every dollar spent.

California Closets is not alone. In the UK and the US, brands of all shapes and sizes – from digital startups to fashion behemoths – are coming to view print as potent tool in their digital marketing toolkit: with unique properties that make it particularly suited to eliciting specific forms of customer engagement, with a clear expectation of desired business outcomes.

The commercial case for print

The incumbent trend, the use of print by consumer brands is being driven in part by technological changes in marketing. Pureplay digital marketing has got a lot more expensive, and somewhat less effective.

Emma Aitken, Head of Marketing at allplants, a UK subscription food brand, remarked that while the brand initially allocated its budget to digital channels, it became unsustainable financially to depend on them exclusively.

‘Google obviously grows at the rate that the interest in that topic grows and with Facebook we came up against issues such as algorithm changes affecting the CPM or costs increasing YoY.’

allplants has turned instead to direct mailing as a way of seeking out better campaign ROI.

But beyond startups, similar complaints about the costs and effectiveness of digital channels are being made across the consumer brand landscape.

Ben Fischman, Chief Executive of M Gemi, a luxury shoe DTC, blamed changes to Apple’s iOS mobile platform for impairing the precision of their ad targeting. “We’ve had to cast a wider net to find the right customer for our brand”, he said in a recent interview on Vogue Business.

In truth, the systemic changes, that are causing brands to rethink digital marketing, are not the fault of any one technology company: rather, the changes are systemic, driven as much by nearly two decades of customers’ worsening experiences with programmatic media advertising, and the regulatory fallout that has ensued.

The ‘changes’ that Fishman is refers to include Apple’s decision to enforce advertisers to gain explicit consent from users of its iOS mobile operating system (used by every iPhone customer) in order to advertise to them. Effectively, this greatly reduced the pool of customers who could be reached via the platform – leaving more brands competing for each pair of audience eyeballs, and driving up costs.

Tellingly: even Facebook was furious, launching a strongly-worded media campaign against Apple’s move (‘Apple vs. the free internet’) and pursuing legal action. As the largest advertiser on iOS, the changes took a large and immediate chunk of out Facebook’s ad revenues – as much as 50% by its own estimate.

The impact that matters is on Facebook’s clients, who have been sent scurrying in search of better ROI on other marketing channels.

Investing in customer relationships

Whilst the iOS update is recent (as are similar moves by Google, which is working to phase out tracking cookies by 2022), trouble has been brewing for some time in customers’ relationships with digital marketing. In 2016, a Guardian journalist complained of an experience we’ve all suffered when he wrote, “I’m being chased around the internet by a shed.” He continued:

“I’m more than happy to be advertised to – but products pursuing you from site to site can feel like a nagging puppy tugging on your trouser leg.”

The accumulative effect on consumers, of being pestered to buy from all corners, has been a ‘switch off’ mentality. The natural answer from brands has been to cultivate better customer relationships, so that the brand becomes a default choice when the customer is ready to buy – rather than just another voice in the crowd.

Print is increasingly winning favour as a chosen medium for this kind of marketing. Unsurprisingly – given their longstanding use of print marketing – luxury fashion labels are leading the charge.

“Chanel, Dior, Prada, Loewe and Alighieri sent books or other physical items that offered a closer, more intimate look at their collections to top spending customers, who are increasingly expecting brands to come to them.”

Similarly, Desmond and Dempsey, a purveyor of luxury pyjamas, which retail both in stores and direct to consumer, produces a quarterly publication called The Sunday Paper. Their founder, Molly Goddard has stressed the importance of this product in building customer loyalty, ‘rather than turning a user into a customer.’ Instead, The Sunday Paper reflects their brand ethos as a nightwear brand with a focus on home comforts and relaxation.

The properties of print that make it especially well-suited to nurturing a customer relationship are well-known. One of those dimensions is emotional. Countless pieces of research have shown that information delivered via print is also much more likely to be remembered; more recently, a study reported in AdWeek put this down to a stronger emotional response driven by the colours, shapes and textures of printed products.

The other dimension is that of competition. allplants’ Aitken said that with digital channels, and with social media in particular, there was a risk of core messaging being lost amidst a sequence of clicks; direct mail can provide ‘much more space to communicate that brand message.’ Unlike digital ads, which may be processed for a fraction of a second, beautiful, eye-catching print may live for months in customer’s homes.

There’s also the fact high-quality print is much less likely to get thrown away – particularly if the customer has paid for it. Each copy of Here, by US luggage DTC Away, sells for $10.

Crunching the numbers

This approach to print marketing isn’t new. What’s changed is the price-point, at which it begins to make commercial sense, has fallen. By consequence, the range of brands able to capitalise on it has expanded.

Two factors are driving these changes.

Firstly, falling technology costs have spawned a breed of brands which are incredibly savvy with customer data, and which have the in-house capabilities of managing and marketing to that data effectively.

The profitability of high-quality print marketing – which is more expensive per impression than digital marketing – was not always easy to prove. As a result, it was often the preserve of luxury labels, where a handful of sales could pay handsome returns. Aston Martin’s AM Magazine, a triannual for which a subscription costs the reader £30 a year – a snip, to a clientele which can shell out six figures on a weekend car.

Compare that to Desmond & Dempsey, whose product is certainly luxury compared to your average set of pyjamas – but at around £150 a set, it’s still the kind of purchase a middle-income customer, who is prepared to invest in the perfect night’s sleep, could make 1-3 times a year. At this price-point, the repetitively high investment in print marketing depends on having the right data to ensure it reaches the customers who will most appreciate it.

Jen Clinehens, Customer Experience Strategy Director at Havas Global, explains

“Instead of the assumption that you’re going to send out a magazine to your customer base, brands can look at their database and … customise the content to address a particular client or group of customers.

The goal is not to send direct advertising out to everybody, but to craft relationships with customers.”

Secondly, the spiralling cost of media advertising, combined with growing mistrust in digital ads, is increasingly leading brands to invest in communicating with their proprietary data, via consent-based platforms.


Loyalty programs – which customers opt in to for a closer brand relationship, and which were previously the preserve of very large corporations – are proliferating amongst larger SMEs. Missoma, a jewellery DTC (which also distributes printed lookbooks) operates a program called ‘the Stack’: a way to… ‘reward their customers and increase their lifetime value through enhancing their brand community.’

Influencer marketing – technically marketing to somebody else’s audience, but with engrained trust and implied consent – remains in ascendency. The average price of a blog post ballooned from $7.39 to $1,442 between 2006 and 2019; more recently, the likes of Footasylum, a shoes retailer, and The North Face, an activewear brand, have begun building influencer communities of their own, to bring their followers into the brands’ fold.

Little surprise, then, to see print featuring alongside these cutting-edge digital tactics at successful brands. Away, the luggage brand, launched its business with a hybrid print/influencer marketing campaign.

“…co-founders Steph Korey and Jen Rubio decided to interview… a number of travel photographers and writers, and collate their stories into a book. Away then sold the book along with a gift card that would redeemable for a suitcase a few months later. The campaign turned out to be a huge success; Away sold out of all 1,200 of its initial copies.”

The brand went on to publish a quarterly magazine, Here, with the most recent issue #14 printed in October 2020.


This is the ultimate retort to the supposed ‘death of print’ which gets bandied about in the marketing press. Far from being a bygone medium which was sent packing by digital channels, it is in fact being deployed with often surgical precision, by some of the world’s most innovative and tech-savvy brands.

In most cases, these efforts are informed and guided by having the customer data needed to be sure of a warm customer response to the brand’s approach. Indeed: where print orders at Park were mostly placed by creative teams, increasingly, our conversations are taking place with marketers whose primary disciplines are loyalty and CRM.

Create customer value, led by data

The first step for any brand who wants to invest further in print marketing – or, for that matter, any marketing efforts with its proprietary audience – is to sort out its data.

This partly means creating the means to gather the right data, along with express consent from the customer to be marketed to. The quarterly brochure from Loaf, a UK furniture brand, is available on request only – via a digital lead capture form, which also prompts customers to opt into their weekly marketing emails.

data form

Ideally, it also means adopting a single, enterprise CRM so that all your marketing teams can collaborate around the same customer data profiles and find the best marketing approach for each customer segment. This is both difficult, and eminently possible.

Most large corporations are at mid-points in their digital transformation efforts; the amalgamation of their various data silos – from in-store interactions, ecommerce, customer service and more – remains a key stumbling block. Despite this, fashion brand Dior sends a magazine to high-spending customers – proving that you don’t need to be a nimble startup to succeed at segmented, precision-targeted print marketing.

That said: ‘most-frequent customers’ are an obvious and slow-moving target at most brands, since they are likely to have the richest data on them. Little surprise, then, that most the best examples of this kind of marketing comes from smaller, more agile, digital-first brands whose very businesses are founded on getting this stuff right.

Second, brands must issue print for the right reasons. It has evolved into a distinctively non-transactional format; one geared instead towards cultivating a deeper emotional connection with the brand.

Charlie Marshall, founder of Loaf, said:

“….there’s no point bombarding people with emails proclaiming discounts – people are going to get bored and delete it, it’s not building a brand…. We make sure we’re giving them something that’s actually interesting.”

Equally: Lindsey Kaplan, communications VP at Casper, a mattress brand, highlighted the non-transactional nature of Woolly, the brand magazine which they launched in 2017.

‘It’s not about building a revenue stream… It’s really about owning the conversation around wellness and health.’

Case studies of this kind of print marketing are now available at every price-point and scale. Patek Phillipe, a luxury watch manufacturer, launched its magazine in 1996. To this day, it remains a central part of its CRM strategy, and subscriptions are free to registered owners of their watches – a snip, when a single issue is reported to have generated a million pounds in sales.

In 2022, brands are operating in a very different marketing landscape: where print marketing is now being widely conducted profitably, with smaller audience subsets, and with greater expectations of success.

Third, marketers must proceed with haste, but also with caution.

The commercials behind branded print – as with any nascent marketing channel – are certainly appealing, as California Closets’ highly profitable venture showed (see above).

Comparable case studies abound – and certainly, brands will want to get ahead of their peers. Just as the online world makes it incredibly simple to start a direct-to-consumer brand, it also makes it easy for your competitors. In October 2020, The Economist reported that Caspar now faces over 175 competing direct-to-consumer mattress brands.

The risk is that today’s marketers fall into the same trap as the generation of marketers before them: bothering consumers with unwanted messaging, at a great cost to the trust and patience of potential customers. The key is to become skillful and agile in your use of a full suite of marketing tools, tailoring your approach to the customer’s interests and needs.

Do that successfully, in print and digitally, and you can be confident that when it comes to serving your brand’s commercial needs, sufficiently engaged consumers will serve themselves.




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