If it’s Pretty and it Doesn’t Sell, It’s just Pretty

I did some work not long ago for an arts organization that wanted to generate a 25% increase in participation from a specific target audience. It was a fairly straightforward gig that involved profiling an audience that the organization hadn’t paid much attention to, and reaching out to them in a more focused, more persuasive manner.

We started by learning as much as we could about who these people were and why they came. We spent many hours in the venue speaking with patrons about their motives and habits, and many more hours researching the organization’s databases to segregate them and make sure we could speak to them independently. Then we reached out to key experts in the marketplace to solicit their advice and learn how best to communicate with this particular audience.

Once we’d gathered the necessary information, we laid out a message strategy to guide us in developing marketing materials. The strategy contained recommendations for using language and imagery that would motivate this target based on what we’d learned about them. Eventually, I forwarded the strategic recommendations to the organization’s graphic designer and that, to my chagrin, was where the whole process went to hell.

The designer came back with a mock-up that had nothing to do with the strategy. It veered dramatically away from both the language and the imagery guidelines; it obscured the selling points into relative meaninglessness; it reverted to flat clichés; and it replaced strategic, persuasive, audience-oriented content with bland information that was all about the product.

Consultants ride a fine line between doing what they’ve been hired to do and making their clients happy – which are not necessarily the same things – so I said, gently, “I’m wondering why we’d want to disseminate a message that differs so significantly from the strategy we agreed on,” and the answer that came back was this:

“Margaret has been designing our materials for fifteen years. She knows our style and she’s responsible for managing our brand. The stuff you suggested didn’t fit into the template we use for these sorts of things so we had to cut most of it. And the images you recommended didn’t reflect our seriousness of purpose. Plus, we looked at what other arts organizations were doing to target this audience and it validated our thinking.”

(If you’ve ever wondered why traditional arts organizations are tanking, you can find five of the most compelling reasons right there in that paragraph.)

I have enormous respect for graphic designers, but their job is not to develop the message strategy. The senior marketing staffer is responsible for the strategy and the designer’s job is to execute that strategy in the most effective manner. Message development starts with the audience, moves through the marketing team, which interprets market intelligence and applies rational methods to shaping appropriate responses, then moves to the designer, who’s job is to apply his or her expertise in visual communications to make the strategy work. At the end of the day, marketing is all about sales – not tradition, not consistency, not pretty pictures, not staff seniority and definitely not propping up a respected but inert brand. As legendary advertising guru David Ogilvy famously said, “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.”

Unfortunately, I’ve worked with enough arts organizations to know that graphic designers tend to have more influence on message strategy than prudence would dictate. In some cases they’re the ultimate arbiters, as in the example above, and in others they’re the default determiners of message strategy because the marketers and executive leaders don’t know how to direct them. But that’s not what designers are there to do; it’s not what they’re trained for. Asking designers to bear the responsibility for marketing strategy is like asking the set designer to direct the play, the acoustical engineer to conduct the orchestra or the exhibit designer to curate the show.

The sad thing about the organization above was that the materials didn’t generate a 25% increase in results because the designer wasn’t prepared to accommodate a 25% change in the way she developed marketing messages.

How about you? Is the person who designs your message strategy the same person who designs your messages? How’s that working for you?

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