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The Value of Design and your Advertising Message


Tom Anderson

Optima Public Relations

"In this world, you get what you pay for."  ― Kurt VonnegutCat’s Cradle

I manage a public relations and advertising firm. 

At our firm, one of the areas we specialize in is design and branding. We perform services like creating a logo, and then a brochure, then a website, and then maybe an advertisement that flows with each previous design to make an impact on the targeted audience. Our slogan is "Make your message matter." 

There are advertising firms in Alaska that have been operating for decades, and others that have opened shop in the last five years, and most with success. The spectrum of graphic designers in Alaska is even more comprehensive as each year a graduating class enters the market. In the mix of providers, there are incompetent and over-priced advertising agencies and designers, as well as firms and artists with thoughtful design products and pricing structure.

All in all, the abundance of graphic designers is good news when it comes to branding and advertising options. 

The purpose of this article is to steer you in the right direction when it comes to choosing a designer, so you know what to expect and what it's worth. There are intangibles that you may have overlooked. When it comes to branding and messaging, you may not understand the worth and complexity of what it took to complete your task. By the same token, you may not be getting the "bang for your buck" and return on investment (ROI), which is relevant to your marketing analysis. 

Here are some aspects of design and advertising for you to consider:

1. Hire a professional and competent graphic designer - Whether you make a Google search for designers or review advertising agency and design firm website portfolios, it is far better to hire a pro then to try and design your own materials or use your kid, who just finished a high school design class, on business and organizational imaging. A professional designer can assess what you are looking for when it comes to branding with suggestions on contrast, color, gradients, letter spacing, alignment, trim and all sorts of other details you will likely miss. Further, there is an entire new arena in design associated with digital imaging, signage, branding and flash (moving) visuals. Take a look at Alaska Business Monthly's website homepage and internal pages and notice the ads throughout. Those images are digital ads and required specific and precise design, as did every logo, color schematic and photo cropped within the ads.

2. Hire a local designer or firm - Sure, this recommendation may seem self-serving, but it really isn't meant to be. Online design sites for graphics and websites are dangerous because your access is limited, and you'll likely be charged for edits and revisions as the project evolves. There's the threat of fraud. The out-sourced design work may be performed in India, Pakistan or Asia. The designs are often cookie-cutter and not exclusive to you. In fact, logos and brochure templates may be copied or plagiarized from existing materials. Conversely, a local Alaskan designer within a firm or solo, can be hands-on and attentive to your needs. Proximity is important and you'll have better access and accountability. Pricing and expectations can be determined face-to-face. You can also be confident you'll have remedies through consumer protection services, the local professional design association or the Alaskan court system as last resort for resolving problems. One project may lead to more and a positive synergy in the relationship. Using local designers also means you supporting the Alaskan economy. 

3. Identify your target audience and goals - This point could be an article in and of itself. Frankly, the more I look at logos and brochures, websites and business cards, the more I feel the urge to help improve the look. Think of how many signs, print ads, business cards, stationery, websites and other methods of designed communication you see each day and either don't pay attention to, or wince at how poor the message is presented. The foundation of an advertising or branding effort is to determine who you are speaking to in your messaging, and why your are speaking to them. If you are a medical practice and want new patients, a soft design is the standard and your language and messaging types must speak to the prospective patients in an understandable and warm manner. If you're an engineering or architectural firm looking to brand your services, a more geometric and professional approach is advised with crisp, photo and image laden landscapes. If you're a non-profit or governmental agency, photos of locals and actual services being provided vs. stock photos and commercial imaging is a major difference in a genuine brochure vs. a run-of-the-mill informational handout. Bottom line: Address with your designer who you want your messaging and brand to be viewed by (client, patient, customer, contributor, voter, supporter) and what reaction you expect (services and products paid for, votes, donations, loyalty, respect, visibility). 

4. Be comprehensive in your messaging strategy - This is another critical element to an overall advertising campaign involving a designer. You may roll your eyes at the urgency in my commentary about having a well-designed and precise logo, brochure, website, and identity as a business or organization, but just like dressing nice to a job interview and shining your shoes and making sure your entire presentation is spot-on in hopes of getting hired (maybe even get a hair cut, and a new outfit and washing your vehicle...), the same mentality should apply to your business and non-profit marketing. Image and message matter. Building your look, or revamped look, starting with what identifies the public to you (name of business/organization, logo, colors, brand) and then broadening to what best reaches consumers, is what will inspire an audience. To that end, so often I have clients that worry their budgets are not large enough, once their design and branding is complete, to actually advertise with the new look and message they just paid for. This is a common but misguided perception. Social media is free for messaging online (e.g. Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Pinterest); brochures and informational hardcopies are dirt cheap at a local printer and can be delivered to businesses or bulk mailed inexpensively; digital images can be emailed through online contact services and to your own email lists, as well as through researching lists online (e.g. members of chambers of commerce, trade associations, professional associations). For those that have the budget for the design and the advertising, this expands the chances of reaching your target audience immensely because you now have all the free methods mentioned, in addition to the opportunity to structure a calculated messaging strategy online via emails and social media, in print, through your website, using digital advertising, and through innovative ways that may have been overlooked (e.g. movie theater ads, bus sign ads, shopping card ads, inserts and print ads in magazines, newspapers and weekly/monthly mailers, fundraisers, seminars, workshops).

5. Be unique and embrace technology - If your designer is worth his or her salt, content and imaging will grab the audience's attention. Once you've differentiated yourself from your competitors (e.g. think of how many businesses perform the same services that your business does... or how many non-profits want the same contributor's money earmarked to their organization as you do for yours) and established a marketing and advertising game plan, utilizing new technology is critical. Your designer better know how to integrate with the various modes of messaging. An example of failure in technology application is a website design that isn't compatible with a smartphone or electronic tablet - so when a customer or prospective client tries to open your website on a cell phone or IPad, the sizing is off or the a video won't play or the photos don't appear. The same idea with marketing emails, eNewsletter and digital flash images. I've watched designers incompetently craft a digital image and electronic newsletters that didn't open when received by the intended email recipient, let alone it was unappealing visually. I've observed advertising agencies design and submit digital images to online magazine and newspaper websites failing to inquire if a flash image is acceptable (imagine the difference, especially when the cost is typically the same, between a moving digital image online vs. a static image). Make sure you press your designer, or design team if using an advertising or public relations agency, to research and innovate the design(s) for your message. Make sure the designer is up-to-speed on the latest and greatest technology and mediums to promote your business/organization. Note: Knowledge of the most productive marketing venues and access to the latest technology and programs are two compelling reasons I feel advertising agencies and public relations firms with in-house designers trump using a solo designer for advertising/marketing advice.

and finally,

6. How much should this cost you - The big question, when it comes to market planning, design and how to get your sales pitch out to the world, is almost always "How much will this cost me?" Graphic designer fees vary. I've seen the range go from $50 to $125 per hour. Some designers utilize a project-based fee structure. Others ask for a retainer and you have them each month up to a specific amount of hours. Rather than step on toes and impugn the higher priced designers' fees, I'll simply state that you really should research style, presentation, and overall look and feel of a designer's work before you hire the person. Make sure you have a contract prepared as well that delineates services, deadlines, content delivery, usage of designs.... Every graphic designer or advertising/PR firm should also have a through and comprehensive design portfolio. If they don't - don't use them! It's fair that you be able to see at least a few of their designs, and the designs should be updated and recent. Research who the designer has worked for and consider contacting past clients for an assessment of value, promptness and attitude. Ever worked with a computer tech who had a better-than-thou personality because he knew more than you re: computers? Some designers have chips on their shoulders too, but most are "artsy" and ethereal, shining best when given time and freedom to explore the expression they think you need for your project. Ultimately, just make sure you shop and compare. Larger advertising firms have quality designers but are expensive and not always worth the price, especially if you're a small business or organization and they have clients that pay 100 times what you do for enormous projects. Mid-size firms and small boutique firms typically have the staff and programs to generate professional and well-thought designs. Independent graphic designers may also have a niche because they often work out of their homes and can negotiate with you on costs and timing with more flexibility - just remember they may not be in the marketing world and that means they're not privy or experienced on the best ways to distribute and memorialize your message and visibility. 

The value of your design and message are integral to your success. Whether you're a small business just starting out, a thriving or just-holding-on business that needs a boost of new clientele and energy, or one of the myriad of non-profits and trade associations with stagnate communications and an outdated appearance, isn't it time you made your message matter. If you take pride in your print, online and office's presentation whether it be letterhead, a window sign, business cards, car decals, or a work shirt's logo, the quality of your design and branding will generate the same respect from prospective clients and supporters, and that's a value that is priceless.

Tom Anderson, Managing Partner
Optima Public Relations
205 E Benson Blvd #101, Anchorage, Alaska 99503
Cell: 907-440-9661 | Fax: 907-376-9615 


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