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Industry? What industry?

Jul 1, 2010 12:00 AM

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When someone asks about the state of our industry, I ask for his or her definition of it. In recent years, our industry has resorted to myriad terms and euphemisms. Companies are increasingly uncomfortable referring to themselves as “printers.” There is no easy or universal synonym. Even industry trade associations have fled from a reference to “printing” or “printers” in recent years.

The notion of a coherent, easily definable industry can be described as something between “disappearing” or “recently disappeared.” We have resorted to such terms as “graphic arts,” “Printing and imaging,” “imaged information,” and “print service providers.” Some companies simply change their corporate names to letters.

I don't make a value judgment on this scenario. On the one hand, it can be difficult to carry on a conversation about the industry with an outsider. On the other hand, and perhaps most important, the relative lack of coherence and universality among commercial printers demonstrates that an increasing number of firms have internalized the critical importance of competitive differentiation.

I suspect that both print-buying organizations and print companies themselves are responsible for the relatively recent understanding, adoption and promotion of a differentiated strategy. Organizations that have failed to address or even understand this fundamental issue are, in many cases, the companies that no longer exist. Here again, our nomenclature is imprecise and frequently misleading.

The customer is king

Some consultants and economists choose to debate whether our industry is, indeed, commoditized. That's a moot point as long as customers believe they have many choices among competent print manufacturers. You and I aren't in a position to define our business. That is accomplished by the marketplace.

Let's expand the discussion to the business world at large. Our industry is not unique. There are consequences for account development. The day is fast approaching when prospecting by SIC code, NAICS code or any other vertical market categorization is rapidly losing its effectiveness.

Every well-run company in every vertical market is faced with the competitive differentiation challenge. Customers have choices. Technology has leveled the playing field in most businesses, and product-based differentiation is becoming increasingly difficult to attain. The challenge is to meaningfully, credibly distinguish an organization from competitors — in every vertical market — not to simply duplicate or emulate norms, standards and ratios.

The most successful graphic arts companies can provide for their prospects a proposal tailored to the needs, perceptions, challenges and objectives of the particular buying organization. And it's rare that the response is expressed in terms of the manufactured product. Successful companies also avoid platitudes about customer service and delivering on promises.

Melodramatic as it may sound, I believe that in 2019 or so, we're likely to look back on the previous year as the beginning of the end of traditional industry terminology, definitions, organizations and structures. Suppliers of print manufacturing, distribution, education, and other related services will engage in “joined at the hip” relationships with customers that would have been rare in the 20th century. The perceived risk to a buying organization of placing all or most of its proverbial eggs in a single supplier's basket will be largely overcome by the reliability, speed and predictability of technology.

No all-purpose answers

This industry has embarked on a journey. In the months and years ahead, companies will increasingly define and differentiate themselves in terms of customized products, services, processes and relationships created in response to the demands and requests of their accounts — rather than simply the products, services and processes “we do best.”

Within any vertical market, strategic heterogeneity will increase. Generalizations, trends, and economists' reports of trends will become less relevant. In this environment, owners and managers of graphic arts companies looking for all-purpose answers are doomed to difficulty. It is virtually impossible to carefully draft a clever mission statement or strategy, then attempt to create reality by enforcing it on an organization. An organization has a culture, history and relationships that cannot easily be changed. Perhaps the most difficult and daunting challenge of senior management is the management of orderly, positive change in organizational culture and mindset without jeopardizing the most productive aspects of staff talents and account relationships.

As we look forward, it's easy to conclude that all generalizations are false — including this one.

Dick Gorelick is president of Gorelick & Associates and the Graphic Arts Sales Foundation. He can be reached at