The role of print in ‘judging books by covers’

The old saying of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ is used in common parlance to mean don’t form an opinion based on someone or something’s appearance.

This old idiom came into my head recently when I read the findings of a global survey*that revealed that consumers trust stories read in printed newspapers (51%) more than stories found on social media (24%). The study further revealed that people prefer to read the printed version of books (72%) rather than their digital equivalents; only 9% preferred e-readers.

With the meteoric rise of digital and the declining sales in newspapers/magazines and investment in printed direct mail (DM) came the inevitable doomsaying that print is dead. But, do you know what, in a Twain-esque ‘the report of my death was an exaggeration’ way, print is proving far more irrepressible than many thought and I think ‘trust’ plays a big part in its resilience.

Countering the imminent demise of print in the wake of digital, there have been many articles written on a resurgence in print. Indeed the whole ‘it’s dead/no it isn’t’ debate has become a bit tedious and detracts from what is, or should, really be going on.

Any brand going down the myopic road of digital only misses the whole integrated point. It’s about using the most effective marketing tools at your disposal to get the job done, and that could include more traditional mediums like print.

Only last week a Christmas catalogue was posted through my letterbox. It came from the budget supermarket Aldi. But I can tell you there was nothing ‘budget’ about its appearance. It was 54 pages of full colour, with a flood varnish on the front and back covers, and spot foiling to announce its ‘Christmas amazing’ offers on food, drink, gifts and decorations. It ticked the CSR boxes too in that it was both printed on paper from responsible sources and recyclable.

If you go into an Aldi store you can pick up its weekly offer sheets, which are printed on a lightweight stock and uncluttered in design. They seem to convey more of ‘budget or discount’ feel, adjectives that have often been used to describe this German supermarket giant.

But few can argue its growth in market share and its push into the hearts of middle England. Flick through its pages and this 54-page Christmas catalogue is aspirational, it conveys luxury and sustainable sourcing, and everything you need for a wonderful family Christmas. And cleverly, towards the back it lists when the various products will be in-store so you can plan and budget your festive shopping accordingly.

This gives the catalogue shelf-life, a reason to hang on to it but there’s more than that going on. 52%* of people prefer to read catalogues in print. And weighing in at 155g, this catalogue can be seen to drive longer engagement† too as higher weights are seen to increase dwell time.

I can’t ever see print returning to the levels it once was in terms of reading preferences. But it still commands high numbers for recreational reading i.e. books, news and catalogue shopping, while digital is favoured for more transactional documents like bank statements. Germans, it seems, love print the most (64%*) while South Africans are the least in love with it (38%).

The weight, the imagery and prose, the tactility, even the smell of printed material can engage a reader far more than digital ever will. And in this era of ‘fake news’ it can convey trust and gravitas, and physically express a brand attribute like luxury more than a quick e-shot will manage.

I could choose to judge Aldi either by its catalogue book cover or by its cheaper in-store leaflet, or I could just go into the store and find out for myself but, either way, the objective of both printed items has been achieved; increased footfall and the prospect of purchase.


* Print and paper in a digital world, Two Sides

† Tactility – adding another dimension to mail campaigns, Royal Mail, July 2013