The bad old days of The Corporate Brochure

Once upon a time there was a piece of print called The Corporate Brochure. Although companies spent thousands upon thousands on these things mainly they were used by intended readers to absorb spilled coffee and prop up wobbly table legs. As pieces of print to read, they made any of the Z drugs look like powerful stimulants.

The bad old days of The Corporate Brochure

The Corporate Brochure of the 20th century epitomized all that was wrong with the “we” culture in business, not unlike this share certificate…

The Corporate Brochure began life as the baby sibling of the 20th century “Annual Report And Accounts” which was an even more narcolepsy-inducing document written mainly by accountants and offered several hundred words of lies about the company’s success (they never, ever, had a bad year) penned by the CEO’s personal assistant and the Chairman’s/President’s PR guys.

This slimline version of corporate bullsh*t was designed to impress anyone from a potential investor to a potential parking lot attendant and show them how utterly out of touch the company was with real life. It showed beautifully photographed images of the company’s factory processes, aerial shots of the factory roof and stern, cheerless portraits of the Board of Directors.

Very long words, very short on meaning

Its words, chosen for their obscure meanings and large number of syllables, told eager readers all about the company’s foundation 50 years previously and how wonderful its progress had been to the number one spot in its industry and how its performance sizzled on every stock exchange in the industrialized world. These words were accompanied by quotations from the founding and current officers that had nothing whatsoever to do with what the company had to offer clients and employees, and were normally written by their lawyers.

If you looked very carefully somewhere on the inside back cover, you may have discovered what products and services the company actually offered. However usually such commercial diversions from the main corporate m*sturbation were eliminated at the proof-reading stage.

The Corporate Brochure had to be virgin and pure: no vulgar references to products, services, customers or new recruits were allowed. This document had to be Corporate

Amazingly it wasn’t just client commissioners who thought this way. On one occasion I was hired to write the text for a corporate brochure about a company that made electronic components, and drafted the text to appeal to its customer base which may have had Oxbridge or Ivy League Arts graduates on the Board as non-executive directors, but whose decision makers consisted largely of mid-range white and blue collar people who call a spade a spade.

“No, no, Suze,” oozed the ad agency’s creative director. “This is a Corporate Brochure. You’ve got to use longer words and longer sentences. You know, make it read and sound more corporate …”

And being the good little copywriter that I am, or was, I wrote as directed and everyone loved the self-congratulatory result. But I doubt that result did much to enhance the client’s business.

The Corporate Brochure was the spearhead of a company’s everything

The Corporate Brochure was in its heyday when advertisers and most other business communication centered around “we” the company and to hell with “you” the customer, recruit or other stakeholder. (See this article for more on that syndrome.) Corporate wallahs simply didn’t get the idea that customers, in particular, didn’t give a horse potootie about the company: they just wanted to know what they did, and what was in it for them.

The bad old days of The Corporate Brochure

The Corporate Brochure was known for its visually exciting images of the Chairman and other senior officers.

Not only was The Corporate Brochure used to impress potential investors in hand-made suits over boozy lunches, but also it was used in an attempt to impress potential customers and even recruits with how awesome and corporate  the company was.

Lip service was paid to the rather tacky elements of product sales or job specifications by tucking single sheets into a wallet incorporated on to the inside back cover of The Corporate Brochure itself.

Hey, Corporate: without customers and staff you ain’t got a company

The rot began to set in for The Corporate Brochure around the same time as major users of IT systems began turning around to their suppliers like IBM and said, “shut up and don’t bore me with what your stuff is: just tell me what it can do for me and our profits.” Shock, horror!

After a hundred years or more of engineering-led business, suddenly the sales arms of many industries including IT had to scuttle back to their engineering colleagues and tell them the game was up. Business now was becoming all about you, the customer and/or stakeholder. And no more was this change of culture more vividly tussled over than in The Corporate Brochure. Even though the emerging new versions weren’t exactly sales catalogues, they actually began to focus a bit on the benefits the company offered.

The old-fashioned recruitment advertising and comms no longer impressed talented candidates just because the Chairman looked posh and they couldn’t understand some of the long words in The Corporate Brochure. They moved on to job opportunities in companies that valued their people and weren’t ashamed to say so via proper recruitment material that kept the crusty old President well out of sight.

Phew: thank Heavens The Corporate Brochure has finally fossilized … or has it?

Don’t get excited – it’s not all over yet. Only earlier this year I was working on a (consumer) customer leaflet for the marketing director of a company and to my horror discovered that their company secretary had submitted a version of her own for consideration. This was because she felt the text I was producing was too chatty and that the text should reflect the importance of the organization, not be on a level with readers. Yes, this was 2014. (Happily the marketing director fobbed her off and with a bit of luck had her stuffed and donated to a museum.)

If you look around you will still find pompous, bloated examples of The Corporate Brochure not only in print, but now also on The Corporate Website. Some Corporates will just never learn…

What is your experience of The Corporate Brochure? Have you seen any cringe-making examples recently? Please share!

photo credit: Humphrey King via photopin cc
photo credit: DonkeyHotey via photopin cc

Comments

comments

Thoughts

  1. I really love it when you write like this. It’s a real article, helpful, yet without relying on ‘the one, two, three, and twelve bullet points to remember formula’.

    People like those pure ‘How To follow a formula’ posts, I know, and they are useful reference points when writing something BUT there come a point when no formula will really help us, and we’ve just got to write.

    That’s when a great example like this post is so helpful. People should print it out. They should take a pen, preferably one that has to be filled with ink and copy every word, and do so once a day for at least ten days until the style becomes part of their DNA.

    Then they should it all aside for at least a month, after which they can attempt to go through the printed text with a red pen, and improve upon it. They won’t, but the attempt will work wonders in developing a maturity with words.

    As for the corporate brochure, the only ones I ever really read were those from advertising agencies and these tended to be written by creative directors and were, by and large, well done. I tried to read one from a pharmaceuticals company I was about do do some work with as a management consultant once but after about four minutes went down the pub 🙂

  2. Thank you so much, Stephen! I’m not sure how many people will print it out and copy it but your thoughts are immensely flattering and I am honoured.

    This was not so much a how-to article as a personal rant about marketing inanities that abounded in the late 20th century … but extracting from that, a lesson or two for us to remember now.

    The next dinosaur I want to get my teeth into is The Corporate Video … the film of the book and often just as awful…!

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