Crafting Your Marketing Plan

Some designers view marketing plans the same way teenagers view math problems: It’s a good idea to write them out, but who really has the time? Who really has the patience? “Who really has the advantage,” says Selina Oppenheim, “is the company that knows what it wants and takes the marketing steps to get there.”

It’s a misconception to think that crafting a marketing plan is as complex as calculus. “The best ones are usually short and clear,” says Oppenheim, president of Port Authority, a Boston-based consulting firm for creative professionals. Written wisely, marketing plans can help design firms subtract headaches and multiply profits.

Marketing plans vary, but all require discipline, structure and patience. “Before you begin, it’s important to understand that marketing is like moving a steering wheel, then waiting months before the car turns,” says David Baker, principal of ReCourses, a design consulting firm in Nashville, TN.


Marketing isn’t about tooting your own horn. It’s about determining an objective and mapping a course to achieve it. “Before you look for a new list of prospective clients, you must analyze yourself,” says Ilise Benun, editor and publisher of the quarterly newsletter “The Art of Self Promotion” and author of Self Promotion Online. This is a two-step process:

Step 1: Write a specific objective. (“To get three new annual-report projects in the next six months.”) Make sure the objective is realistic. All other steps in your marketing plan will be determined by this goal.

Step 2: Develop a focused positioning statement. “Designers sometimes believe it’s best to be everything to all clients,” Oppenheim says. “In reality, each firm has different visual strengths, and each has different preferences.” Examine and articulate what your strengths are, and promote them. (“We excel at providing beverage companies with distinguished annual reports that include a touch of levity.”)

Before creating your positioning statement, Oppenheim suggests asking these questions: What kinds of clients do we most like to work with? What message do we want our portfolio to send? What value do we bring to clients’ assignments? What honestly distinguishes us from competitors?

“This is the toughest part of the marketing plan,” Baker says. “Everyone says, ‘We’re cost-effective, responsive, and here you get to work with senior people.’ What does that really say? Not much. Most firms have very unfocused, non-compelling descriptions of what they do.” The key, Baker says, is touting yourself as a specialized firm. Developing a focused positioning statement helps you do that.


Your objective and positioning statement will help you hone in on a target market. The next move, one that takes more time, is research. “Designers must carefully examine the kinds of firms they’re going after and what kinds of pieces they like to create,” Oppenheim says. Here are the steps:

Step 3: Find and qualify a list of target companies. Lists are available from a variety of sources, including your own Rolodex, the Yellow Pages, trade-association member directories and publications, and list-rental services. Oppenheim recommends, a membership-based Web site that doesn’t charge fees when users download lists.

“Designers often let this step—doing their homework—drag them down,” Benun says. “Most people think it’s a huge ordeal, but it’s not. It’s getting a list and spending a few minutes on the phone, making sure the contact information is correct and trying to network with prospects.”

Baker warns that many designers aren’t choosy enough during this step. As a rule, he says, design firms should only court companies that have used professional designers before. Baker suggests finding out if prospects hire based on projects or focus on lasting relationships. He recommends targeting no more than 600 companies when crafting a marketing plan.

Step 4: Do some visual research. You can gain a sense of prospects’ design preferences by visiting their Web sites and obtaining materials such as annual reports and promotional kits. Some business libraries catalog materials that can help you determine how companies’ design preferences have evolved. It’s also wise to study design annuals.

Oppenheim says, “There’s a lot of value in a supplier who’s able to say, ‘I got your annual report from last year in order to prepare for this meeting. I wanted to get a sense of your company’s design style. Can you tell me if it’s changed, or if there are any new messages you’re trying to convey?'”


After you’ve analyzed your company and prospective clients, consider the plethora of marketing tools available, including letters, portfolio meetings, postcards, speaking engagements and press releases.

“One of the most common mistakes when crafting a marketing plan is focusing exclusively on finished products,” Baker says. “Clients aren’t visually driven people; they want solutions. It’s a big mistake to just show them a bunch of pretty pictures in a portfolio.”

Here’s your last step:

Step 5: Determine how you’re going to live your marketing plan. People buy design in different ways, and selecting the right marketing vehicle can be tricky. Marketing consultants suggest integrating several tools. “It’s unrealistic to expect people to respond to their first exposure,” Benun says. “So, put something in their mail, something on their answering machine and something in a publication they read.”

Messages sink in when they accumulate, and they accumulate thanks to marketing plans. “There’s a real power and a sense of satisfaction when designers take responsibility for their own success,” Oppenheim says. “When they know what they want to achieve and they put that in front of clients, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.”