Re-thinking the role of substrates


Although much of the buzz in marketing and advertising today is centered upon online, mobile, and social channels, print remains an important part of the overall media mix. As digital channels compete for more viewers overall, a compelling print piece can help a marketing message stand out, effectively communicate, raise awareness, and drive action. While the graphic design of print marketing is a critical element to draw attention, another crucial component of the print marketing experience is the substrate—the paper or other material that’s the carrier of marketing message.


Substrates can make marketing and advertising stand out just as much (or potentially more) than graphic design itself. Paper functions without the use of an electric current, and it is the only medium that can be folded, creased, die cut, foil stamped, embossed, printed on, framed, bought, and sold as a standalone communication tool. It’s a tactile product that appeals to the senses—it can be touched and seen, it has a unique smell that can be used to carry other scents, and its physical structure creates sound when handled.

While it’s easy for those in the creative industry to romanticise the attributes of paper and other substrates, it’s important to reevaluate the roles that these substrates play in driving effective print marketing and advertising. At one time, decisions regarding which substrates to use on a project were largely controlled by print suppliers and paper distributors. Paper choices for direct marketing were limited and there were fewer parties involved in the decision-making process. That has all changed.

A study from Graphic Design USA emphasised the prevalence of print marketing and advertising among design firms, agencies, and corporations. It reported that 9 out of 10 creative workers still design for print, often for general marketing collateral and direct response. The study also found that these workers are enthusiastic about substrates and how they can enhance the effectiveness of a piece.

Substrates straddle the line between quality and commoditisation. In an age where consumers are inundated with marketing and advertising messages, the power of substrates can be used to differentiate, cut through the clutter, and raise awareness or inspire action. Are you using substrates in an effective way to communicate your message? If not, you should rethink their role and consider how substrates can draw attention and cultivate response.

Caroline LeonardComment