Letterhead as a Communication Tool
by Chad Rueffert

One of the most widely used and under appreciated marketing communications tools is your company letterhead.  It always surprises me that businesses who will spend thousands of dollars placing a one-time newspaper ad will not invest in creating a stationery package that provides a unique and appealing image for their company, is used for all aspects of outside communication, and may be in use over decades.


In the book “Fresh Ideas in Letterhead and Business Card Design”, editor Gail Deibler Finke describes quality letterhead design this way:  “Their designers have done far more than pick from a checklist of colors, typefaces and paper stocks.  They’ve learned what their clients are about and communicated the essence of their clients’ business using graphic design.  They’ve created powerful communications tools in tiny, commonplace packages.”


What does your letterhead truly say about you?  Most of all, it reflects your professionalism and attitude.  Poorly designed, unoriginal or out-of-date letterhead says volumes about your company’s commitment (or lack of) to innovation, modernity and creativity.  On the other hand, an original and impactful design can portray your dedication to and belief in your company’s competitive advantages. 


So what’s the secret to turning your letterhead into an effective communication tool?  There are no secrets, just a few solid tricks of the trade that create effective results.


Trade Trick #1:  Use Your USP

This is the same (not so) secret trick to creating effective advertising:  highlight your unique selling proposition.


Finke says, “The key to selling real estate, it’s often said, is ‘location, location, location.’  In that vein, you could say that the key to successful letterhead design is ‘client, client, client.’  If a design doesn’t accurately reflect the client, it won’t work, and a design that works is more important than one that looks good.  When designing letterhead, a designer’s job is to play detective and find out what makes the client different from his or her competitors.  Better service?  A more original product?  Better workmanship?  Whatever that quality is, the letterhead should communicate it.”


Trade Trick #2:  Corporate Culture

Letterhead should also convey some clue as to your corporate culture.  Are you modern and funky?  Traditional and solid?  Colorful and creative?  Your unique selling proposition will tell you WHAT to include in your letterhead design and your culture will tell you how to make it LOOK.  Your corporate “culture” will determine graphic elements that are associated with visual language – color, shape, letterform, texture and imagery.  If you can adequately describe your corporate personality to a graphic designer, the artist can provide you with visual language that fits your culture.  In his book “Visual language – the hidden meaning of communication” Peter Bonnici describes visual language this way:  “Any organization wishing to communicate through a visual medium needs to realise that, irrespective of the words they use, independent of the descriptive content of the pictures used to illustrate their message, the visual language in which the words and images are clothed is projecting a message of its own.  It projects qualities such as freshness, modernity, stability, responsiveness, care, dependability, flexibility, incisiveness, intelligence…and the audience subconsciously ‘reads’ these messages which can sometimes override explicit messages in text and images.  Thus, an organization wishing to communicate that ‘care’ is one of their core qualities might use an image of mother and child.  But an indifferent typography and a dull colour and a mediocre crop might all subconsciously communicate a message of carelessness and lack of attention to detail or quality.  The image and words might describe ‘care’, but the visual language evokes ‘careless.’” 


In other words, it is not enough to ‘say’ you care, you must show it in your visual language as well.  Your visual language needs to match your corporate culture, and it is this ability that makes a good graphic artist invaluable.


Trade Trick #3: Consistency

Consistency is the hallmark of all good marketing, and that is true as well for your letterhead.  It’s jarring and confusing for your customers to have your letterhead portray your company with red and blue colors, modern design and tech-savvy visual imagery and then walk into an office painted in earth tones and with furniture from the ‘70s.  So don’t redesign your letterhead until you’re ready to redesign your business cards, envelopes and other forms of corporate identity as well.


What does your letterhead say about your company?  It’s easy to find out.  Ask your customers, vendors and employees.  Hand them a blank sheet and ask them what conclusions they can draw about your company just from that one piece of printed paper.  If you don’t like the answers you get, it’s time for a change.  You may be surprised how perceptions change by improving that single communication tool.