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Reinventing Boring Media

Show business can also reach audiences by adding something creative and boundary-breaking to a familiar medium that audiences would normally not expect to find entertaining, let alone creative.

One standard medium that fairly begs for a show business reinvention is the annual report. To be sure, annual reports need to be informative and include technical information. But do they have to be boring and all look the same? Annual reports can be more than just financial documents that rattle off the same laundry list of strategic imperatives and core values: global, innovative, competitive. They don't have to include tacky images. By breaking boring conventions, they can express what's truly distinct about a company and communicate it with a much-needed spirit of fun.

One year Victoria's Secret's annual report came with a bra inside. Harley-Davidson's reports reflect the powerful brand community it shares with its customers, featuring pictures of the CEO in a leather jacket, an unpretentious look, black-and-white photography, and pull-out posters of their bikes of the year. One year the report included a recording of the distinctive "potato-potato-potato" sound of an idling Harley engine, which they were in the process of trying to patent.

The branding firm of Cahan & Associates has a specialty in these kinds of engaging, rule-breaking annual reports. Reports they've produced have read like a Boy Scout guide, a children's book, or—for a client that had received an inordinate amount of press that year—a newspaper, printed on newsprint. To explain the importance of Molecular Biosystems Inc.'s ultrasound imaging technology to investors, they produced a report that opened with full-page blurry photos and asked readers to identify what they saw. The story that unfolded helped readers understand the problem that MBI's technology solves for the medical profession, and not just what its current budget numbers were. This show business annual report generated 700 response cards, mostly from analysts and large investors (a skeptical audience).

"We break conventions, but never just for the sake of throwing away conventions," says Bill Cahan, the firm's founder and president. "Every concept has to come from a strategy that's signed off on by our client." Their work begins with research and interviews with everyone from senior management to factory-level workers to outsiders in the financial community, to get a full sense of the year's story for a company. They even use a Visual Rorschach Test to calibrate just how much show business a client is looking for ("Do something different!" can mean a lot of things). In the end, the report should tell a story that engages many audiences. "An annual report can be a sales and marketing tool, a PR tool, an employee retention tool," says Cahan. "It's an opportunity to do something unique and express why you should care about a company."

Even a direct mailing can be given show business flair if companies find a way to break customer's expectations and deliver something that speaks more directly than a glossy brochure. When Canada's major news magazine McLean's was creating a campaign to reach advertisers, they needed to address a misconception of the size and growth of their readership. So they took 100,000 copies of the magazine, tore them, beat them up, spilled coffee on them, and sent them to media representatives. The battered issues came with a message about how much pass-around McLean's copies receive (between friends, in an office, at home)—with an estimated three million actual readers of each issue.

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