Till some time back, Annual Reports were nothing more than a consolidated financial report intrinsic to a firm’s business, with little concern given to the presentation or the style. Maybe, Annual Reports were more of a prerogative of the number crunchers and were of little interest to the “Kotlers” of those firms…
However, the perception seems to have changed now, with more effort given not only to “what the annual reports present” but also to “how the annual reports are presented”. Annual Reports have emerged as a critical brand element for internal as well as external branding purposes. Though this is not a new phenomenon internationally, India is a relatively newer market for this trend.
According to an article in the Economic Times, “there’s an attempt to tell a story beyond what the numbers reveal.” Indeed a story is built, and the company takes the centre stage. “Corporates like Sasken, Polaris, 3i Infotech, Greenply and Shoppers’ Stop have revamped the way their respective annual reports look and feel — if one has used claymation as a unifying theme, another has employed self-portraits of staffers as a medium of expression, while yet another has chosen to present its annual report in the form of a novel.
"Sasken, for instance, used claymation pictures of historical figures like King Asoka, Emperor Shah Jahan and Mian Tansen to communicate values that the company is committed to and Sun Tsu to talk about its expansion in China.
Take a look at the attached pictures, which are snapshots of pages from the Annual Reports of companies!
What is the objective behind branding Annual Reports? Behind this new level of creativity, unique mode of presentation, giving life and personality to the Annual Report?
Some of it could be an effort to reflect a company’s orientation as being Modern and progressive, and thinking beyond the obvious and mundane. Since these reports act as a ready reference point for the shareholders, they would also ensure good recall for these shareholders, thereby ensuring more involvement with the Annual Reports, and in turn, the corporate brand or the organization. In some cases, they could serve as Collector’s items too.
Kolkata-based Trisys Communications is one of India's dedicated annual reports consultancies and one of the few agencies specializing in designing annual reports. Mudar Pathreya, chief positioning officer, Trisys, gave me some pertinent insights (through e-mail), regarding the trend of Annual Reports in India.
According to him, the pattern of the expectations of clients is “clearly led by presentation, followed by content and then followed by emotions”. However, the expectations are not homogenized so far – Though Annual Reports are used for Branding, there is still limited application of the same – Companies tend to segregate the corporate brand and the product brand, for the purpose of designing their marketing plans. Even the corporate brand is segregated from the immediate communication – the priority is given to tactical measures, which is reflected in the annual reports therein.
Mudar agreed that the awareness levels among Indian companies is abysmally low, but gradually, there is greater willingness to try out more concepts and experiment with the presentation and designing part of the annual reports, while keeping the “data” part consistent. [source: Email Inputs from Mudar, Trisys Communications Pvt Ltd, Kolkata, India]
An April 1999 Article in Fast Company mentioned that “companies that want to operate at their best -- companies that are redefining how to play the game -- are reinventing what annual reports say and how they look”.
According to a consultancy featured in that article, Cahan & Associates, “Annual reports need to evolve: They need to become more interesting and more entertaining. Otherwise, they won't be able to compete for people's attention."
Truly, the effort by companies is to communicate their key messages in a compelling manner to the stakeholders involved. "Annual reports aren't merely financial documents; they're branding vehicles and statements of strategy."
So how to agencies manage to get this attention? What is it that they do differently?
According to data collated from some of the agencies working on Annual Reports (Trisys, Cahan & Associates, Ramp Creative, SPD Dallas), most of it relates to first building a story based on the corporate culture and values of the organization; and then narrating that story in a manner that engages the stakeholders and investors. Cahan & Associates call the work as that of “archaeologists", where they find for a hidden idea or theme that reflects the company’s story.
Once a story is built, next comes the way in which the story needs to be told – needs to be presented – together with design professionals, communication experts and academicians, reports are presented in a manner that appeals to the companies.
Some of it revolves around a centralized theme or structuring the presentation with different themes for separate sections of the Annual report (such as those mentioned above), while some others prefer the designing way (like shareholders in the form of envelopes or single-page Reports)..
As Ramp Creative, a branding and design agency based in Los Angeles, wonderfully summarizes..
“Our favorite annual reports of all time are not just corporate business and financial stories, but rather well-told epics with dramatic settings, beautiful illuminations and suspensful sequels. We enjoy contributing our long-standing skills to the tradition of crafting....reports that not only strengthen relationships with the investor community, but also continue the company narrative into marketing, sales and recruiting efforts.”
Where do we go from here? Industry experts predict certain trends in this branding exercise – First the “Reports” in Annual Reports became irrelevant, and now the “Annual” would follow..
Cahan & Associates predicted that annual reports will become less "annual." Companies, in order to reiterate the core message articulated in their Annual Reports, would communicate more frequently with their stakeholders, “to help explain important developments throughout the year". This would help them leverage the identity and equity created by the Annual Reports.
Indian markets/consultancies also might follow their western counterparts in honoring highly creative annual reports - In the United States, there are special Awards for the best Annual Reports, namely AR100 and NIRI Annual report Competition.
The National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI) of Orange County recognizes the best annual reports of publicly traded companies in Orange County, California, while the AR100 represents the 100 best annual reports from more than 500 entries and is selected on the basis excellence of design, functionality, innovation and brand awareness. The AR100 is recognized as a benchmark publication in annual report design, with circulation to more than 15,000 corporate communicators.
Another element to be attached to this are the images of the management, that have started getting attention recently, to be put in Annual reports and other corporate literature. Thus, an effort is being made to translate the staid perception of corporate imagery into celebrity status!
All and all, branding does permeate into the staid world of Financial Reporting, after all. No matter how significant is the data, and how consistent is the performance – Finally it would depend upon the creativity and innovation that will connect the presenter and the perceiver, to ensure an effective communication….
So, are you still stuck up with numbers? ;)
Emami, Polaris, Sasken, Mittal Steel, Helpage India Ispat, Envelope, 7-Eleven