EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: ANNUAL REPORT JUDGING IMPRESSIONS & RECOMMENDATIONS
Here's a one-page recap highlighting the most notable observations in annual report communications and design during the past year: The quality and style of annual reports on an international scale is becoming more and more divergent. What is likely most surprising to many Americans is that books from our nation, on the whole, are near the low end of the spectrum in terms of detail, creativity, and quality. Asia and Europe lead the field in annual report design with the former continent leaning more toward the unusual and cutting edge while the latter continent’s books really prove to be much better designed and aesthetically pleasing. In terms of content, books from both Europe and Asia are typically 2-4 times as long as those from the Americas.
Speaking of the Americas, annual reports coming from south of the U.S. border are surprisingly very, very good. While generally as long and detailed as U.S.-generated annual reports, they tend to carry more distinctive and innovative designs, overall. There is, we might say, a Latin flare to them. Canadian books by and large are identical to those in the U.S., both in terms of quality and design. The formats are the most conservative.
The upshot is that if you’re a U.S.-based company dealing solely with U.S. investors and stakeholders, there might be little incentive to reflect on books from overseas. However, if you’re a multi-national, we strongly recommend acquiring some annual reports from around the world to inspire more expansive designs and content.
Consider Your Feature Set. We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: a conventional annual report will clearly communicate that you’re a conventional company. An exceptional annual report will clearly communicate that you’re an exceptional company. And being exceptional is not necessarily a function of how large your annual report budget is.
We strongly encourage all entrants to use this year’s Online Annual Report Features Database (see previous page) to get an idea of what innovative elements are now being embedded in annual reports: fold-out covers and narratives, pull-out reference materials, and evergreen reminders such as calendars and planners. The mere presence of these resources doesn’t make a book great but the content in them does. Demonstrate the leadership position your organization is in by being the first to offer something distinctive to shareholders while also further educating them and reinforcing an ongoing relationship with them—remind them of how you are your industry’s most passionate and innovative player, stepping up to the next level to exceed goals.
No More “Repentance” Annual Reports. As the theory goes, when income and revenue fall, companies are quick to highlight their cost cutting and other acts of ‘repentance’ by debuting a no-frills annual report. Such reports are printed on poor quality paper, often have little or no color, and typically skip any sort of in-depth narrative detailing the organization’s past activities and future plans. To us, ‘10-K wraps’ are more often than not what we’d consider a repentance annual report.
While the medium is part of the message, a communications vehicle that is rife with mediocrity in form and function is never a good idea. The good news is that the communications industry is again shying away from this form of communications. For this past year’s batch of annual reports, we saw another significant drop in the number of books using the ‘repentance’ format. Let’s up the trend continues.