The Bottom Line

Stop selling labels

By Rock LaManna | March 13, 2014

Meet Brian Burley, president and CEO of Graphic Source. He’s not a printer, but he’s in the printing business. His specialty is wide-format printing and signage, but he doesn’t own any wide-format printing machines. In the blink of an eye, he could be your biggest competitor in the label industry, or your biggest partner.

And if you asked him how to succeed in the label business, he’d probably give you a rather shocking answer: “Stop selling labels.”
Yes, that’s right. Stop selling labels, and start selling ideas. It’s the approach that has made Graphic Source one of the top signage companies in the Minneapolis area. It’s opened the door to phenomenal growth for Brian’s company, endearing him to such heavy-hitters as the Minnesota Twins and The Mall of America. It’s allowed him to achieve significant growth without owning a single piece of big iron. 

That’s right. Visit Graphic Source’s headquarters, and the only printing equipment might be the office printer. 

So what’s Brian’s secret? And why does he pose either the biggest threat or the greatest opportunity to your label business? For that, let’s take a look at exactly what Graphic Source does, and how Brian built his unique model.

Built from a Model Outside Our Industry
Brian Burley is not a child of the printing industry. His roots are traced back to the food service industry, specifically, Kraft Foods. He spent thirteen years under the food service conglomerate, and he learned a critical lesson.

“Kraft used to sell products,” Burley recalls. “Then they became Kraft American, and switched to more of a service model.” 

Burley watched food delivery to restaurants, and he learned that restaurant owners weren’t interested in having multiple trucks pull up to their business. “They didn’t want different people,” he says. “They wanted one guy they could count on to help with whatever they needed.”

Burley decided to move on from Kraft when an opportunity presented itself with an independent sign shop. He was hired based on his ability to market a business and sell, but he realized quickly that a fundamental shift was needed to truly differentiate his business from the competition. 

“I found out that we were only selling what we did well,” he says. “Anything we didn’t do well, we subbed out.” 

That notion seemed to limit the company’s flexibility and its appeal. It created a pigeonholing effect among his clientele, a profiling he would find hard to shake – and still does. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Burley decided to try a different approach. Instead of selling products, he would sell ideas. Instead of pushing what a printing machine could produce, he would try and find an ideal solution for what a customer needed.

Staying true to his signage niche, Burley began to pitch ideas. He would visit a client, dream up a new campaign, and find an exciting new process for producing it. Sometimes he would save the customer money. Sometimes he would simply hit a home run with eye-popping signage. But every time, he would satisfy the customer’s needs, not his own.

The approach also mandated a shift from the big iron, so Burley began to source everything. Working with six or seven printers he could trust, he established himself as a “printer” with one significant difference: His presses were never full.

Without the burden of a production staff waiting for work and machines sitting idle, Burley and staff were free to ideate and pursue new customers. They could also always stay one step ahead of the curve, finding printers who were working with new advancements in signage. 

Burley had re-created the Kraft American foodservice model, and both he and his customers were the beneficiaries.

The Big Idea Brings the Big Revenue
Graphic Source has been riding Burley’s model since 1994, and it’s somewhat ironic that the printing and label industry is waking up to the merits of the model. 

Attend any trade show or peruse the pages of a trade publication, and you’ll hear tales of printers trying to reinvent themselves as marketing companies or advertising agencies. It’s not about the printing anymore, but prior to the advent of the digital age, it sure as heck was.

It’s no coincidence that traditional printing has experienced a gradual decline the same year Netscape went public (remember them?). Coupled with the 2008 recession, it left many commercial printers scrambling for a new approach.

Print’s decline hasn’t been felt as much in the label and narrow web sectors.  Logistics continues its steady growth rate, and in emerging economies and niche vertical sectors, it’s a hot commodity.

Unfortunately, this is exactly the kind of complacent atmosphere that lulled the commercial printers to sleep. They rested their laurels on their equipment, and many of them lost. Permanently.

In essence, Burley’s model says if you really want to sell labels, then don’t sell labels. Sell ideas. Solve your client’s problems, instead of trying to just fill your production capacity. So how do you make it happen? Let’s take a look at three ways to transition to the same approach Graphic Source takes.

A Different Approach, But One You Can Start Today
The beauty of building your business on the idea economy is that you become amazingly nimble. When you don’t tie yourself to your machines, you can instantly discover exactly what your customer needs and - here’s the best part - you can deliver.

With an idea-based approach, your expertise, insight and creativity drives your business. Here’s how Burley’s team does it:

1. Pitch what they want, not what you need
No one wants to receive yet another tiresome sales call from a vendor, asking if you’re ready to re-up for another order. So don’t do it. Instead, make a visit to the customer, and find out what their true marketing challenges are for the coming year. Find out where they need help. You’ve got to understand what they’re trying to accomplish, and who they’re trying to reach.

Once you’ve got a sense of what they need, it’s up to you to come up with a breakthrough way to achieve it. If you’re fortunate, you may have a label-inspired solution. But what if you don’t? That’s when you turn to a partner.

2. Pay it forward with a partner
Reach out to another vendor, preferably someone you can trust and you have a relationship with. For example, your client might be looking to extend their marketing campaign to some outdoor signage. As a label printer, you might not be able to help, but you can go to a company like Graphic Source and bring them in for the pitch.

When you do, your client will be delighted to not only see you have a brilliant solution, but you’re also flexible enough – and connected enough – to solve their problem, no matter what it may be. Now, not only do you have a solid vendor that you work with and expand your product line, but also someone looking to bring label business to you.

Now we get to the secret to really making this work: Pitching the label business for your newfound partner.

3. Make your partner the label expert
Vendors tend to view Burley as a money tree, and they sit and wait for him to bring them business. It’s something he finds tiresome. “Don’t approach me and ask me to go out and sell your labels,” he says. 

To be a true partner under this approach, you have to team up with Burley and help him generate new business. And that means you make him – or whoever you’re teaming up with – a label expert.

For example, if you know a wide-format printer has a client that needs labeling, educate the wide-format printer on how to sell your labels. Create a solution that ideally meets the client’s needs, and provides them with a can’t-miss opportunity. This approach requires you “keep your eye on the big picture,” Burley says. 

You’re paying your partner a cut, sure, but you’re gaining a customer that you didn’t have to work hard to earn. You’re also educating and helping your partner increase his resources, which can yield even more dividends down the road.

Yet even with this type of flexible, solutions-based approach, Burley finds customers still pigeonhole him. “If I print a wide-format sign, then that’s all they think I can do,” he says. By bringing new products to a customer, it causes this realization that you and Burley form the kind of one-stop-shop he always admired with Kraft American.

For traditional label printers, Burley’s approach puts the old way of doing business on its head. If you look at his bottom line and improved revenue growth, it’s a common sense approach long overdue. Considering how commercial printers are scrambling to adapt to his model, its something a label printer should consider while the going’s good.

Rock LaManna, President and CEO of LaManna Alliance, helps printing owners and CEOs use their company financials to prioritize and choose the proper strategic path. He can be reached at
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