Being part of the FaberExposize European network provided Northern Flags with an early warning system when it came to COVID-19. “It hit Europe before it hit us,” says FaberExposize UK and Northern Flags Managing Director, Iain Clasper-Cotte. “We were in conversation with many of our German and Dutch colleagues, we saw the changes they were making, and they told us what changes their competitors were making, so we got into conversations with CMYUK quite early on, which helped to stand us in good stead.”
The Leeds-based Northern Flags (also known as FaberExposize UK to its larger clients) has been producing high-quality custom flags, banners, soft signage, fabric printing, and all other aspects of digital wide-format printing to some of the world’s largest companies and brands for over 30 years. Like so many other UK Print Service Providers (PSPs) it started 2020 on a high, only to fall off a cliff albeit temporarily in April.
Working with CMYUK, clients, and with the timely addition of a new marketing team that had luckily just been hired, Northern Flags turned the situation around – essentially transforming primarily from roll-to-roll fabric printing to providing COVID-19 safety signage involving a great deal of floor graphics plus PPE equipment.
“We've got as many wide-format UV printers as we have fabric printers, normally the fabric printers are the busiest ones but thanks to COVID, the UV ones have taken pole position,” says Iain.
Building a supplier partnership
The relationship between Northern Flags and CMYUK is a comparatively new one. Just over a year ago, Northern Flags began to migrate to CMYUK for its textiles materials due to quality issues it had experienced with its previous suppliers. CMYUK Key Account Manager, Damien Clarke was instrumental in guiding Northern Flags towards greater levels of quality, consistency, and choice.
“Damien understood our company really well and what the potential for CMYUK was, so we didn’t get into prolonged negotiations. He was very efficient with sample rolls so we could get all testing done very quickly. The whole situation was easy and from the very beginning it felt like a partnership rather than a sales process,’ says Iain.
Prior to COVID-19, the relationship between the two companies was building momentum and trust with Damien supporting Northern Flags through long tenders by advising on new materials. So when Lockdown hit, its not surprising that the company turned to CMYUK for the supply of large volumes of floor graphics materials.
“Covid-19 went from no toilet rolls to no floor graphics but I have to say we managed to keep on top. We didn't lose any orders because of non-supply. Damian was really honest with us as far as supply was concerned. He always delivered, everything always arrived on time, which allowed us to manage client expectations and our sales force more effectively,” says Iain.
Another key observation Iain made during Lockdown was how the mindset of a supplier can effect good customer relations.
“We felt right from the start that CMYUK had a different attitude to selling high demand substrates without profiteering. We felt that a number of other suppliers were profiteering from what available stock they had and we weren't prepared to enter into those kinds of trading relations,” says Iain.
“With CMYUK we found that what we were paying was fair, which allowed us to be fair with our clients. During this period we started working with a number of new clients and we feel fairly confident that these relationships will be long-term because our customers feel like they've had good value in the way that we feel we’ve had good value from CMYUK – that's where the supply chain works for everybody,” he says.
Signs of the times
Like many other PSPs, Northern Flags only produced floor graphics every now and again, but says Iain, “By God, we know them so well now.” Customers have seen how easy floor graphics are to apply and remove, he believes that they may well become a permanent part of the mainstream marketing mix.
But while social distancing is in place and guidance from the government continues to be unclear, signage, believes Iain, has to work twice as hard.
He cites a retail client that had to revise a campaign 18 times in order to keep up with government messaging and then again, just as large volumes of 2m distancing signage were being delivered, government advice changed again.
“A lot of people now feel that signage doesn't apply to them which is a real issue that means that retailers and offices for example are going to have to be even more creative and innovative in how they confront the signage in their buildings,” he says.
With Lockdown easing much more, what’s in store for Northern Flags in the future?
“We’re looking hard at where we need to be focusing our energies. We've invested a lot of money in this factory and we've got a great team. It will require a lot of agility and flexibility in order to succeed but as we’ve shown we’re more than up to the job. The future looks so different now from the start of the year but together with our customers and suppliers, we are ready for the challenges.”