Your Business Card Is A Billboard For Your Brand—What Does Yours Say?

If a brand can describe its core values and philosophy on its business card without a detailed description, the brand becomes a full representation of its vision.

I heard a story that a few years ago Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of Ikea, happened to drive past one of his stores. In passing, he noticed something wasn't quite right with the characteristic blue stucco. So, he pulled over, parked, and went in search of the local manager. Needless to say, the manager was a little taken aback when the head of the company asked why this store had chosen to use this type of plaster. The manager proudly explained that this store had saved Ikea literally half the amount of money the company would ordinarily spend by using cheaper stucco of a far greater quality. As the story goes, Kamprad said: "I don't care how much it costs—whether it costs more or less—it needs to be removed." Within weeks the stucco had been replaced with the more expensive, yet poorer looking plaster—all in order to send the right message to the Ikea customers: We're careful about how we spend our money—even when it comes to our choice of stucco.

I'm often asked why some brands succeed and others fail. Ikea's ability to stay on message and maintain focus on its core vision is one of the secrets. They have an induction process. When any senior manager begins working at Ikea, they're shown to their new office. Much to their surprise, the office is empty. There's not a chair or a bookshelf in sight, let alone a desk. Within minutes, a few warehouse workers arrive with a stack of boxes containing all the components of an office—a desk, some chairs, bookshelves, and lamps. Attached to the packaging is a welcome message inviting them to personally sample the company's wares.

When a brand truly lives its vision across every touch point and in every possible scenario, predictable as well as unpredictable, it becomes clear how well managed the brand is. I have a simple rule of thumb: If a brand can describe its core values and philosophy on its business card without resorting to a detailed description, then the brand becomes a full representation of its vision.

A company that lives its vision will indeed be able to communicate its vision on its business card without having to explain it. If you're puzzled about how this would be possible, then think of what an Ikea business might look like. Bear in mind that Ikea is all about DIY—do it yourself. How do you think their design philosophy translates onto their card?

Well, at first glance, the business card looks kind of normal. It features the iconic blue and yellow Ikea logo. But when you look for the usual contact details, what you'll see is NAME….. EMAIL….. PHONE…. Under each feature there's a blank line, leaving a space for the bearer to fill in their personal contacts. DIY from another angle.

My mantra when building any brand is that a company must live their vision and stay true to their philosophy. Ideally, every core value that they have should be able to be expressed on a business card. If you're able to crack the business card challenge—you'll be able to crack every touch point your brand have with its customers.

I'd suggest you forget about stupid pens with your company name embossed on the side. I mean how many of these do you have, and can you remember a single one? I certainly don't. But then again, hundreds of business cards are gathered in my Rolodex, and I don't remember any of them either, with just a few exceptions. A few years ago one of the world's most experienced hackers took on work as a security consultant. Instead of handing me the usual kind of card, he handed over skeleton key kit, shaped and sized like a business card, but not in standard board—it was metal. It contained whatever was needed to open doors. Another business card I'll never forget is one handed over by an optician in New Zealand. This card combined the usual printed contact details, but as soon as I took it, I realised it was also written in Braille.

Which leads me to my tried and trusted napkin test. In my universe a powerful brand should be able to explain their mission in a single paragraph—the fewer words, the better. But what most brands forget is that their business card is indeed their "napkin," a blank canvas enabling them to communicate the essence of their brand (or fail to do so).

We live in a super-cluttered world where no one has time for anything. We're bombarded with text messages, TV commercials, billboards, and online ads, and so companies need to know what they stand for. It's a fact that you cannot remember more than three television commercials in a row, let alone recall the design of your average business card unless they manage to rise above the cacophony and stand out in a way that's completely relevant.

Why is this so important? Well, if you're really serious about building a powerful brand, you will need to crack the code of creativity first. This will allow you to stand out in the crowd, and more importantly claim ownership of the humble business card, because if you do, you will be on the right track.

It's the simplest and most difficult thing to do. For your brand to stand out and live its vision, you'll have to condense what its stands for in as few a words as possible. But once people have seen one of these distinct cards, they will not forget it.

So look at your business card with new eyes. Consider what will make your brand live, without having to explain it. The day you know your card has been saved, you can sit back, raise your glass and say, "Mission accomplished." Not only that, you can also toast the fact that you've created the very foundation for your future mass communication strategy.


Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine’s "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best–seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, will be released in September. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best-sellers translated into 30 languages. More at

Read more by Lindstrom: Creative Marketing For Mom And Pop Shops

[Image: Flickr user pixelens photography]

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  • Guest

    Appreciated the article and it has generated much conversation on LinkedIn Groups. 

    Consistancy for your ideal clients is so key to a brand.  And when it comes to business cards, although they are "our" marketing collateral, they're created for the prospect.  So things like font size, including as much contact information as prospects needs/wants, white space on the back to write (no plastic here, please)  are important issues that your graphic designer and you should talk about.

    Maria Marsala, aka CoachMaria

  • OscarMarroquin

    I may be odd person out here, i want a business card for the name and contact info.  If the person hasn't presented themselves and their company creatively/positively, the card will be trashed, regardless of the quality of the card.  Sometimes simple is better.    There may be unique businesses where a creative, unique card may be preferred, there are always exceptions. 

  • Stefan Bielski

    We worked with a great designer at ( )  so our (2bschool) cards could demonstrate our value of cultivating and communicating self knowledge for success in the MBA admissions process.
    Cards features an actual application question from a business school (10 programs in 7 countries) that aims to get candidates (and perhaps most people) thinking about their short and long-term career goals from the get go. I like to observe which question recipients are drawn to. From there we can interact. Themes include brand management, cross cultural, ethics, failure, MBA alternatives, teaching. 

  • Bob Watkins

    I have to say the video seemed to be the antithesis of the article's point. The fact that the card is die-cut, foil stamped, embossed, and folds out into a 3-D diorama tells me nothing about who this guy is, except extravagant. The fact that he tore up someone's business card right in front of him tells me all I need to know.  By contrast, I'm sure Google's cards cost 'way less than $4 each -- but absolutely nail the brand, as does the Lego one.

  • Trig Web Design

    As a web designer for over a decade, I have told my clients this for years, not just about their business cards, but also their websites! Image is everything, but the wrong image can destroy you before you even get started!

  • Paul Gourhan

    I agree wholeheartedly, despite the obnoxious guy in the video. Your business card is often the first impression of your brand. Make it count. You often do not need it to be foil stamped, or die cut to make an impression. Use good stock, heavy in the hand, then on the front place your logo, maybe a tagline, nothing else. (spending money on a quality logo design will help a lot to communicate the proper brand impression.) All the rest of your contact info goes on the back. If they care about what you are saying they will turn it over and look at it. I also prefer standard size, unlike the over-sized ego.. um, card, of the gentleman in the video, there is nothing wrong with having a card that fits into a standard space. Cards like his often get lost because there is no appropriate place to put them. They put me out and become an annoyance. I throw them out mostly because they aren't conducive to my filing system and I don't want to deal. This is what I do for a living and I can tell you that Martin is spot-on with the thought process. This is the core of your brand. Take some time to do it right and stand out from the crowd.
    Thanks for the great article Martin!
    Paul Gourhan

  • Christine Proctor

    Building a brand is key in relaying to the community what you stand for. Our website allows you to create your identity for free. This gives you full control of designing your own logo. Check it out, it has helped thousands of companies, especially start ups or companies looking to refresh their current image!

  • M Johns

    Offer an interactive way for customers to see what you all about. A business card gives people an idea and a name, however these days it may take a little more to get someone to take that extra step and actuall contact you. Be inovative, use mobile technology to bridge end users to all your relevant and dynamic information on the internet. QR TAG technology from

  • DaveQuinn247

    More communities should embrace this thinking. Decide who they are and want to be and then build a brand from the ground up....starting with their business card. Economic Development is about relationships and to get a relationship started you must be remarkable. Building a brand that can be conveyed through your business card is a great place to start.