Transitioning Your Annual Report From a Data Dump to a Marketing Tool


Annual reports have taken on new importance in the modern, digital economy, where there is never enough content to share and a growing array of channels to share it on. Today’s annual report is a vehicle for branding, a tool for increasing engagement with your audience, and a document that is strategically designed to inform, persuade, and delight.

With more eyes on them and more opportunities to be seen in a positive light, organizations, large and small, for-profit and not-for-profit, are thinking creatively about how they represent themselves in their annual reports.

More Than Facts and Figures

At its core, an annual report is a comprehensive overview of everything significant that happened to an organization in the preceding year. It catalogs their financial results, new markets they may have entered, new initiatives, and their goals for the year to come. The primary audience for this document is typically shareholders, investors, and other stakeholders that are concerned with the firm’s progress and prospects.

“Readers want to see how a brand they care about represents itself and what priorities it espouses.”

More recently, annual reports are being seen by a much larger audience, including the company’s clients and employees (whether they own a stake in the business or not) and even the brand’s followers on social media. Those less sophisticated audiences usually aren’t there to read bar graphs and pore over minutia. What they want is to see how a brand they care about represents itself and what priorities it espouses. Even if they don’t hold any stock, they are emotionally invested in the company’s achievements.

Plus, this document won’t just be filed away in some regulator’s office, never to be seen again. In fact, if it’s really special, people will actively share it online. Certain companies, notably Kickstarter and Mailchimp, have cultivated a reputation for unique and charming annual reports, and their fans eagerly await the newest edition.

Speak to Your Audience

Given these new realities, there has been a movement away from stale and mundane annual reports towards colorful, engaging, boldly-designed and elegantly-branded multimedia documents that serve the dual role of disseminating required information disclosures and attracting new attention and brand awareness and affiliation.

What that has meant is that the creative types are getting as much say in the final product as the accounting department. Open up a modern annual report and you’ll find:

  • Beautiful photos and illustrations
  • Refined use of whitespace and minimalist arrangements
  • Easily-digested data representations and infographics
  • Compelling and evocative storytelling
  • Consistent application of visual and verbal brand language

Of course, the traditional inclusions are still there, like an introductory letter from the CEO, market segment data, future roadmaps, updates on subsidiaries, mission and vision statements, and research and development announcements. Armed with the knowledge that this document will be seen far and wide, however, more care is being applied not just to what goes in, but how it looks and how it will connect with a variety of audiences.

Considering those different audiences is crucial when designing an annual report, because each will have their own expectations. Big money shareholders will probably skip straight to the most consequential financial statements (so don’t make it hard to find them). Others, such as employees and brand advocates, will want to hear about how the firm treats and acknowledges its staff and its corporate responsibility and sustainability initiatives.

Make Human Stories the Focus

Investors may be focused on assets and liabilities, but consumers and employees increasingly say they want to patronize and work for brands that put values and a positive mission above profits. The annual report is a company’s best chance to prove they are making good on their brand promise by disclosing things like the vendors they contract with, how they source materials and mitigate environmental harms, and what they have done to improve the well-being of their employees.

Similarly, great annual reports resist the urge to constantly make the company the only star of the document. That seems counterintuitive (after all, the report is about them), but readers also want to hear about the communities these brands operate in. An authentic human story is almost always more meaningful than even the most illuminating statistic. Smart annual reports weave those stories throughout, giving the reader a break from the data to hear how it impacted an actual person. Adding a photo and some background details about the individual mentioned can make it that much more affecting and real.

Design Trends

Many of the same tools and best practices that marketers have been using to attract eyeballs and generate engagement online are equally effective at turning a lifeless annual report into an exciting, narrated tour of a business. Every brand is different, and thus every company’s document should be tailored to its style and character, but here are some examples of modern, impressive, and well-received annual reports:


Neenah Paper Inc. 2018: It’s fitting that a premium paper company would have a gorgeous, printed annual report. What’s surprising is how modern, clean, and flat the design is.


Toronto International Film Festival 2017: Sometimes it is the lack of a thing that draws attention, like in this annual report that sticks to a narrow range of colors.


Tronox 2016: This annual report is a study in focusing on the essentials. Composed without images, it tells the story of this chemical and mining B2B brand entirely with understated typography and the tasteful use of whitespace.


Roche 2018: On social media, video content is a great way to drive engagement. The same is true for digital annual reports, like in Swiss-based pharma brand Roche’s, which features hero clips as a background for almost every headline.


Museum Boijmans 2017: This art museum in the Netherlands features a stunning geometric pattern in its courtyard. It’s a theme that can be seen in bright, beautiful, and expressive designs in several of their annual reports.


Oscar 2018: Health insurance can be hard to understand, which is why Oscar differentiates itself by being less complicated than its competitors. To capture that brand ethos, it built a digitally enhanced annual report that guides the reader with motion graphics and intuitive navigation.


Kickstarter 2016: They up their game every year, but the full-featured website that this crowdfunding company built to show its progress in 2016 is still rich with visuals, animation, and an easy-to-use UX design.


Ablynx 2015: High tech brand Ablynx, which works on the cutting edge of the biopharmaceutical industry, turned heads and demonstrated its future-forward outlook by 3D printing its data visualizations.

Put Your Brand to Work

Beautiful design will take you pretty far. Engaging copy and human-centric storytelling will take you even further. But the most effective annual reports tie everything back to an overarching brand vision. Everything from font and color choices to the tone should match a strategically cultivated identity that is unique.

For your next annual report, put your brand, its values, and accomplishments in the best possible light. Be comprehensive but understandable and engaging but sincere and thoughtful, and help the world understand how your leadership and culture are making a difference.


Need help turning your next annual report  into a compelling, beautifully-crafted, and shareable narrative? Talk to the design and branding experts at Hanlon.