Catalog Creative Breakthroughs (1,612 words)
by Jack Schmid
THE BIG IDEA! What direct marketer has not dreamed of coming up with that totally unique, breakthrough concept like the "Johnson Box" or the negative option club or another creative ploy that gives one immortality in industry recognition. Whether you're a designer, photographer, writer, printer or order form manufacturer, everyone is seeking that special creative technique that will help their work stand out, differentiate themselves from the competition and get better results.
"Beat the Control!" is the cry of creative professionals. Let's look at a number of ways that successful catalogers are thinking "outside the box" in their creative efforts.
We'll examine seven breakthrough ideas—presented not in any priority order. You'd be wise to think about each one and how it may work for you.
1. Great Covers
There are catalogs that consistently come up with brilliant covers. The reason that covers (both front and back) are so important is they are the first things that buyers or prospects see. We have seen front covers make a 30-percent to 40-percent difference in revenue per catalog mailed. The "big guys" know that prospect covers need to work harder. Many larger catalogers have separate prospect books in which the merchandise is specifically tailored, and covers, the opening spread and offers are oriented to:
• getting customers' attention.
• standing out in the crowded mail box.
• getting readers inside the catalog.
• highlighting an offer that can't be refused.
• giving customers a quick read about what this catalog is selling and how unique the niche and brand are.
Lands' End, Foster & Smith, New Pig Corp. and Cushman's Fruit consistently develop unique covers.
2. Great Photography and Photo Styling
Copy is NOT king in the catalog environment! Unlike other types of direct mail where copy is often the "driver," a catalog is a visual medium and design and photography are the critical creative elements. In those catalogs that consistently stand out and produce great results, it is great photography that leads the way. There are lots of photo style options:
• silhouetted or with no background.
• table top with a horizon.
• highly accessorized, minimal accessories or no accessories.
• with or without models.
• on location or in a studio.
• illustrative art rather than photos.
Regardless of photography style, it is the vehicle that grabs the customer and starts the reading and ordering process. Look at catalogs like Tiffany, Talbots, Crate & Barrel and Wolfermans to see uniformly great photos.
Another aspect of photography is styling. Coldwater Creek especially deserves mention because of its unique, non-model styling that has created a breakthrough in fashion. This almost human-looking styling is brilliant! We are already seeing others emulate their photos.
3. Great Catalog Copy
We have become a nation of "skimming readers." Maybe it's the impact of television, but today's readers concentrate on headlines, captions and call-outs to get the gist of an article. The importance of catalog copy has thereby been elevated to a new level. Headlines, subheads, charts and captions all take on greater importance in assisting the skimming reader through the book to the ordering process. Whether one is telling the romantic narrative like J. Peterman or presenting the credibility of an L.L. Bean, the copy style must reinforce the brand.
Another copy breakthrough in catalogs is the more aggressive use of "sidebar" or editorial information (see "Taking On Content," p. 34) whether to present a recipe as in the Williams-Sonoma catalog or to tell the history of Jeep in its licensed catalog. Including background or editorial information is becoming more common to help the catalog build authority for its products. The concept of a "magalog" (half magazine/half catalog) is being tested by some forward-thinking mailers.
Direct marketers have long known that the use of personalization can dramatically improve response rates. Catalogers have been slow to adapt the available laser and ink-jet technology. They are content with ink-jet addressing the back cover and the order form along with an occasional, additional address panel message. With greater database segmentation and improved laser printing techniques, we will see more targeted, personalized messages being used. Examples: Fingerhut has used large type personalization on covers for 20 years. Guess what? It must work. Viking also uses personalization with most books.
Another personalized technique in the food industry started by Harry & David is the personalized gift-giver package in which the catalog is mailed in an envelope with a personalized letter to the gift giver and a personalized list of gift recipients from the previous year. Does it work? Like gangbusters! (See "#6-Loyalty Marketing.")
Digital or direct-to-plate printing is making the cost and control of catalog versions much simpler.
5. Unique Offers
Historically, catalogers have thought that presenting their merchandise in a well-designed, well-written and well-photographed manner is all that it takes to get orders. And these elements are certainly the starting point. But with today's more fickle customers, we are seeing a greater use of offers to motivate targeted segments of customers to action. Database marketing and greater segmentation is driving such offers. Examples:
• Getting one-time buyers to purchase a second time.
• Re-activating older-year inactives.
• Increasing the average order value.
• "Early bird" offers to get buyers to respond more rapidly.
• Positive offers to very best customers to maintain loyalty.
• Bundling of product or "two-for" or "three-for" offers to sell more items per order.
Testing offers is critical to really know if they are producing the gains that are needed. Companies like Honey Baked Ham and Chef's Catalog are successfully using offers to increase sales per catalog.
6. Loyalty Marketing
One of the newest, trendiest creative thrusts of catalogers is in building relationship or loyalty programs. Driven by a better understanding of lifetime value, and how important it is to keep good customers, loyalty or preferred-buyer marketing is going to become a hotter topic in the next decade. Who are the leaders in loyalty marketing? Eddie Bauer is one standout that is tying both retail and catalog sales into a loyalty-reward program. Sears Canada with its Sears Club built around its charge card and air miles, is a winning example. Damark is a third excellent example with its Preferred Buyer Clubs priced at $49.99 per year. As a catalog's products become more of a commodity (more widely available elsewhere), loyalty marketing takes on new importance.
7. Tying the Printed Catalog to the Web
This is new creative ground for most catalogers. Dell and Gateway 2000's direct sales via the Internet are reportedly upwards to $5 million a day with as much as 30 percent of the sales coming from the consumer sector. These companies are the models to emulate. The creative challenge for both business and consumer catalogs is how to make the printed promotion and the Web site work together. As a start, every catalog needs to advertise its Web site in the catalog—at least on the back cover and order form.
It might be a while until the entire catalog is online, but at a minimum, every catalog should be attempting to generate catalog requests or maybe feature a small number of proven "hot" products. The medium is going to grow in importance, so there is no time like the present to get your feet wet. You can join one of the numerous catalog Web sites:
• Shop At Home:
• The Catalog Site:
• Mall of Catalogs: www.sni.net/marketeers/mallofcatalogs
• Catalogs Across America:
• Catalog Central: catalogcentral.com
The Garfield comic strip is rated number one in the world in distribution and number of readers. When Garfield launched a new catalog, Garfield Stuff, this past year it was a natural to use its Web site (www.garfield.com) to generate catalog requests. Because of its international popularity and because the Web site was mentioned in the comic strip, the medium has proven to be very strong in getting new inquiries. Conversion is excellent, as well.
Finding that New Idea
Many professionals will tell you that there are no new ideas. But there are a number of ways that innovative individuals and companies keep "pushing the creative envelope" and in improving their ultimate catalog product. Are you doing the following to help generate new ideas for your catalog?
•Watch intently what others are doing… especially those catalogs that are consistently putting up great numbers.
•Look outside your immediate market segment for creative ideas. Are you tracking retail, business-to-business, direct mailers and other industry consumer segments? You might be surprised what you'll learn. Many times people are turned off by another industry segment or communication channel and can't "translate" a brilliant idea to their work. That's the challenge.
•Keep a "swipe file" of creative ideas of other catalog and mail-order pieces. It's amazing how many of those ideas you can adopt, modify or emulate for your own business.
•Read every creative article, book and publication that you can get your hands on. Successful, creative people are hungry for new ideas and concepts that can advance their knowledge.
•Pass on ideas to your friends and colleagues and ask them to reciprocate.
•Attend a least one or two conferences a year where creative people are speaking and demonstrating their wares. Interact and network with peers.
•Become a member of your local direct marketing or creative club or association. These are great places to meet other bright, creative and production people and get ideas.
Good luck finding the next "big idea!"
JACK SCHMID is president of J. Schmid & Associates Inc., Shawnee Mission, KS. He can be reached at (913) 385-0220 or by e-mail at email@example.com.