Testing front covers is one of the easiest and most important tests catalogers can do. Front covers are the doorway into your catalog, so your cover must entice customers to open the door and step through into the wonderful world inside. Testing will help you learn what it takes to get your customers to open that door more often.
“Copy destroys the graphic integrity of my cover design.”
Magazine designers love a lot of copy on the front cover, but catalog designers hate it.
“I’ve been designing catalogs for years. Trust me, I know what sells,” said Maurice, the catalog designer. “All those words are distracting from the cover’s impact. Clutter doesn’t sell.”
He was convincing. Yet, since the copy had been created specifically to motivate readers to open the book, we decided to test.
The copy on the cover increased response by 40 percent. Even Maurice was convinced.
Does cover copy always work? How would you know unless you tested?
Tip: Try copy on your cover when you have important messages designed to arouse customers’ interest. Don’t use copy gratuitously. It’s not about having copy on the cover; it’s about communicating information that’s important to customers.
Boring Ol’ Products or Great Art?
An old-line cataloger had commissioned charming paintings for its past catalog covers but had drifted away from that practice in recent years in favor of traditional, “show the product” covers.
Many company employees were nostalgic for those old covers, and the catalog agency was enchanted by the idea, too. After all, isn’t a catalog cover all about evoking pleasant, compelling emotions in the reader?
So new paintings were commissioned, and old-time staffers were thrilled to return to their roots.
But level-headed marketers insisted on testing first. The product cover won.
“Something must have gone wrong,” said an employee. “Maybe it wasn’t quite the right painting, or it was the wrong time of year.”
They retested. The product cover won again.
“There has to be a way to make these paintings work; they’re just so wonderful.”
They tested yet again. The product cover won a third time.
Disappointed to the point of tears, the old-timers and the new agency finally caved, and paintings were relegated to the dustbin.
If you think paintings may be right for your catalog, then test. Is your brand name instantly recognizable? Is your product line tied to a lifestyle or other emotional connection? Do the paintings show your products? Can prospects clearly understand what you sell without having to open the catalog? Then a painting on the cover may work well for you.
But none of these factors were true for this old-line cataloger. Its name wasn’t widely recognized; its products were functional, not emotional; and its front cover paintings neither showed products nor activities associated with using the merchandise.
So although focus groups loved the paintings, when shopping time came around there was nothing in the paintings that motivated customers to turn that cover and buy.
Can’t afford to test? Then better stay away from cover paintings for now.
The “Models Sell” Rule
How often have you heard this? “If you show a model using the product, that product will sell better.” Many studies seem to confirm that rule for products from dresses to steam shovels. Every food cataloger I’ve ever worked with has said at one time or another: “Hey, let’s use a model. It works for everyone else, it should work for us.” And when calm reasoning doesn’t prevail, we test.
“Let’s show a cute kid reaching for a cookie.” It lost the test. “A daughter handing the gift box to Mom on Mother’s Day.” It, too, lost. “A couple enjoying dinner at home.” Lost again.
I’m not saying a model can never win in a food catalog, but I’ve yet to see it happen. Here’s my theory. Photos of food already evoke strong emotions such as:
“It makes my mouth water,” or, “Now I’m really hungry for an orange.” Normally people don’t have those kinds of responses to, say, a steam shovel. If you put a model on a steam shovel, the reader will see himself sitting in the seat of that machine, working the controls and moving the earth. But a model in a food photo? It distracts from the original strong emotion, waters it down. And watered-down emotion is like watered-down food. It turns boring.
Test models with your catalog’s food. You might be a rule-breaker, and sales may soar. But please test first.
Following are other times when you should avoid using models in your catalog.
You sell very small products. When the model dwarfs the product, a photo just doesn’t work.
Your audience is too broad in age or demographic range. Here’s what shoppers think as they peruse catalogs: “I’m much older than that model, so that blouse is wrong for me.” Or: “That’s not the stereo system for me, because it’s for young, hip guys like that one in the photo who listens to rock, whereas I’m old and listen to classical.”
The unconscious mind isn’t necessarily logical, but it’s pretty powerful. So avoid models if “not right for me” is likely to be what a significant portion of your audience unconsciously thinks.
“We know what won the test … or do we?”
”Here are the two covers we tested,” said Caroline, the catalog’s marketing manager.
I looked at them. “What, exactly, were you testing?”
“A lifestyle vs. product cover, and the product cover won. We thought a more artistic lifestyle cover would lift sales, but we were wrong I guess,” said Caroline.
“The lifestyle cover is much more attractive all right,” I said. “I would’ve expected your audience to go for it. But why didn’t you put the same special offer on it? The product cover has a huge free shipping offer, and someone has to order only $30 worth of merchandise to qualify.”
Said Caroline, “The art department thought the offer was too commercial to go with such a beautiful cover.”
“But how do you know if it was the the products or that free offer that made the product cover win?” I asked.
“I guess we don’t know.”
“With your audience, I’ll bet the lifestyle cover would’ve won if it had the free shipping offer on it. Why not retest?” I asked.
Said Caroline, “We can’t. Management already has bought off on the idea that lifestyle covers don’t work for us. They won’t test it anymore.”
Lesson learned: When you set up cover tests, don’t put too many elements into the mix. Decide what you really want to test, change only that element on your test cover, then leave all the other cover elements the same as one another.
Is there a golden rule for the perfect catalog cover? No. If there were, you wouldn’t need to test. But I hope the principles I’ve noted will help guide you to find the cover formula that’s perfect for your catalog.
Susan McIntyre is president of McIntyre Direct, a full-service catalog agency and consulting firm based in Portland, Ore. She can be reached at (503) 286-1400 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.