Mothers who nurse their babies do so for an average of two and a half months—so a catalog of specially designed garments for breastfeeding moms would seem to have a small window of opportunity in which to sell.
But customers of Motherwear in Northampton, MA, nurse an average of 16 months. Why? Partly because they love the clothes so much, according to what they tell company President Jody Wright.
In the first three-quarters of the year Wright and her husband Prakash Laufer started producing the catalog, sales growth topped 350 percent.
Prior to taking over the helm of Motherwear in 1986, Wright had worked in graphic design and says she liked designing clothes while in school.
“Business-wise, my only experience was as a member of a workers’ collective at a food co-op,” she says. The facets of Wright’s life—graphic and clothing design and breastfeeding advocacy/education—are reflected in the character of Motherwear’s catalog and community-resource materials.
The catalog offers free breast-feeding informational guides to customers; it also includes phone numbers for consultation services and other resources as well, making it more than just a place to buy clothes.
How does a small catalog company of 65 employees publish a first-class book with a creative team of three?
An Organic Circle
First, the creatives and others at Motherwear work symbiotically. Though merchandising and marketing are separate departments, their offices are all situated in a ring around a main room with a big table in the middle. In a conference room off to the side, meetings between the two departments take place.
“The fish bowl set-up leads to lots of communication that wouldn’t happen if everybody was in offices lining a narrow hall,” observes Wright.
She says many of its best employees have sought out Motherwear as a supportive atmosphere for breastfeeding. The fact that about eight employees are currently nursing, and others have in the past, means lots of first-hand knowledge of customer needs.
Input comes from the whole staff, including customer service representatives, shipping and fulfillment, the returns department, even human resources.
Art Director Maryalice Eckart relates an instance of the democratic, spontaneous spirit of creative participation at the catalog: “We were in a final proofing session for the Winter 2000 catalog. Our purchasing manager, Kerry Franz, who usually concentrates on the numbers … saw the holiday party image on the cover of the package stuffer and suggested we call it Holiday 2000,” which immediately made more sense to Eckart, and the idea was adopted.
Director of Marketing Stephanie Sanders Ferris followed a “gut feeling” in hiring Eckart, whose children go to school with Wright’s and Laufer’s in this college-filled area of Massachusetts.
“It’s her vision largely that makes us look like a bigger company than we are,” she says.
Surprisingly, this is the first catalog Eckart has designed. Like many employees, she nursed her first child, and says she “liked the idea of designing for a company that does things I think are worthwhile.”
Creative Is Queen
Wright and the team avoid a hard-sell approach: “Dealing with breastfeeding mothers, we feel we always need to be subtle … We want our Web site or catalog to be something that relaxes people and makes them feel comfortable and confident in themselves. We don’t want to tell people ‘buy, buy, buy’—we want people to nurse first,” Wright says.
The front of the Fall book (to page 8) contains editorial copy only, mainly instructional or testimonial in nature. By contrast, “most catalogs start selling in the first or at latest by the second spread,” notes Wright. Thus Motherwear is “more like a magalog than a catalog … We found it hard to mix that information in with selling copy. We felt that people really needed to know that information.”
The catalog also features tips and testimonials throughout. “We keep everything people write to us,” Ferris says. “And every year, when we’re doing the catalogs, we pick our favorites. They tell us such personal stories!”
Wright says customers have told her they often go directly to the selling portion of the catalog, and come back to the editorial later. But Wright stresses the importance of this informational welcome, so new nursing mothers, who may feel isolated at first, feel like part of a community, “which they are.”
Ferris underlines this perception by pointing out that customers “call and hear babies crying or laughing in the background, because some of the CSRs bring their kids to work … All these things create a community, a connection.”
Copy That Fits
“To me the copy is one of the biggest things that makes the catalog great. If visual and verbal didn’t go together, it would be a failure,” Eckart says.
Head Copywriter Kelsey Flynn’s copy blocks make Eckart “want to sit and read the catalog and find all the funny things she’s put in; the copy really relates to nursing moms.” (Flynn has been doing stand-up comedy on the side during the seven years she’s been at Motherwear.)
The company strives to promote from within—both Flynn and Ferris originated in the customer service department. Working in the call center, Flynn got to understand the customers, what they were looking for and how they were different from ordinary retail buyers.
“I know who I’m writing for, because I’ve been on the phone with them for years,” says Flynn.
Her copywriting mission extends beyond just selling clothes. “We’re committed to breastfeeding as the best way to feed your baby and develop a bond with your baby. So, I understand the emotional connection we’re trying to make,” says Flynn.
She says it’s important to her to make a connection through humor—”not to make fun, but to say, the reality is this: You’re busy, you’re sleep-deprived, and that’s why these clothes are helpful … You’re chasing a child around a wedding: it’s a funny image, but you’re going to look great in this linen outfit.”
The art director chose to use all lowercase Frutiger in the catalog cover lines and headlines out of a feeling that this case is clearer, more legible, friendlier and “more mom-and-baby-like,” Eckart says. Lowercase letters “interact together” better than all uppercase. The typeface Sabon is used for body copy.
A main selling point of the clothing is the freedom it grants mothers to nurse, so an integral part of the creative mission at Motherwear is to show women breastfeeding in many settings.
For Motherwear’s photo shoots, Eckart starts working months in advance. After the clothing designer hands off that season’s line to her, the two of them figure out the salient features of each garment, and where women would likely wear it. At that point, the garments are already on spreads, so Eckart thinks about the “story” of each spread, then starts looking for locations that will work for them.
Eckart enjoys the challenge of coming up with new concepts, asking herself: “What’s the story we’re trying to tell, to keep it new and fresh each season? … It’s fun to put yourself in someone else’s brain and try to figure out what they’ll find cute,” she says. “That’s a big word around here: cute!”
Once Eckart has completed the final layouts, the creative team starts looking for models. After finding non-professional models too time consuming (see “Choosing the Right Models,” October Catalog Success, p. 18), Motherwear began using professionals who’ve recently given birth and are nursing.
“I keep an eye on magazines like Fit Pregnancy,” says Eckart, to find models who could come work for Motherwear after they’ve had their babies. The arrangement benefits the models, she adds, because this way they can still work while nursing.
Furthermore, says Ferris, “If a model from a previous catalog is still breastfeeding, we’ll use her again. This is comfortable for our readers, it gives a continuity” over time.
The need to show never-ending variety takes great efforts: “It’s a challenge for us as a small company to do four photo shoots per year,” says Ferris, adding that upward of 10 shots a day are accomplished on set.
“One way we keep expenses down is to do two shoots [per year] locally, and two away. Summer (for beach and sun) and winter (for snow and sky) are shot elsewhere. For spring and fall we save on airfare and accommodations for our crew by staying local.”
Another hitch is, because of the nursing babies on set, the team can’t shoot anyplace too hot or cold. Solution? “We went to Lake Tahoe … it got warm in the days, but there was snow on the ground,” Ferris relates.