Catalog Doctor: Break Out of the Catalog Mold
PATIENT: Doc, I'm worried that my catalog program is in a rut. I'm tracking my competitors, but they're in ruts, too, so I'm not getting new ideas there. How can my team and I develop some new, innovative ideas instead of the same old retreads?
CATALOG DOCTOR: It's hard to envision new ideas when you keep staring at the same old bag of tools. To stimulate your thinking, break away from the catalog world, see what the rest of the world is doing, then think about how you can apply that to your catalog.
Collect All Your Junk Mail
Most catalog marketers save all the catalogs in their mailboxes, but throw out the rest of their ad mail. Start saving those unwanted direct mail envelopes, postcards and self-mailers; then study them. Look at copy, design and offers to stimulate new thinking for your covers and intro spreads. Study formats, too. There might be great ideas to spice up your contact strategy between catalog mailings.
Attend Noncatalog Conferences
Take Ty Pennington's keynote at the DMA08 Conference. What does the host of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" have to do with catalogs? Nothing. But he explained how he meets and learns about each family for whom he designs a home. Catalog mailers study data, demographics and pie charts about their audiences. But slicing and dicing numbers about audiences isolates you from them, too. How often do you meet them one on one? Not often enough, if at all. You can't meet everyone, but meeting even a few customers makes your?catalogs more relevant.
Read What Customers Read
Conduct a survey to learn what magazines your customers read. Then subscribe to them all. Study them for type treatments, use of negative space, color palettes, copy voice, etc. Are they busier than you thought? More serene? More fun? Are there clever graphics that aid scannability, or interesting callouts or tips? Reading these magazines helps you to get into your customers' heads and see a piece of the world they see. Magazine ideas can help you update copy and layouts so they're more relevant to today's customers.
Study Your Spam
Look closely at all those emails you get, whether you signed up for them or not. What subject lines caught your attention, prompting you to open them? These can stimulate your thinking about front cover messages and big spread headlines inside your book. Once opened, what graphics caught your eye? Were heads or cross-sells in places you didn't expect? You can take ideas from this instant-access medium to make your catalog more powerful and accessible in today's marketplace.
Visit an Art Museum
One of the definitions of "great art" is that it's timeless. That is, enough people agreed that it was great art, century after century, that we still call it great art today. That must mean great art speaks to something deep down inside people that many share in common.
So take a look at that great art. Go to your local museum and look at art — both old and new. What color palettes do you see? What about proportion? Perspective? Simplicity or complexity of design? What's the focal point? The eye flow? Try laying a grid over a favorite great painting: Could you put your headline here, your hero product there and line up your subsidiary products over yonder? You may be able to turn inspiration from great art into ideas for refreshing your layouts.
Read the Classics
By reading fiction and history across the centuries, you can get into the human head better and view the motivations and emotions that emerge over and over again. These fundamental action drivers still work today. Broad historic reading helps you separate the unchanging core of human emotion from pop psycho-trends. That helps you drill down to the most powerful benefits of your products and brand, so you can build copy that sells better.
Good places to start that are also enjoyable reading: Homer's "Iliad," Caesar's "Civil War," any Shakespeare (the No Fear Shakespeare series offers handy side-by-side translations), Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" (you needn't read the whole thing — just tackle a few chunks), Anthony Trollope (try "The Way We Live Now" for a startling parallel to Bernard Madoff) and Tolstoy's "War and Peace."
Study Noncatalog Brands
You can enhance your catalog's brand communication by studying what general brands are doing. Don't just look at your product categories — go wider afield. For example, say your brand has some history behind it, and you think leveraging that history might sell: Study what great history-?based brands are doing, like Steinway and Stickley.
Study the history-related techniques they're using in brand communication. How do they talk about their past? How do they carry forward that authenticity into what they do today? How do they bridge changes in ownership and manufacturing techniques to make their histories relevant to today's customers?
Read the Business News
What are other noncatalog-based companies doing — companies totally unrelated to your business? How are they approaching shrinking market share? What are they doing about pricing: raising or lowering? Are they developing innovative hiring practices? How are they communicating their brands?
Other businesses may be taking steps that you, as a cataloger, wouldn't have thought of. But, if you break out of the catalog-think box, you'll find ideas to apply to your own business for surprising results.
Susan J. McIntyre is founder and chief strategist of catalog marketing and consulting firm McIntyre Direct (susan@?mcintyredirect.com).
Susan J. McIntyre is Founder and Chief Strategist of McIntyre Direct, a catalog agency and consultancy in Portland, Oregon offering complete creative, strategic, circulation and production services since 1991. Susan's broad experience with cataloging in multi-channel environments, plus her common-sense, bottom-line approach, have won clients from Vermont Country Store to Nautilus to C.C. Filson. A three-time ECHO award winner, McIntyre has addressed marketers in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, has written and been quoted in publications worldwide, and is a regular columnist for Retail Online Integration magazine and ACMA. She can be reached at 503-286-1400 or email@example.com.