Learn From Your Competitors to Keep Ahead
PATIENT: "I'm confused. Is it better to make our catalog look and feel more like our competitors? Or is it a bad idea? Our marketing department is split."
CATALOG DOCTOR: "There are certainly things you can learn from your competitors, so do study them, as well as studying catalogs outside your field. But if you want to maximize sales, it's best to steer clear of copying."
Learn Good Ideas From Competitors, Then Make Them Your Own
Example: "Look, our competitor is showing an illustration of its gift box. That's a great idea. Our gift box is prettier, so let's take a photo of ours and include our nice handwritten gift cards in the photo."
Learn Bad Ideas From Competitors and Steer Clear of Them
Example: "Look at all the sans-serif reverse type our competitor is using. Boy is that hard to read. Let's switch our catalog to a serif font and avoid all reverses. That will make us stand out from this competitor and make our customers’ reading experience faster and easier."
Look Market Appropriate to Your Target Audience
What does it mean to look "market appropriate"? Simply this: if you're selling medical supplies but your catalog has a design that looks like it's targeting snowboarders, you'll probably lose credibility with your target audience. Often most catalogs in a category share a sort of "category look" that distinguishes that category from another (e.g., catalogs for educators look very different from catalogs for fishermen). Yet within a category it's still possible to have a surprisingly wide range of looks work for similar target audiences. Look at how different two long-time catalogs look, Zingermans and La Tienda (see below), though both successfully sell specialty foods to upscale audiences.
Avoid a Loyalty Mix-Up
If you want brand loyalty, you need to make your brand recognizably different from its competition. Sound obvious? It's not. A long-time home goods cataloger had four direct competitors. Over many years its catalog and the four competitors’ catalogs drifted into looking surprisingly similar. The five companies even sold many of the same products and used the same manufacturers’ photos. Oddly, even their catalogs’ names were similar. This particular cataloger's research revealed that many customers bought from it and its competitors. Why?
After a second round of research, it found that its catalog and its competitors’ catalogs looked and sounded so much alike that many customers never realized there were five catalog brands instead of just one. The home goods brand did this by laying out all five catalogs in a row in front of the customers!
As a result, that cataloger did a brand review. It developed a new story, motto, look and voice unique to its brand. In a head-to-head test, the new catalog beat the old control roundly, gaining sales, market share and brand loyalty.
What if Your Catalog is the One Being Copied?
If you're the market leader, your competitors are studying your catalog. Some will hope they can steal some market share by replicating your look. How can you stay a step ahead? Focus on your customer.
What do you deliver that's a bigger benefit to your customers than what your competition delivers? Quality? Breadth of products? Price? Shipping? Service? Expertise? Exclusive products? Trend-setter? More fun to shop with? Any combination unique to you?
Ultimately, customer benefits are what it's all about. What makes your brand best for your customers needs to be woven throughout all your editorial, product copy, page heads, design and photography. First, define what makes you the best at XYZ. Second, define how to make it clear to your customer. It's not just about design differences. If you can make a true case for how you're different and why that's good for your customers, that's what no competitor can copy.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.