Under the Prairie Moon’s cover

Jan 01, 2009 10:30 PM  By

Prairie Moon Nursery sells “Native Plants and Seeds for Wetland, Prairie, Savanna and Woodland,” according to its tagline. Critiquers Sarah Fletcher, creative director of Providence, RI-based Catalog Design Studios, and Peter Larnish, president of Vienna, VA-based creative firm Larnish & Associates, reviewed the Winona, MN-based mailer’s 2008 Catalog & Cultural Guide. Here’s what they had to say.

SARAH FLETCHER

At first glance, Prairie Moon Nursery looks like it needs a lot of work. But upon closer inspection, the hard work has actually been done. The problem is, the experts are not thinking like customers, so the customers they attract have to be experts.

Planting a prairie is what I’d call “extreme gardening,” an activity that appeals to a specialized subset of gardeners. There’s less information available to prairie gardeners, and Prairie Moon Nursery clearly fills that niche.

The cataloger is an established expert with an encyclopedic knowledge of native plants and grasses. The downside is that its information is presented in a way that is difficult for all but the most dedicated growers to decipher.

The challenge for all companies that position themselves as experts is to establish their authority and to appeal to fellow experts — while inviting a wider audience into the fold. Prairie Moon can increase sales and retention without alienating its current customers. Here’s how.

For starters, the cataloger needs to get off the grid. Prairie Moon may fear that its page count will explode if it gives up the product grids with all the plant information.

But while changing to a more copy-intensive format may add some pages, it will not turn the book into a perfect-bound monster. Reformatting the existing charts into narrow columns — as opposed to the current charts that span the width of two pages — will free up space for copy and make the charts easier to read.

Copy is generally straightforward and interesting to read, but the use of technical terms creates barriers to sales. The key is to use terms in ways that establish credibility and appeal to fellow experts and potential new customers alike.

For example, not everyone knows that a “forb” is a wildflower. Saying “This forb is an exceptional choice.” is not as helpful to readers as, “This forb (wildflower) is an exceptional choice.” That one word change can mean the difference between losing and closing a sale.

Prairie Moon can also benefit from consistency in its copy voice. In some places, the catalog uses the more engaging “our nursery” and “we” voices, and in others the more staid “the nursery” and the ubiquitous “it.” Sticking to copy written from the “we” and “our staff” perspective would establish authority and help draw customers in.

And abbreviations are okay for a few things, but if a customer can’t read through a copy block without referring to a legend or guide for more than a few terms or symbols, you lose the sale. Customers have to want to buy the plant before they need to know how it is germinated.

Some examples of the catalog’s current wetland codes:

  • OBL Obligated Wetland — Occurs almost always in wetlands under natural conditions

  • FACW Faculative Wetland — Usually occurs in wetlands, but occasionally found in non-wetlands

  • FAC Faculative — Equally likely to occur in wetlands or non-wetlands

  • FACU Faculative Upland — Occasionally occurs in wetlands, but usually occurs in non-wetlands

  • UPL Upland — Occurs almost never in wetlands under natural conditions

Yikes! Not only are customers forced to look up abbreviations, but unless they are botanists, they probably don’t know what “faculative” means.

Since the single most important plant differentiator when making a purchase is site condition, most customers are now confronted with either looking up this term in the front of the book, or simply walking away from the sale.

I’d suggest changing the codes to something like this:

  • Change OBL to Wet
  • Change FACW to Wet+
  • Change FAC to Wet/Up
  • Change FACU to Up+
  • Change UPL to Up

It’s the same information, but a much quicker read. In general, when it comes to pagination, this book is what I call a mullet — business in the front, party in the back. Why hide the fun?

The seven pages on how to establish a prairie garden that start on page 52 belong right up front. It would be easy to work in the branding elements from pages 2-3 and the “We’ve Moved” spread now in the front of the book to kick off the catalog in a way that pulls customers right in.

Some careful editing could also gain a few pages. I would follow that intro section with the seed mixes, and combine the Germination Instructions, Cultural Guide Key, Ordering Information and Order Form into one section.

I would get the order form to land in the center of the book so that it is easy to refer to. Or at least I would add a red border to the edge of the page so it is easy to find.

I would also add a page reference column to the order form grid to make it easier for customers to find and discuss specific varieties they have chosen. Next, I would show the individual plants, then herbicides and books. I would also figure out what the top-three products are and include them on the back cover as a double exposure.

The logo on the cover could be cleaned up a bit, as it looks like it has been over enlarged. (Increasing the size of a jpeg or tiff more than 150% of the original size will produce soft edges.) That aside, I love the cover, and the photography is beautiful and aspirational.

Most important, this catalog has heart, and after reading through it, you can feel the pride and excitement of Prairie Moon Nursery. By implementing the proposed changes, this catalog’s bottom line could really bloom.

PETER LARNISH

Prairie Moon Nursery’s 72-page catalog grabbed my attention immediately with its beautiful, close-up photo of a native plant and butterfly on the front cover. The design is clean, simple and nicely targeted to its market.

The tagline, “Native Plants and Seeds for Wetland, Prairie, Savanna and Woodland,” reinforces the company’s unique positioning, specifying exactly what you’ll find inside. But I would identify the plant, along with a page reference, in small type near the bottom.

The back cover could benefit from some sales copy, perhaps listed bullet-style with page references and set within a small ghosted-back portion of the photo. These bullets should flag any new products and call out a few popular offerings — for instance, Regional Blends, Customized Mixes, Butterfly Favorites.

This would help prospects appreciate the product range and lead regular customers inside. I’d also suggest that Prairie Moon Nursery add a page reference to the Sunflower identification.

This catalog contains a wealth of information, but there is no focal point. The table of contents, crucial in a book of this size, is lost among all the elements. I would trim the New Horizons institutional copy to half a column, max. The cataloger can refer readers to the Web for the full story of Prairie Moon’s legacy and growth.

It should consider color-coding the table listings to the catalog sections to ease customer navigation. I’d also delete the photo of the dogs to focus on the people, and add a subhead, “Greetings from our staff,” before listing names under the staff photo.

On page 3 in the tour banner, I’d suggest an involvement head: “Join Our 2008 Tours,” along with a page cross-reference. And I’d move the Prairie Conference ad from the bottom right to the bottom left corner to open space and give the table of contents the impact it deserves.

Overall, use of headlines, subheads and carefully placed bursts would reinforce the reasons why customers should buy from Prairie Moon. Let people know what differentiates this nursery from the competition.

Prairie Moon generally could use more white space, with fewer multicolored tint boxes, type and bars. It needs to make sure that all reverse type is readable — especially when set within colorful photos.

And if possible, it should try to simplify its Cultural Guide charts. Color is important to large chart details, but I’d stick to a softer palette of nature colors. The dark border colors now tend to compete with the lovely flower photos. I would also create a more consistent brand identity between the catalog and the Website. Same typefaces, palette, logo usage.

The back four to six pages of any catalog are valuable real estate. I’d move the order form, ordering information and site directions to a less important sales space near the center. Reserve the back pages for high-performing offerings that will pay off.

Presentation is a key component of success. While valuable to hard-core experts, the many pages of detailed instructions and choices may intimidate a prospect who just wants to plant a small flower garden. A beginners’ Q&A page or strategically placed tip blurbs could reassure newcomers with simple, basic information.

I’d definitely take a close look at the catalog’s layout and try to cut four to eight pages. This would save money and ease navigation. About 20% of Prairie Moon’s catalog is now devoted to non-revenue producing pages. This is risky in today’s market of tighter budgets and cost-effective mailing necessities.

I’d cut the Website information to a quarter-page and put it on the opening spread to encourage Web ordering up front. Move fillers such as gift certificates onto the ordering information page. Full-page photos can still have visual impact at half their current size.

The Establishing a Native Plant Community section contains seven pages of dense information. I’d trim it by half, keeping just the most basic facts. Then use a box or blurb to send people to the Web for the more details, or provide a toll-free number to call.

Another idea might be to turn the full seven pages into a free guide that could be printed inexpensively and included as a package insert with all orders.

In fact, this type of information actually may be more suited to a newsletter format. Creating a small newsletter that people can sign up for would build customer loyalty and allow Prairie Moon to reach its target market more frequently with a less expensive vehicle. It would also keep customers current on what’s new and give them something to look forward to between catalogs.

The Prairie Moon Nursery catalog is a unique presence with a loyal following in the crowded gardening niche. Yet some careful fine-tuning and reallocation of space could increase the catalog’s overall appeal, make it easier to navigate, and drive more sales.