12 Creative tips for 2011

Going into a new year is always a good time to review what you’re doing and where you could improve. The past few years have been so challenging (and so focused on cost cutting) that many catalogers haven’t been able to give much thought to design. Could your catalog use some sprucing up? We asked a few design experts to share some ideas for improving creative in the coming year.

  1. Put yourself in the customer’s place

    Great creative and big ideas all get the customer’s attention fast, says Sarah Fletcher, president/creative director of Catalog Design Studios in Providence, RI. “The first thing I ask myself when I’m designing anything is, Why would a [insert age range] [insert sex] who likes [insert customer profile information] need this [insert product name]?”

    Asking a question such as, “Why would a 45- to 65-year-old man who likes cars and technology need an automatic electric window defroster?” frames the creative conversation with the customer at the center.

    Indeed, catalog creative execution can easily become self-centered and drift from the target audience, says Neal Schuler, principal of Schuler Creative Consulting and former senior vice president for food gifts mailer Harry & David. To keep your creative on track, dig out your brand positioning and customer profile and create a handy brief that you can distribute to your creative team.

  2. Take your photography up a notch

    No matter how beautifully designed, well written or strategically planned your creative, improving photography can have the greatest impact on sales, says Glenda Shasho Jones, president of catalog consultancy Shasho Jones Direct. Better quality will better demonstrate product detail, and more dramatic lighting can increase appeal, she says. “The right locations, props and surfaces may elevate a presentation to be more updated and aspirational.”

    The photographer must understand the product, the customer and what goes into her purchase decision, Shasho Jones says. “Investing time with the photographer prior to a shoot, and during the most important shots, almost always has a very positive payout.”

  3. Create spreads that sell

    Make sure your spread headlines pack a punch, says Lois Brayfield, president of catalog consultancy J. Schmid & Associates. “Don’t underestimate the power of a benefit-laden headline that will grab readers’ attention and quickly explain a spread theme.” Headlines should stand out, not disappear into the spread.

    You can also augment spread themes by adding editorial content to engage the reader, she says. If you are telling a comfort story, add content that supports the “why” of how your products deliver comfort.

    “This content should graphically look different from product copy — it should be short and provide a quick read,” Brayfield says. “The more visual, the better.”

  4. Believe in heroes

    Most creative experts advise varying the density in any catalog presentation. “Have some heroes, a few full-page best sellers, an insanely dense spread,” and so on, says Lori McFadden, a Laguna Beach, CA-based creative consultant. “The more variety you build in, the more likely the customer will slow down and look.”

    It’ true that a larger product presentation breaks up the democracy of a catalog, Brayfield says. “It’s more interesting and customers will then spend more time with your brand.”

    When they cut back on pages to save money, many catalogers create a denser presentation — and sacrifice their “hero” products, Brayfield says. But hero products are usually best sellers. “They best represent what your customers are looking for and, therefore, engage more readers.”

    Make sure the presentation conveys the reason why the product is a best seller, Brayfield says. Is it price? Color? A unique feature? Be sure you show the benefit, she notes.

    It’s not just about selling more of the hero product, Brayfield adds. “Hero presentations will increase ‘linger time’ on a spread. The other products on the page will benefit from the attention-grabbing power of the hero.”

  5. Ensure that copywriters and designers work together

    The result of collaboration between your writers and designers is much greater than what results when they work independently, Schuler says. Aesthetics count and communicate, but only to a point, he says. “And shoppers typically aren’t attracted to copy until they’re visually enticed.”

    To ensure that you get the most from your team, Schuler says, you need agreement on these goals:

    • to communicate your offer in a clear and compelling way
    • to champion the difference and benefit in your offer, product and brand
    • to make style choices that support your brand and resonate with the target demographic

    The best presentations start with a story or an idea, adds Fletcher, “Then the design and photography visually tell that story and make it clear or intriguing at a glance.”

  6. See your design with open eyes

    When evaluating your catalog creative, put yourself in what Zen masters call “beginner mind,” Fletcher says. “Let go of what you want to see and instead see what is really there.”

    Once you are looking at your design with truly fresh eyes, what’s the first thing you see? Is it the headline, the pictures, brightly colored tabs? “Make sure that the most eye-catching elements on the page are the ones that sell merchandise,” Fletcher notes.

    Whether it’s a grid that forms the framework of your layout, or the bells and whistles you’ve layered on top, be sure it looks good and makes sense, McFadden says. “If the page has no focus or it’s too busy, your customer will just move on.”

    Step back from each spread and look at the big picture, McFadden adds. “Make an exception to your rule whenever necessary.”

  7. Take full advantage of contrast in both color and (dark to light) value

    The eye is 1,600 times more attracted to contrast than color, says Carol Worthington-Levy partner, creative services for multichannel agency Lenser. That means that if you’re trying to get attention in the mailbox, covers — front and back — with more contrast will work better.

    Choose photos with a wide range of value, from dark to light. When dealing with color, become hyper-aware of what the “value” is of each color. During the holidays, for example, “I see many catalogs with lots of red and green. Very different colors, but these colors are the same value,” Worthington-Levy says.

    “So not only does nothing stand out on the cover, but it looks ‘flat’ to a customer who’s running through her mail,” she says. Consider light or white backgrounds to bright or dark objects, or visa versa.

    Every studio should have a copy of Type & Layout, Are You Communicating or Just Making Pretty Shapes, by Colin Wheildon, says Worthington-Levy. This is invaluable in teaching designers how to make catalogs readable and responsive, she says.

    For example, use dark type on light backgrounds. “This trend to super-light type fonts and orange or lime green headline type is not only thoughtless, it’s absolutely detrimental to sales,” Worthington-Levy says.

  8. Design for easy shopping

    Catalog shoppers gravitate toward clean design and organized layouts rather than toward a jumbled mess, Brayfield says. This does not necessarily mean less density or more white space, it means paying careful attention to the aesthetic.

    Your catalog’s design should be organized and intuitive, rather than a treasure hunt, Schuler adds. “Make shopping easy, with clearly defined product categories.”

    Strategically pace your layout formats to keep the shopper’s attention and reduce fatigue, he says. Make sure that every spread supports natural eyeflow and provides a visual resting spot.

    Position copy and prices in ways that easily connect to product photos, Schuler says. Allocate enough copy space in your catalog to give shoppers everything they need to make a purchasing decision. Don’t assume they’ll want to log on to your site for more information, he adds: “It’s okay to close the sale right on the page!”

    Organize and present your copy in a strategic order that allows at least three levels of information, adds Shasho Jones. “We raise the level of comprehension and absorption when the first thing readers see is the item name (or in some cases, the main selling point), followed by a prominent display of the main benefit.”

    The copy description should go next, followed by bullets or a chart, depending on the complexity of the item. “Finally, the SKU and price point act as the base of the copy sandwich — almost like the dot at the bottom of the explanation point,” Shasho Jones says.

  9. Tap into technology for cross marketing

    Technology is going to be the big trend for catalogs going forward, says Rob Palowitz, president/chief marketing officer of consultancy PALO Creative. “When you tie in technology, you can focus on or highlight specific products more easily, changing the focus from the catalog as a whole to individual pieces,” he says.

    For instance, you might incorporate a QR or “tag” code application to specific products. Using a smart phone, consumers can take a picture of the code next to the product, and it will send them to a website that will provide them with more information about the product and how they can buy it.

    What about your customers who don’t have smart phones? You can ask them to text the product name to a number and they will receive a message back with the same information, Palowitz says.

  10. Get social in print

    You’re probably cross promoting your brand on social media outlets to let consumers interact with you and create an open forum for dialogue, Palowitz says.

    Take the new community idea you have created with social media and put it into your catalog. For example, you could have a contest for a “cover model” driven by your social media network. This type of engagement helps promote trust and the validity of your brand, Palowitz adds.

    Use your catalog to exploit your online efforts, says Brayfield, whether it’s promoting special content or online offers, a social media campaign or contest, or driving folks to your site to view product videos. “Develop a set of icons that tell customers that you are inviting them into more engagement techniques,” she says.

    Customer reviews have become integral to the shopping decision process, Brayfield says, so incorporate them into print. In fact, you may want to replace testimonials with reviews (including a star rating system), she says. Be sure the comments in the reviews focus on the product and not “cost of entry” benefits such as “I received it quickly.”

  11. Increase your margins

    Not those margins (although you should by trying to increase them as well), but rather the borders along the edge of your catalog pages. “No one talks about this one, but it’s just as important as paper stock,” McFadden says. “You can add a lot of luxe just by increasing your margins another fraction of an inch.”

    Photo bleeds are great, but pull in the “live” area, McFadden says. “Conversely, if you want things to look cheap and cheerful, go ahead and run everything close to [the] trim.”

  12. Test catalog covers

    Cover tests are an easy and cost-effective way to increase response, Brayfield says. Your goal is to determine what images or copy will engage the recipient. When testing, be sure about what you are trying to learn. Is it what type of product? Lifestyle vs. product? Multiple products vs. one product?

    Try testing two different product categories or types on your cover, says Worthington-Levy. Or test product with models vs. product without models. “You might be surprised by the result,” she says.

    Be sure to present relevance, Schuler says: “If a catalog doesn’t feel relevant to the recipient, it will likely get tossed.” Use messaging and imagery on the cover to communicate that your brand participates in the world your customer lives in — and be sure your offer supports it, Schuler says.

    Whether it’s a product introduction, special offer or pitching a new service, be sure to point out the relevant benefit. And deliver the message with a little fanfare and energy, Schuler advises: “Understatement is passé.”

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