Sensory overload

Aug 01, 2009 9:30 PM  By

Banner Engineering Corp. is a global leader in process and industrial automation, thanks to its serious selection of sensors. The Minneapolis-based manufacturer/merchant sells photo eyes, sensors, vision sensors, wireless sensors, machine safety, e-stop devices, vision lighting, plus indicator lights, tower lights, stack lights, and pick to lights.

How does Banner do at offering more than 20,000 products in a nearly 600-page catalog? Reviewers Chris Carrington, executive vice president of catalog agency Lorel Marketing Group in King of Prussia, PA, and Mark Lee, principal of consultancy The Mark Lee Group in Charlottesville, VA, looked over Banner Engineering’s Sensor Products 2008-2009 edition.

Here’s what they had to say.

CHRIS CARRINGTON

Banner Engineering’s Sensor Products catalog is a hard-working, 580-page business-to-business annual title. It sells thousands of complex products — including photoelectric, ultrasonic and vision sensors, as well as wireless networks and safety products.

This merchant is doing some things effectively. Specifically, the cover is graphically exciting, the production quality and photography quality are excellent, the detailed specification grids, product information and dimensional representations are user-friendly and laid out well, the category openers are well designed and thought out, and the online tools are outstanding.

But Banner could take a number of steps to make this a much more effective and customer friendly catalog and marketing tool.

Let’s start at the beginning with the covers and the tagline. While the cover is attractive, it does not take advantage of calling out key selling messaging.

For instance, the cover doesn’t say how many new products the catalog includes — despite the fact that pages 2 through 9 are dedicated to them.

Banner should also promote on the cover how many products are included (over 20,000 — more than any other manufacturer), how many factory and field representatives it has throughout the world (3,000), and so on.

And the cover introduces the customer to one of three taglines used throughout the book. It should pick one and use it consistently.

As for the back cover, the cataloger certainly does not use this prime real estate effectively. For one, the back cover shows no products or information, other than a list of product categories. And the inside back cover features only the warranty. This is valuable selling and branding space that can also be used as a driver to different parts of the book.

Banner’s organization is confusing and inconsistent, making finding products challenging. For instance, the page 2/3 inside spread, which needs to set up the organization of the book, is trying to communicate an overwhelming amount of information.

Page 2 is dedicated to selling Banner Engineering’s other divisions. This information needs to be simplified and moved to another location — perhaps the back cover. Then this critical spread can set up the brand and the catalog’s organization.

Page 3 tries to communicate how the book is laid out, but the graphics and copy are confusing and small. In addition to reworking the graphics and copy, I’d recommend introducing a top line table of contents on this page, rather than on page 10.

Banner also needs to thoroughly explain the use of the four organization tools — table of contents, selection guide, applications and index.

Finally, I’d recommend making the icon and information on “More Information Online” much more prominent, since Banner’s online information is the most impressive I have ever seen. These vast online tools are a huge brand differentiator, so the company should communicate it in a big way.

Banner introduces many new products on the four spreads after the introduction. While some of the headlines make an attempt to organize these products, others indicate only “New Sensors. New Solutions.”

This could become a strong “Problem/Solution” section, which would introduce the sensor categories from a different standpoint.

The extensive index at the back of the book is hard to use and read. A simple redesign with more attention given to typography and use of color could go a long way.

And I could not find a telephone number in the catalog, although it is all over the Website. I strongly recommended that the technical service support number be introduced onto each spread.

The most challenging part of shopping this brand is navigating the different ways in which the products/categories are organized and named. For example, the back cover, the table of contents, the selection guide and the Website all have different lists of product categories.

To compound the confusion, the selection guide does not always include all of the products listed in the table of contents. And in some cases the whole category is named differently in the catalog vs. the Website (for example, fiber systems vs. fiber optic sensors). These are easy fixes that will go a long way toward ease of shopping.

After spending time with the Sensor Products catalog, I could see that Banner Engineering is an industry leader with a deep commitment to service and product quality. The company needs to communicate this much more directly within the catalog.

How? It should call out the vast online tools and reference tools, the product depth, the vast worldwide sales force, the commitment to new product development, the training tools and the available software and data sheets.

I’m sure that Banner’s current customers already know these facts, but you want them to be obvious to prospects. Customer testimonials might be something for the cataloger to consider.

Banner’s Sensor Products catalog is doing many things very well. But some work on the organization, brand messaging and design of key spreads could go a long way for the customer and for Sensor Products.

Next Page: Mark Lee

Previous Page: Chris Carrington

MARK LEE

Primarily a business-to-consumer consultant, I felt a little out of my element when asked to review a 3-lb., 580-page catalog of industrial sensors. I’m pretty sure I was yawning as I zipped open the FedEx package, but the surprise inside was a colorful, well-thought-out book that had me turning pages to learn more about the surprising variety of electronic sensors used throughout the industry.

Ever wonder how the unmanned car wash knows when your car is in position? How a bottling plant knows if a container isn’t filled properly or is missing a label? Banner Engineering offers thousands of variations on dozens of types of electronic sensors.

Banner sells to manufacturers, distribution centers and laboratories via independent reps. This tells me the catalog must market to two constituencies: the reps, without whose attention Banner will never reach the customer, and the end user. An obvious goal is to produce a catalog the field sales force will be eager to study and, in turn, to place in the hands of users.

The company markets its own brand — virtually all products are developed inhouse or private-labeled — so as I leafed through, I was curious to see whether Banner took advantage of opportunities to strengthen the brand.

The person specifying the purchase of these products would have an engineering background and would expect complete specifications for the applicability and performance of each unit. Sensors need mounting brackets, stands, cables, filters and so on, and Banner provides these as well — but does not stray from its core product category.

Given these conditions, the catalog designers were faced with a number of compromises. How much information should be included in the book vs. sending readers to the Website?

Should it include references to pricing, even if only the list price? Should it lead with “new and hot” products, or with an index that promotes easy navigation?

First, it’s clear the company has opted for a yellow-and-black color scheme, reflected both in product design and graphics. This color theme starts with the front cover and is nicely carried throughout the book via yellow-and-black headline banner bars.

For my money, the front cover is too busy; it’s as though the cataloger tried to show a small image of every product. Obviously, Banner was trying to convey the wide range of sensors, but this could have been done more effectively by displaying a smaller number of larger, iconic images. When you get right down to it, the front cover isn’t all that important in this category.

Navigation, a critical piece in designing a 580-page catalog, has received a lot of attention. The somewhat-busy inside front cover lays out the five major sensor categories, while page 3 attempts to explain how to shop for them.

Next come eight pages of new products. Only then do you reach the table of contents, which sets the reference colors for each section. I would have put the TOC in front of the new products.

This two-page table of contents includes 79 subminiature (less than 1/2″) photo icons, one next to each major product. These are way too small to make out in much detail. Still, like the rest of the book, this spread is clean and neat — much more so than I’ve just made it sound.

In paginating the book, the designers must have struggled with the fact that some users know exactly what they want; others have an application in mind but don’t know precisely what product will solve their problem.

Still other readers will have a latent need, but may not even have thought of employing a labor-saving, cost-cutting or safety-enhancing sensor solution.

Banner’s catalog designers have cleverly laid “traps,” or funnels, for each type of user. My favorite is an eight-page section containing examples, complete with excellent photos and illustrations, of solutions/applications from various industries. For a reader charged with speeding production or reducing manufacturing costs, these photos are large enough to scan for ideas.

A regular customer who is familiar with the catalog and is looking for an exact model or part number can find its page by looking in the simple index at the back of the book.

The core of the catalog is what you’d expect: hundreds of pages of products, features, specs and illustrations. Clearly, Banner has decided you shouldn’t need to go online to get this information. Product depictions are clean, and packed with information, but so well organized that they are not oppressive at all.

What’s more, they’re full of buying tips and reference information (and “More Info Online” expansions). Illustrations are excellent, and almost all major silhouetted photos include drop shadows. The quality is head-and-shoulders above that of the average industrial catalog.

The 100-page reference section in the back is an engineer’s delight, with literally hundreds of graphs, charts and diagrams. For inquisitive, nontechnical types (think plant manager or purchasing agent) there are straightforward, colorful guides that lay out the basics of sensor technologies, plus a fairly extensive glossary of terms.

A few random quibbles: Some of the charts use four-point type, which makes it difficult to read them. A rare design glitch is a white headline reversed out of yellow in the table of contents. And I’d like to have seen a little more about the company, its quality standards (“why Banner?”) and so on throughout the book.

In all, though, I can’t think of a more impressive catalog of its type. And I can’t wait until I’m at a cocktail party and have chance to show off my newly acquired knowledge of industrial sensors.