Catalog critique: A revealing look at Lady Grace

Many women find shopping for undergarments — particularly bras — to be a less than fun or comfortable experience. It’s even more complicated when you’re a plus size and trying to shop by catalog.

That’s the challenge that Lady Grace, a mailer of intimate apparel, nightclothes and loungewear, faces in each catalog issue.

Our critiquers this month — Lori McFadden, a Laguna Beach, CA-based creative consultant, and Neal Schuler, principal of Schuler Creative Consulting — reviewed a recent 48-page edition of Lady Grace. Do they support the merchant’s creative efforts? Or was it a bust? Read on to find out.

LORI MCFADDEN

Lady Grace lands in my mailbox like a plus-size lingerie catalog. I am pleasantly surprised; I’ve been an advocate for attractive plus-size images for ages. The big, beautiful model on Lady Grace’s cover gazes out at me frankly in her amethyst sheer-embroidered underwire bra, as if to say, “We’re not in Victoria’s Secret anymore, Toto.”

Everyone knows that hard-to-find items are golden for any catalog. And pretty, plus-size lingerie can be hard to find. Seems like this would be a large, and growing, niche.

(I learned a long time ago that it’s impossible to talk about the plus-size business without your conversation getting littered with puns. So let’s say it now and be done: None intended.)

The other thing I learned is that, above all, the plus-size customer wants to be treated just like everyone else. And plus-size customers want to be portrayed just like everyone else. So here’s the catch: Lady Grace is not only for plus-size customers.

An industry legend: In the 1980s, a popular large-size cataloger tested large-size models against “straight-size” models. The company mailed out two separate books, identical except for the size of the girls. (It was the ’80s; apparently money was no object.)

As the story goes, all those women who were clamoring for realistic models purchased a lot more from the skinny photos.

Remember that old ad campaign about “Perception vs. Reality”? Makes me wonder whether Lady Grace has ever tested a C cup on the cover. In this decade, I’d suggest trying a more diverse approach.

Cover messaging lists the incredible range of sizes available, calls out post-surgery styles, mentions sleepwear and loungewear, free shipping, a semiannual sale, the 74th anniversary, and shows the cartoon “Grace,” with directions to her fit tips inside.

That’s a lot of messaging! And this seems to illustrate my main complaint with Lady Grace: an embarrassment of riches.

Let’s get out our catalog marketer’s checklist: Attractive cover photo with eye contact from the model. Check. Cover messages and free shipping burst. Check. Brand positioning on page 2. Check. Theme spreads, headlines, best-seller icons. Check, check, check.

The catalog even makes an attempt at heroes for the first couple of spreads. Lady Grace has followed our instructions. I’m sure it does a darn good business. How it do even better?

One way is with photography. The bra business is all about brands. Lady Grace uses vendor shots, and some are better than others, so it’s tried to compensate with a strong grid design and tight cropping.

This helps to minimize the different backgrounds, models, lighting and makeup. Adding its own unique establishing shots would be a giant leap into owning the Lady Grace brand.

Taking on original photography can be a complicated and expensive proposition for a company that has stuck to vendor shots. But it’s well worth the investment when done right, and it prevents you from looking like your competitors.

This catalog begs for a table of contents. The overriding message is definitely brassieres, but there are also sections of what used to be known as “foundations” — the slips, panties, shapers and even girdles meant to make the clothes going over them look better.

This is underwear that women buy for themselves. It’s solutions-oriented, with nursing bras, mastectomy styles, a bridal section.

Consider the possibilities: underwear that women buy for themselves. This idea contains the seed of the brand. The character of Grace is a terrific starting point for a strong brand voice.

Grace is introduced on page 2, with her easy-to-spot cartoon illustration encouraging us to look for her expert tips throughout the book. She shares serious tips on technical features and encourages a call to “Grace’s Aces” for even more help. It’s great to have an expert girlfriend to help with these difficult choices.

Another way to make the book better would be to vary the density. The catalog opens with a spread selling 11 minimizing bras. That’s 22 ta-tas!

There is a hero in the hot spot at the right, and a larger figure on the next spread, but after that it gets pretty tight and monotonous. All the bra spreads have 10 to 12 styles; maybe some could have fewer, some even more.

One page forms a pattern with 16 panty styles, another has stiff models in long nightgowns stacked up six to a page. The presentation feels crowded. Increasing the margins and space between the photos even a smidge would really help.

There is a vendor logo on virtually every photo. Layer on the icons for best seller, new and size callouts such as “g cup” or “up to 14X,” and they add to the crowded feeling. A full spread of Wacoal Bras puts the vendor name in the headline — two headlines, actually — and eliminates the ubiquitous and almost invisible logos printed over each photo.

This kind of organization could be further developed so that a single page tells one story; even half- or third-page stories could be isolated with one powerful headline or subhead to promote a single vendor or convey the solutions offered by a group of products. A page of Bali “Comfort-U Designs” explains the advantage well with its headline, but still includes the “Comfort-U Back” icon on all six images. For a stronger, cleaner presentation, say it once and mean it.

Lady Grace has all the makings of a great catalog. Ultimately, any catalog is about the product and the customer. Creative is the conduit. Bringing the customer and the product together with the clearest, most appealing communication possible is our goal.

NEAL SCHULER

Lady Grace has been in business for nearly 75 years selling intimate apparel in a wide a variety of sizes; it’s found a niche offering bras in larger sizes. The company has built its brand primarily through 10 retail stores in New England; it launched its catalog program 12 years ago.

Rule #1: When critiquing a creative presentation, it’s important always to review the work through the eyes of the customer. Okay, getting in touch with my feminine side is one thing, but in this case I needed to enlist a little help.

So I asked my wife, Janet, to be my special adviser, my counsel in residence to guide me through the bra shopping experience. (I quickly learned there’s no comparable task for men, although glancing down an aisle of micro-brews at your local grocer makes you wonder.)

For starters, the catalog’s cover photo does a good job of communicating the offer; I like the product-centric approach — no thinly veiled lifestyle needed here. The brand has a lot to offer, but the number of messages on the cover is overwhelming — I tend to keep it to three when possible.

The recipient will spend only a few seconds reading cover messages, so I wouldn’t dilute the top response drivers with second-tier information.

In this case, the Semi-Annual Sale, Free Shipping and a few words stating the unique position of the brand would do it — for example: Inside: the best selection of hard-to-find sizes anywhere!

It’s also important to remember that the back cover gets as much play as the front. It’s often the first thing the recipient sees out of the mailbox, so restating the three key messages prominently on the back is essential.

Continue to Page 2

On the opening spread: I would devote more space to introduce the brand, and I would do it with plenty of energy and fanfare. It’s imperative to communicate the offer proposition boldly: superb quality, sensational fit and hard-to-find sizes.

And the semiannual sale is newsworthy and should be promoted in a big way. The fact that a large portion of the assortment is on sale is completely missing in the presentation. Even promoting the specific number of items on sale can help validate the event and get people into the catalog.

The opening spread is a great place to promote the brand’s heritage, amazing selection of sizes and its customer service team, Graces Aces; it instills confidence in the shopper and bolsters the brand’s authority.

I understand (thanks to my adviser) that bra shopping is a difficult task, it’s hard to find the right fit, even if you know your size. Enter a great guarantee!

The guarantee (currently buried on the order form), says the buyer can exchange an item and Lady Grace will pay for the return shipping — zappbras? In this case it’s only on the first exchange, but what a great confidence builder. If fit is an inherent issue, remove the barrier of cost for trying another size. To me, this feels like a big opportunity, especially for prospects.

The opening is where you also want to promote the breadth of assortment: bras, sleepwear, loungewear, post breast surgery, extra sale section and famous brands. Consider a few lines of differentiating copy for each major brand to further promote expertise.

For a catalog as dense as this is, Lady Grace does a great job of getting the differences and benefits into the product copy. Unfortunately, there’s no room to establish a voice — but the basics are there for the shopper. And I like how most of the copy easily connects to the photos with a minimal use of keying.

But headlines are oddly buried in the center of the page. From an eye-flow perspective, they don’t help the shopper navigate the catalog or feel very newsworthy in that position. You tend to read them after you’ve perused the spread.

To improve the shopping experience and response, I would recommend these simple adjustments to the interior spreads:

  • Pace the promotion of the Semi-Annual Sale up to 25% off and the Free Shipping messages throughout the catalog. Create urgency by communicating an end date for the events.

  • More clearly communicate the theme of each spread. Whether it’s full-figure favorites or promoting a single brand, get the message at the top of the page. And be sure all headlines strongly differentiate features and point out benefits.

  • Where spreads are merchandised with multiple brands, promote the brand name more prominently. Since women shop for intimate apparel (especially bras) by brand, make it easy to identify at a glance.

  • Design each spread with a visual resting place. The current design challenges easy and natural eye-flow and becomes fatiguing for the shopper.

  • Consider creating a consistent footer design for the spreads that includes the phone number and web address. It makes it easy for the shopper to find and it’s a good place to remind them that you have more online.

And finally, I really like the benefits and differences called out by Grace, the retro cartoon character. Her helpful tips do a good job of promoting authority and add a bit of personality to the catalog.

Without a doubt, by applying some of these creative strategies Lady Grace can improve response and grow its sales. The company found a great niche in its market and, with a few adjustments, can make the best of it.

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