Catalog Critique: Medical Mailer Gets First Aid

A business-to-consumer marketer, Express Medical Supply sells urology and ostomy supplies, as well as more general home healthcare merchandise. The Fenton, MO-based mailer sent its 2006 catalog edition in for an examination, and critiquers Rob Palowitz, principal/chief creative officer of Boardman, OH-based Palo Creative, and Charlene Gervais, senior vice president of Mill Valley, CA-based Haggin Marketing, gave it a full workup. Read on for the diagnosis and prognosis.

Rob Palowitz

What first caught my eye with Express Medical Supply’s front cover was the logo jumping off the page, because it created movement and action. But the “X” is a little overbearing in the logo, as if marking a spot for treasure on a pirate map. And the cover is confusing as to what the catalog sells. My first thought from the logo was maybe shipping or packaging products, but the rest of the cover, depicting a grandfather fishing with his grandson on a dock with a softer background image, suggests that a more “family” type of product offering that must be inside. Mixing these concepts made it confusing to me — and I bet to prospects as well.

The back cover has a small problem: It doesn’t sell anything. Why use one of the hottest merchandising spots in the catalog to try to create additional “mood” with warm fuzzy photos and the tagline “We care for you”? You can still achieve mood with a catalog while listing a few products associated with your theme. This type of back cover could end up costing you a sale to a prospect. If you do not have enough information on the back cover for him to know what this catalog is all about, he may not open it. And that, my friends, would be a travesty.

I like the idea of the customer service content on pages 2 and 3. All this great service and caring information helps create the feeling that a customer or prospect will get good care shopping from Express Medical Supply. It’s a major problem, however, that no products are shown until page 6. All that institutional copy takes up too much of the beginning spreads of the catalog. The information should be located elsewhere or condensed with a reference to an area of the Website where readers can view and download the content. A to-the-point approach with the informational copy would be a better application. Catalogers should not forget the main idea and purpose: selling products. This is especially important when it comes to prime real estate for new products, hot sellers, and cash cows.

While I like the idea of having a color-coded table of contents to help readers navigate throughout the catalog, from what I can tell the colors on the contents page do not correspond with any of the product sections throughout the book. There’s also an index on pages 82, 83, and part of 84. In a catalog this size — 88 pages — this could be overkill, despite the target demographic being seniors. The usual practice is to feature either a table of contents or an index unless the catalog has at least 160 or so pages.

I like the hot spots that are created by a catalog request card both in the front of the signature and the back. Hopefully these two spreads feature products that are good sellers, have great margins, or are new items.

For this demographic, I like the idea of the light-bulb icon calling attention to tips and other information, but the tip boxes are not consistent in appearance throughout.

Express Medical’s approach to a spread selling hosiery works. It focuses on the merchandise well; having copy flow around the product is great; the listings of sizes with item numbers is not bad. It also has the sizing chart right there to prevent the customer from having to search throughout the catalog to properly size and buy this particular product. Good job.

Looking at the center spread, which sells incontinence products, this natural hot spot appears to be used to sell a consumable product that customers need to reorder quite a bit. Good. But the center spread should also include the order form from page 85. The inline order form the catalog currently has is good, and economical as well. But Express Medical may want to consider an order form with an envelope instead. With that in the center spread, the cataloger can use the order form envelope for its customer ordering information and policies and even have a catalog request form listed on it.

In general, I would suggest putting consistent headers, the Website URL, and the 800-number on every page. I also think that Express Medical could clean up its creative a bit and gain some consistency in speaking to its target audience more effectively.

For instance, it should use more clipped-out images to make the design a little less “stacked” in arrangement. Better use of shaded boxes and lines would help with this sort of product — lots of boxes and bottles — as well. Featuring “hero” images on pages throughout the catalog would help with eye flow, hierarchy, and legibility.

Another topic of discussion are the 16 or so co-op ads throughout the catalog. I understand the idea of having ads in the catalog for offsetting production costs, but as a cataloger you must watch that ads don’t end up diluting your brand and purpose. The balance of co-op dollars earned vs. average order value should be monitored in order to avoid scaring away your core customers and therefore losing precious sales dollars.

Charlene Gervais

The Express Medical Supply catalog suffers from an identity crisis. The cover — nicely printed and UV coated, featuring a photo of grandfather and grandson fishing — says warmth and quality. The copy-heavy opening spread features a doctor’s photo and comes off as cool and clinical. Then we get to the jam-packed product pages, which do not reflect any of the elements or messages of the previous pages. My first recommendation is that the company pick one identity and stick with it.

To communicate a coherent and unified message, Express Medical first needs to define who it is and what it does best. Customer surveys can help pinpoint strengths the cataloger may not even know it has. Market research can help determine which niches are held by the competition, which ones are wide open, and which ones Express Medical already has covered. From this information an identity — and possibly a revised marketing strategy — will evolve. The catalogs should carry the brand message not only on the cover but also on every page.

The front and back covers must persuade the recipient to open the book. Express Medical has the added challenge of accomplishing this while being discreet about the sensitive medical products inside. It has chosen to communicate the benefit of what it sells without specifically saying what the products are. This is a great solution, but the overall execution could be improved. Here are a few ideas how:

  • The logo is prominent enough, but it needs a relevant tagline under it. The current tagline, “Home delivery nationwide,” should be positioned elsewhere on the cover. The statement “Providing superior medical products and services so you can enjoy the truly important moments in life” is too long and lacks punch. It should be reworked into a customer-focused tagline. For example, “The best in medical products — convenient, effective, empowering.”

  • The design treatment that appears to be handmade paper in the background is pretty, but how is it relevant? The treatment is not found anywhere else in the book. Create consistency by using consistent design and messages throughout the book.

  • Extended, condensed, serifs, sans-serif, italics, bold… There are too many font styles on this cover. Clean the catalog up visually by limiting the style sheet.

  • The lifestyle photo is great and communicates benefit very well — I would play it up even more by giving it more weight.

  • Although we don’t want to clutter the cover, this one is clean enough to withstand an additional message or two. Express Medical should add key information, selling copy, or a call to action. For example, “Lowest Price Guaranteed. Details inside” could get this market’s attention.

The back cover has the same goals as the front cover: It must get people to open the book. Calls to action and selling messages should accompany the lifestyle images currently found there.

The first four pages of the catalog are nonselling pages, overloaded with detailed company and legal info plus ordering instructions and options. There is also an ad that appears to be vendor supplied and a hypercategorized table of contents. I think all of this (except the ad) will, when streamlined, fit nicely on two pages. There is some room for improvement in the presentation.

For instance, the opening line, “We understand what are the truly important moments in life…that’s why we ship high-quality products directly to your home or preferred location,” is vague and weak and employs false logic. Use a statement with more impact, such as a derivation of our new tagline, “Count on us for the best in medical products and services — convenient, effective, empowering.” The statement could be accompanied by brief supporting copy to tug emotional strings: “These products help me stay mobile, independent, and free.”

Also, the section that lists the many “easy to order” options is, ironically, not easy to use. This area needs to be tidied up with better type handling and maybe some graphics, as much of the information can be communicated graphically.

And the upper right-hand quarter-page of the opening spread is dedicated to informing buyers how to return product…this sends the wrong message! This information (and the “damage during shipment” section) can be delivered via Web or on an info sheet in the product shipment — not on this prime real estate.

Color and font styling can be used to break up large chunks of type. Icons and graphics can also help to make this opening section more user-friendly. Cut unnecessary information, and emphasize strengths (such as warranty info) to make them into selling points.

The product pages are crowded and confusing. This book needs layouts that maximize page space and create compelling presentations. Specifically, it should

  • enlarge the product shots — at least on larger, detailed items — so that people can see what they are buying. The picture size has been compromised for copy and high product density.

  • broaden the categories. It’s not necessary to have a page header, a subcategory header, a sub-subcategory/manufacturer line, and the product name. All this minute categorization adds little value (seven categories on one page in some cases) and takes up lots of space.

  • rethink the clunky font styles, possibly introducing a serif font for maximum legibility. Use formatting to improve readability and comprehension. Also, a combination of bold and regular fonts in the pricing charts would make it easier to differentiate price from model and description.

  • use borders or rules to separate products on high-density pages, as it is difficult to see where the copy from one product ends and another starts.

  • reexamine product density. Although I like that the merchandise selection often spans a good/better/best categorization, some of these products may need to be weeded out to make room for a more understandable presentation. If a reduction in product is not possible, consider increasing the page count.

Overall, if Express Medical Supply creates a cleaner, more consistent, and more inviting catalog, it will fulfill the promise now stated on the opening spread: “We care for you.”

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