Copy That Sells Differentiates MCM Awards Winners From Also-rans

Jul 01, 2011 9:30 PM  By

When a catalog wins a Gold Award in the annual MCM Awards competition (this year marks the 26th annual event, believe it or not), copy is just one of the factors the judges consider.

That’s why I wouldn’t be a dispassionate and fair judge. In my alternate universe, copy is king.

But I don’t worry about whether the judges who do inspect and evaluate all the factors that make a catalog a winner regard copy as a major factor. That’s my jealously-guarded bailiwick. For a lot of years, having the privilege of using this column to comment on copy in the award-winners, I’ve seen superior copy. And on occasion I’ve seen, well, just copy.

Originally, we judged within just one catalog medium — print. That was all there was. Then, almost overnight, online catalogs became not just a factor but in some cases the dominant factor.

And how! Finalists alone in this year’s competition included 47 print catalogs and 29 ecommerce catalogs.

Together with catalogs that year after year seem to win Gold or Silver Awards, this year some newcomers have grabbed some of those icons of precious metals. Let’s look at copy in some of the winners.

L.L. BEAN

(Print) Gold: Apparel, Sales Over $20 Million

One of the major impacts social media have had (note and use, please — “media” is a plural word; the singular is “medium”) on the entire universe of force-communication is the tendency to be too clever in headlines.

My personal 21st century preference for headline copy is benefit, not uncooked description. L.L. Bean doesn’t share that view.

The very first product heading in this catalog, “Lined Flannel Shirts,” parallels Bean’s venerable procedure that has given the company its image of timeless solidity.

Body copy immediately follows and supports the Bean tradition. The beginning:

Over the years, we’ve been dedicated to offering our customers the best flannel on the market. Now we’ve taken our perennial-favorite brushed flannel shirt and lined it with your choice of soft 100% cotton waffle fabric or lightweight polyester fleece….

Exciting? No. Deliberately no. And the entire description, of which you’ve just read about one-third, is a single paragraph. Still, it’s L.L. Bean, and excitement isn’t a factor in this cataloger’s image and reputation.

FILSON

(Print) Gold: Apparel, Sales Under $20 Million

Here’s the heading and subhead for Filson’s approach to brushed cotton shirts: ALASKAN GUIDE SHIRT: “Might as Well Have the Best”

For me, that isn’t a monumental start, not only because of the initial caps in the subhead but also because the subhead, as worded, self-weakens the point. But okay, let’s see how the first chunk of the description — like L.L. Bean’s, a single flush-left/ragged-right paragraph — builds a buying impulse:

Beefy 100% cotton for durability, soft brushed surface for comfort. A favorite of bush pilots, year-round guides, and anyone who works or hunts in the cold. Relaxed shoulders, large armholes give freedom of movement….

You can see the parallel with Bean — a quiet claim of superiority, backed by product specifics.

SHOES FOR CREWS

(Print) Gold: Business Specialty Products

One of the ongoing areas for speculation and guesswork is whether copy for business-to-business catalogs should or shouldn’t parallel copy for consumer catalogs.

An impossible question!

Why? Because in any selling situation, salesmanship is second only to the product or service itself, and without salesmanship the product or service may not be presented dynamically enough to represent itself.

Shoes for Crews comes out swinging. No bland, colorless descriptions here. The catalog is loaded with testimonials, and copy is loaded with benefits.

A typical example, on a two-page spread headed “Slip on. Go to work. Stay Safe!” with six styles pictured, is a shoe called “Eastside.” The name of the shoe tops the copy block, followed by this subhead: “Slips on and stays on, with the comfort and support of a running shoe.” That’s about as specific a quick listing of comparative benefit as any writer could conjure up. The entire copy block:

Move through a full day’s work in casual comfort. This popular, genuine leather design combines our patented slip-resistant outsole with a lightweight flexible midsole, removable cushioned insoles and a padded collar.

Some of the copy seems overly assumptive — “genuine leather design” doesn’t draw a clear picture. For a shoe called “Energy,” the key line “Our fitness shoe is unlike any other” doesn’t have much impact. But in defense of overall copy, we have 40 pages of similar products; and generating uniqueness for each one is a tough assignment.

Okay, Shoes for Crews, send me a pair of white “Evolutions.” That description, “…exclusive air piston heel support system designed to absorb up to 70% of impact energy with every step,” may keep me on the tennis court for another set.

VITAL CHOICE

(Print) Gold: Food

Well, I dunno. I automatically admire the combination of health and flavor injected into the descriptions in a food catalog. Opening this one to pages 2 and 3, the first copy I encountered was a haiku. Huh?

Swim through iced waters

My net will be your blanket

You will be my life

I’m glad I didn’t give up, because here is an unusual specialty-catalog — “wild” seafood (the “WildPureDelicious” concept is on the cover, more prominent than the catalog’s name) followed by organic foods and supplements. Here are organic trail mix and organic berries, but the thrust of the catalog centers on salmon, with emphasis on health benefits.

Under the heading “Both of the best!” is this subhead: Wild Alaskan Halibut & Salmon Combo, 6 oz. portions, skinless & boneless

The copy block:

No need to choose between two delicious alternatives. Enjoy an equal number of individually sealed portions of lean young wild halibut and robust Sockeye salmon. Both are sustainably harvested from cold Alaskan waters.

That word “young” bothered me for reasons I didn’t quite fathom. Suggestion of cannibalism? And, too, “sustainably harvested,” which first appears in the founder’s letter and then shows up repeatedly, seems abstruse. I think I get it. Is that enough when looking at catalog copy?

Technically, the catalog is gorgeous. But we’re discussing copy.

ARMY AND AIR FORCE EXCHANGE SERVICE

(Print) Gold: Computer and High-Tech Equipment

This catalog wastes no space. Yet, with total economy of words, it stimulates specific buying impulses.

Adjacent to one another are three Nikon “Coolpix” digital cameras. Prices are $299, $249 and $129, so the cameras aren’t parallel. Four lines of copy describe each one. The opening copy-shots: “The thinnest camera in its class at 1½” thick” … “Sleek design with 7x zoom, ultra-fast start-up, optical VR stabilization” … “Easy Auto Mode simplifies photography to the point of turning on the camera and shooting.”

These typify the Spartan approach to copy, which in this catalog is a series of tight product details with benefits built into the descriptions. The catalog assumes its potential customers aren’t beginners. They know the difference between 10 and 12 megapixels or between 1.6 and 2.2 GHz. Economy of words forces specificity, and in a catalog of this sort that prevents confusion and returns.

Is the copy brilliant? No. Nor, in this type of catalog, should it be. Specificity trumps brilliance when clarity and comparative benefit are at stake.

And that’s enough for this year.

As usual, I’m at my word limit and still have more I’d like to say. But you get the idea.

I’ll offer an opinion you might consider if yours is a professionally produced catalog but you don’t think it qualifies in glitz or flair:

Enter your catalog next year. Glitz and flair don’t have the influence on judges those elements may have had even a few years ago. Reality is the order of the day, and catalogs that aim themselves arrow-straight at the buying impulse are likely to be winners — not only with the judges, but in the overall marketplace. l

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Pompano Beach, FL.