New vs. nu?

Jul 01, 2009 9:30 PM  By

This shouldn’t be an iconoclastic suggestion:

Catalogs that lean on the same old clichés not only don’t reflect the most aggressive and most competitive creative approach in tough times — they’re in second place during nontough times.

Here’s a fashion catalog whose cover says, “The New Collection.” Okay, what’s in the New Collection? What’s new? Page 2 doesn’t advance the cause:

“This summer… Breathe Easy … great value is finally found! With the most irresistible summer looks at the turn of every page — be sure that if the styles don’t leave you breathless, the prices will!”

Suppose we accept that as “standard” copy. Does it advance the promise the cover makes?

A business catalog’s cover proclaims: “Over 2,000 New Products — in stock and ready to ship.” Ah — what new products might they be?

Inside the cover are descriptions of five items: industrial tape; file boxes; folded towels; industrial peanuts; and paper shopping bags. Had the cover promised huge reductions on existing products, we couldn’t dismiss what immediately follows as “blah.”

Elsewhere is a heading, “All Box Prices Lowered.” Now, that’s worthy of cover treatment, provided the reference also includes some exemplary pages or items.

If you don’t know the word “nu,” don’t sweat it. The profound difference between “new” and “nu?” is that the former makes a promise and the latter is a shrug. Too much catalog copy generates “nu?” while attempting without compelling evidence to transmit “new.” And for Web catalogs, the rhetorical spawn can be deadly — a quick “I’m outta here” click.

Neiman Marcus proclaims on the cover of its print catalog: “Pink Sale.” Open the catalog and we see, set atop some white bedding, “defining moment: PINK SALE, noun.” Huh? The payoff, in 10-point type, doesn’t help much: “The perfect time to define your surroundings with beauty and value.” Now, come on.

An office products catalog comes out swinging on the cover with a 15% off “Bonus coupon” offer and a choice of three free gifts. What’s “new” here is a discount applicable to total purchase.

In a sunburst, not as dominant as it might be but certainly not buried, is confirmation of the 15% discount, clearly stated: “No Minimum Purchase, No Savings Limit! That’s 15% off sales prices, too!”

Is this a “New” or a “Nu?” Neither. The message is more forceful than a hackneyed “New” and far too direct and clear to be pushed into a “Nu?” word-ghetto.

We can cap this off with a cigar catalog. The cover shouts, “20 Tip-Top Torpedoes $49.99.” A snipe adds “Free shipping.” Cigars being an optional buy — and optional buys suffer first when buying power shrinks — this could jar into action a cigar-smoker who’s moaning over lost pleasures.

The Web version, checked the same day the print catalog arrived, was overproduced, as so many Websites seem to be. Images popped on and off at a pace defying analysis. Lots of offers, but nowhere on the home page was an overt tribute to Admiral Farragut: “Damn the torpedoes. Go ahead.”

A suggestion, not only until normal times return but for a century or two beyond: To be competitive on any level, quickly keep whatever promise you’re making.

That goes for personal relationships, too.

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