Salesmanship or showmanship?

Sep 01, 2009 9:30 PM  By

2009 MCM AWARD WINNERS COPY

Perennial winners dominated the Multichannel Merchant Awards this year.

New Pig, L.L. Bean, Black Box, Hanna Andersson, Harry & David, and Orvis must be running out of shelf space. But some newcomers struck gold: Stevespanglerscience.com not only won a Gold Award in the Children’s category, but was also named Website of the Year.

The 2009 awards largely reflected the temper of the times. Clarity seems to have been a major factor, trumping cleverness-for-the-sake-of-cleverness and overly flowery descriptions.

THE CATALOG OF THE YEAR

What at first glance might have seemed to be a single yielding to the cleverness-for-the-sake-of-cleverness syndrome was the Catalog of the Year — New Pig’s “Big Pigalog,” U.K. edition, winner in the Industrial Supplies category.

That’s because the cover illustration showed a pig on a motorcycle, to which the company’s spill response bags were attached. But that eye-catching levity began and ended with the cover. Once past the cover, clarity and specifics took over.

New Pig seems to employ a copy style for some products different from the style it uses for others. Headings for new items and absorbents center on benefits. Headings for existing products such as spill control and maintenance tend toward headlines that name the purpose of the product, followed by a subhead specifying comparative benefit.

Repetition of wording can generate mild confusion. An example on a new products page (99) are two adjacent floor mats. One is headed, “Stop dirt and cut costs with this economical, easy-to-clean Entrance Mat.”

The other is headed, “Stop dirt in its tracks with disposable PIG® Sticky Steps® Mat!” Careful editing might have avoided two “Stop dirt” openings so close together. The two mats have few common characteristics.

For a purchasing agent or undecided buyer, copy is loaded with specifics to make choices easy. And a plethora of choices exists.

For example, in the new products area of the maintenance section, a dozen floor mats are shown and described. The company’s well-known cartoon pig mascot says, “Need help choosing? Give us a squeal!” as he points to a grid showing comparative pros and cons.

Cross-references and edge colors simplify the search for specifics.

SMALL IN SIZE, BIG IN EFFECTIVENESS

Fetchdog was a Silver Award winner in the Small Catalog category. (There was no Gold winner in this group.)

Why Silver and not Gold for this bright catalog of holiday gifts for pets? As an opinion, copy not only wasn’t a negative factor; it was superior to some Gold winners. The minor downgrading may have been because body type is 7-point or 8-point.

The first few sentences of just one sharp description that not only describes but generates a reason to buy:

Couch Saver — Do you know a certain couch potato? One that happens to drool and shed? Here’s how to protect your favorite couch — even when you’re not around. Made of super-soft, pill-resistant microvelvet fabric filled with high-lofting polyester. Bolsters give old slobber-chops the perfect place to rest his head….

ALL THAT GLITTERS ISN’T GOLD

This year saw fewer Gold winners than I’ve observed since I first started my opinionated reporting. (To emphasize a point: I’m not involved in the judging.)

Several Silver Award winners impressed me as parallel to Gold winners. For example, Vitacost.com, a vendor of vitamins and supplements, won a Silver for a tight, easy-to-navigate 120-page catalog whose descriptions include both benefits and apparent specifics.

Why, then, Silver instead of Gold? One possibility is that a number of descriptions begin in low gear. An example, for a product called SAM-e:

A powerful, natural nutrient, SAM-e (S-adenosyl methionine) promotes healthy joint function. Supplementing with SAM-e may benefit both active and aging people, as they are prone to experience joint discomfort.

Nothing here that emphasizes “Why to buy.”

The heading and subhead for Pycnogenol, a supplement:

Powerful Pycnogenol — Pycnogenol is a natural plant extract derived from the bark of the French maritime pine tree. It contains natural compounds that may help promote healthy blood sugar, joint health, cardiovascular wellness and more.

That “and more” is a weakness-marker. One challenge for a catalog of this type (and I’m an occasional Vitacost customer) is generating orders from catalog recipients who don’t have a prior product knowledge.

EXCITING THE PARENT AS WELL AS THE CHILD

A bright and deserving newcomer to the MCM awards competition is Steve Spangler Science, whose Website won the Gold Award for Children’s Products.

I wasn’t privy to whatever was on that site at the time the awards were judged. But if you visit the site, as I just did, you have to share the judges’ enthusiasm.

Copy is largely first-person, quickly establishing rapport. And it’s the way copy should be written for the parent/child market — nonthreatening, entertaining, a remarkable mixture of education and entertainment.

A mild negative is that the home page is too much a home page. We have to see and use a tiny click-spot to reach products for sale, and I suspect some casual visitors will click away before analyzing the page.

Once inside, the descriptions are pure gold. An example is the Bouncing Bubble Kit, “Recommended for ages 8 years & up, with adult supervision”:

Are you a true bubble-ologist? Have you ever bounced a bubble? Can you squeeze a bubble? Are you a true bubble trickster? With this kit you will be able to do all of this and more! The amazing bubble concentrate makes 4 Liters (1 gallon) worth of incredible bubble solution. You will also receive some of the best bubble blowers on the market and gloves so you can actually touch and play with a bubble — AMAZING! So go ahead, mix up a batch and discover the true beauty of a bubble! Recommended for children ages 8 and up.

Following is “What’s included” and “FAQ.” This online catalog is a marker for the ability to combine completeness with salesworthiness.

Next Page: L.L. BEAN, PERENNIAL WINNER

L.L. BEAN, PERENNIAL WINNER

In the Consumer Apparel category, L.L. Bean won both the Gold Award for its Christmas Favorites catalog and the Silver Award for its Summer 2008 catalog.

“Crispness” applies to both photography and copy. The result is that rare achievement — creating a buying impulse where none existed before exposure to the page. An example is a page of women’s totes. The heading a subhead:

Simply the toughest tote you can buy — Sewn right here in Maine one bag at a time — find even more styles at llbean.com

Note the clever amalgam of proprietary positioning and “made in America” appeal. Body copy emphasizes product superiority and use. The first two sentences:

With its reinforced flat canvas bottom, our Boat and Tote is so rugged it stands up on its own, for easy packing and unpacking. Use it to carry beach gear, groceries, garden supplies, workout clothes, toys and just about anything else….

AND THAT’S ENOUGH FOR THIS YEAR

I’m at the word limit, so other superb examples will be either happy or sad that they aren’t included here. A salute, though, to other Golds — Harry & David, Musician’s Friend, eBags, Hanna Andersson and Black Box. To them and to all:

Enter what you regard as your best 2009 catalog, print or Web, in the 2010 competition. Those handsome award plaques look good in your reception room.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises (www.herschellgordonlewis.com) in Pompano Beach, FL, and author of 31 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles, Marketing Mayhem, Effective E-Mail Marketing and Creative Rules for the 21st Century.