Kick it up a notch

From its name, you may think specializes in accessories for sportscars, but the cataloger actually sells products for boxing, kickboxing, and martial arts. The Burbank, CA-based mailer got into the critiquing ring with four creative experts: senior copywriter Lee Mullally and senior vice president, creative services Julie Hatlem—both with La Crosse, WI-based agency Ovation Marketing—and Sam Allen, creative director, and Mark Rockwood, president, of Portland, ME-based Icon Creative Associates. Does warrant a black belt in creative, or is it a design disqualification? Here’s the blow by blow account.

Julie Hatlem and Lee Mullally

Given the product line and target audience of the catalog, we felt we were in store for a highly energetic and intense experience. After all, gear for the martial arts, boxing and kickboxing — it doesn’t get any more energetic than that.

Well, maybe a little too energetic.

That was our first impression of the cover. There are so many elements and treatments competing on the cover that it’s almost impossible to focus. With five big, bold headlines along with three photos of intense athletes beckoning you to discover their secrets, it just seems to be too much.

Despite its cluttered feel, there are some positive elements on the cover. The copy promising “How to defeat any opponent no matter the [okay, it should have been their] size or strength,” is a great benefit headline.

But fell short on the follow-through. Tell or show the customer how he can do that by pointing him to specific products in the catalog. Can the training bands product shown on the cover do that? If so, great, but the product isn’t referenced. What’s more, most of the product photography is covered by the headline itself.

While the use of professional athletes on the cover as endorsements can work, the cover includes four references where one would be adequate. Freeing up this space would allow more room for the products to shine and lead to more sales opportunities. categorizes its product line in a table of contents that tries to make it easier for the customer to find merchandise. A suggestion here may be to simplify the listings. On its Website,’s products are arranged by sport/category or by general product categories (such as uniforms/apparel and training aids). Using one of these approaches would serve the catalog well, eliminating the need for 28 different categories in a 50-page book.

Overall, the catalog uses some effective branding elements. The profiles and Q&As of professional fighters scattered throughout the book appeal to the target audience and go a long way in reinforcing the brand.

Page 2 shows one such profile with the fighter wearing the product, and the cataloger even sells it right next to his profile. Perfect! More opportunities like this could be capitalized on throughout the catalog.

The use of customer testimonials throughout the catalog is also effective. But the graphic treatments are inconsistent and nondescript and, as such, tend to get lost on the pages.

Speaking of inconsistency, the copy leaves us baffled. First, the catalog includes some excellent copy with concise, problem-solving and benefit-laden blocks.

For example, the product copy for the Counter Punch Mitts delivers a host of reasons you would want these. “Teach your boxers defensive skills while working on their offensive techniques”; “the thumbless design helps prevent accidental thumbing”; and “hook and loop fasteners for easy on and off.” Excellent — has given the customer several reasons to buy!

But a few pages earlier, on page 29, those resistance-training bands shown on the cover are back again, and just as on the cover, there is no copy describing them. What benefits will the customer get from using them? What are they made of? Why are some of the colors within the same SKU lines priced more than others? We can only assume it’s because some bands provide greater resistance, but where is the copy reassuring us that this is the reason?

Another area that could stand improvement is the photography. This assignment would be a photographer’s dream: Capture hard-hitting excitement and dynamic movement, show the product in action and deliver on its promise to make you a better boxer/kickboxer/martial artist.

But the lifestyle/demonstrative photography in looks staged and stiff. In a photo on page 7, the free-standing kicking bag shows little or no motion, and the user little excitement. If you were contemplating purchasing this bag, wouldn’t you want to see yourself in the picture with a look of determination and the simulated motion as you land a powerful kick?

During our visit to, we noticed online product demonstration videos. A suggestion to more actively engage the customer would be to call out these demonstration videos in the catalog. And while the very title of the catalog suggests the online link, perhaps more direct calls to visit the Website would be appropriate given the active nature of the product line.

As for the layout of the catalog pages, would do well to embrace a more consistent approach. Pick font styles and colors and stick with them so customers can immediately recognize the products, the testimonials, the endorsements, and so on.

The spreads seem to be independent of each other, with no flow, and they often change dramatically with the turn of a page. One spread may feature all silhouetted products on white sweeps, while the next may show the products on screened backgrounds with dividing rule lines and inset photos.

Building some consistency between the spreads would invite more customer involvement as they find it easier to go cover to cover. Developing a basic page template would be a good place to start.

Other treatments prove to be valuable selling tools. The inset photography highlighting product features and benefits is good.

And the problem/solution approach used to sell the hand wraps is excellent. has placed itself in the customers’ position, identified a problem and shown ways to solve the problem. There’s no stronger approach to marketing than that.

Overall, the catalog has some inconsistencies that don’t facilitate an easy shopping experience, but most of these issues are easily corrected. Imbedded within the pages, the product, and the brand lies great energy and excitement. The key is harnessing that energy and delivering it to the customer in a way that makes sense and makes their catalog experience an exhilarating one.

Sam Allen and Mark Rockwood

The catalog represents many of the aspirations and problems of niche market mail order books. With a client demographic ranging from martial arts novices and their families to world class fighting champions of every description, must offer simple access to both high-end gear at a pro level and information to help the inexperienced find the appropriate product choice. On this count alone scores more successes than defeats.

On the successes side of the scorecard, the catalog presents an appealing action cover, which shows the support of the stars of the various sports it supplies. Its tone is more of a magazine than a catalog, which has some additional appeal for practitioners.

On the negative side, the busy background and overload of exclamation-drenched text left us wandering the cover and missing critical information such as contact numbers and addresses. The larger concept of presenting an action introduction is a good one, but could be more effective with less of an information overload.

The majority of the products spreads in the catalog are well designed, accessible, and easily one of the best features of the book. The same cannot be said for the opening spread. Beginning inside the front cover, company story, president’s statement, product guarantee, and sponsorship announcements fight one another for attention.

Multiple pictures of the president dilute the impact of showing him supported by luminaries of various martial arts disciplines. We would merge the president’s statement with the company’s story, eliminating one large somewhat redundant block of copy. Also, we would choose one photo of the three for this valuable entry page, leaving additional space to display more effectively the substantial guarantee or a product offer.

The following page highlights’s effective pictorial product table of contents. We tested its functionality by having staff members search for specific products in the book. In every case, the products were found more quickly than through a random search of pages. We did encounter some confusion about different locations for what seemed like the same product lines. Gloves and headgear of different types proved the most confusing.

The opening spread overall is an uncomfortable and poorly integrated combination of the dense, copy-block-heavy left page and the open, airy more graphical right. The spread would benefit from more design integration, simplification, and use of valuable opening spread real estate. Again, how about offering a popular product or two, creating some desire to own some of this very cool gear!

Once past the open, the book presents products well in simple open page layouts that are easy to navigate. Product density is low enough to allow photos to be large and uncrowded throughout the book. This also allows descriptive copy and inset photos to be easily connected to the products they support. Each page also contains an informational color band describing the product category and making critical ordering information available on every page without clutter.

And the use of child models in connection with products also available in child sizes keeps the buyer for being forced to read every gray info block to look for kid sizes. But good design is not enough on the equipment packages spread. The layout of the offering is clear and effective with product lines well described in the text accompanying each photo. But the photos themselves are a mystery.

The group product shots were clearly done for another layout and don’t really fit into the space allotted for them. Some of the photos have been cropped so heavily to make them conform that they offer almost no visual information.

In fact, faces being knocked out due to the inconsistency of its photography. As in many modestly budgeted catalogs, a mix of photo sources — from free high quality vendor images to much lower quality hired product shots — frequently means some products are beautifully illustrated while others are a puzzle.

For example, on the page 2-3 spread, the leather bag glove on page 2 is a well-lit black object. The angle at which the product is viewed and the intelligent placement of highlights describe the glove perfectly.

In comparison, on page 3 the elite leather boxing gloves — which sell for twice the price — are almost featureless blobs requiring a second inset photo to show what the product looks like. The problem occurs again and again throughout the book, from the off figure clothing shots to the product demonstration model shots.

Very well-executed photos are shown on the same page or spread with much lower quality shots. As costly as good photography is, a product that cannot be seen cannot be sold. And a bad quality photo implies things about a product that are almost never true.

On the whole, we would score’s catalog a seven-rounds-to-three winner in the competition for effective presentation of a highly specialized product line. Despite what seems like many criticisms of the catalog, its problems stood out because so many other aspects of the piece were exactly right.

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