When it comes to catalog design, there are numerous pros and cons to using models. Done right, model photography can considerably enhance your presentation and make your catalog more enticing and enjoyable to read, which should result in higher sales. On the other hand, models can be expensive, time-consuming, and, if not executed correctly, can potentially distract from what you are trying to sell. So what’s right for you?
There’s no simple answer, but there are a few rules and guidelines to use when deciding if you should include the human element in your catalog. The following instances illustrate when it makes sense to use models.
TO EXPLAIN PRODUCT BENEFITS
Sometimes you simply cannot sell a product with a product-only photograph. With a catalog as your primary selling tool, customers don’t have the advantage of experiencing the item’s benefits first-hand. Remember that catalogs are a visual medium, and photographs create stopping power when customers are browsing. If a photograph and any accompanying graphics do not quickly explain the unique benefits of a product, it instantly becomes ordinary and not worthy of their time and the effort it takes to figure the product out. So using a model to help demonstrate a product feature or benefit is a good idea when a single product shot alone cannot do the trick.
For instance, if a product is easy-to-use, show how easy it is to use with a model. If you are selling a weed-eater that is extraordinarily lightweight, demonstrate this benefit by picturing a woman using it with one hand. When selling skin care products, quickly tell the benefit story with an in-use shot or a before and after photo, proving the benefit. This will grab more attention than a single picture of a bottle alone. One caveat: when using a model to demonstrate a product, always be sure to plan the shot so that the product is the hero, cropping out anything unnecessary, including parts of the model.
TO SHOW SCALE
One of the biggest mistakes catalogs make repeatedly is incorrectly displaying scale, not showing how large or small a product is. Customers will make incorrect assumptions on product size without proper guidelines, which could result in higher return rates for the cataloger. Showing scale is crucial when a product’s size is one of its key benefits; using model photography quickly and effectively demonstrates scale. What’s more, you don’t need to show a model from head to toe — using one body part, such as a hand or foot, instantly conveys the message in many cases.
TO ENCOURAGE BROWSING
Some catalogs need a few model shots to break up the monotony of what could otherwise be a boring, repetitive catalog. This is especially true when selling homogenous products such as books and electronics or anything else that has a similar presentation. Think of a vitamin catalog, in which bottles of pills are the only products filling page after page. In this case, a lifestyle shot demonstrating an end-benefit — for instance, a woman enjoying a good night’s sleep — will not only help sell the product but, more importantly, will encourage customers to browse.
McGraw-Hill Children’s Publishing learned this technique when selling books and teaching aides to elementary educators. By periodically including a child interacting with the products, it added a much-needed human touch to the catalog, and made it much more fun and interesting to look at. In this case, it wasn’t necessary to give up a lot of space to include these shots, and a handful went a long way to creating a better selling environment.
TO HELP EXPERIENCE THE BRAND
Sometimes it’s necessary to use people in your catalog to help differentiate your brand from others in your category. Using carefully selected models that exemplify your brand and placing them strategically in your catalog can go a long way to make the shopping experience more relevant. Consider Pottery Barn Kids, which uses child models sparingly in its room shots to depict “real” children enjoying its furnishings. Another example is dolls cataloger American Girl, which uses models to show the dolls as part of a little girl’s lifestyle, all the way down to the matching clothes for both owner and doll. Throughout the catalog, you see proof of this brand with photos of little girls involving their American Girl counterparts in everyday life.
Another way to use people to help demonstrate brand is including pictures of customers. In this case, it’s important that you don’t use professional models but images of actual customers. This will better create believability. Cushman’s Fruit Co. has for years run a contest with its customers asking them to send in pictures of themselves eating and enjoying Cushman’s HoneyBells (its signature tangerine/grapefruit hybrid) and the free bib that comes along with it. Owner Allen Cushman believes in creating an open communication with his customers, and you experience this throughout the catalog in product copy, testimonials, and customer photos. The brand experience is fun and entertaining but the focus is still on the product. This technique helps Cushman’s Fruit differentiate its catalog among other competitors in the same category.
TO SELL APPAREL
The most common use of model photography represents the most obvious need. With apparel, models can easily demonstrate fit, length and style of a particular garment. Placing apparel on a model gives it a more natural appearance, giving customers a much better idea of what it looks like on. In this sense, using models can help reduce the percentage of returned items. Some apparel catalogs such as Coldwater Creek and TravelSmith have created brand presentation without using catalog models. Although apparel can be depicted beautifully with an off-model presentation, the fit of the garment is not always obvious so you’ll need plenty of fit details in your copy.
There are times when showcasing a garment off-model makes more sense, especially if it has a special detail or design element. For instance, a T-shirt with a witty quip might show up better as a lay-down than it would on a model.
Remember that products must be presented in all of their glory as the undisputed heroes in each and every photograph. If you use models with lifestyle photography in your catalog, they must work together with the products to create a shopping experience that will encourage sales.
Striking a pose
If you’re convinced that using model photography to help sell your products makes the most sense, the next step is photography. Many times the preparation needed to successfully manage models is grossly underestimated. Here are a few crucial factors to keep in mind as you prepare for the big shoot:
Professional models will always perform better than friends or employees. Professionals understand how to move and take direction from a photographer. The axiom here is you get what you pay for.
If you are going to be using a fair amount of models in your catalog, it’s well worth the time to invest in a photographer that knows how to work with models. Furthermore, it’s wise to employ a stylist and other talent that will help create the desired look and feel.
If hiring models for the first time, you might conduct a “casting call” in which you pre-interview candidates and observe what they really look like. Talent cards can be deceiving, and people change their looks from one month to the next.
Take the time to find models that best fit your brand and target audience’s needs. Remember that models don’t need to look like your target audience but should represent what your customers aspire to be. Furthermore, it is beneficial to communicate your brand and desired look to the photographer so there is a clear understanding of the desired outcome.
Once you’ve found the models you want, be careful with accessories or clothing that might be distracting to what you are trying to sell. Avoid wild hairstyles, jewelry that you are not selling or overly colorful nail polish. Anything that takes customers’ eyes off the product should be avoided at all cost.
Realize that there are “usage rights” that allow you to use an image of a model over a period of time and across channels, or not. This is negotiable but it’s important to determine usage before the photo shoot.
If model photography is the better part of your catalog, consider additional research that will help you determine the type of models that your customers will react most positively to. Some catalogers even use a square inch analysis to determine models, or model types, that are most profitable.
It’s sometimes necessary to use people to help better explain a product, encourage browsing or better present your brand. But never allow a model to upstage the actual product you are trying to sell. The focus should always be on product benefits, not just another pretty face.
Lois Boyle is president, chief creative officer of J. Schmid & Associates, a Mission, KS-based catalog consultancy.