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Each year, scanning through the winning catalogs representing the best of the best at the annual Multichannel Merchant Awards, we look for a thread — make that a rope. The rope supposedly ties together these superb examples of cataloging, whether in one of the many consumer print catalog and Web categories or the business-to-business print and Website categories. After the fact — because copy is just one component of the judging mix — my own question always is, Does being a winner mean having outstanding, motivational copy?

Well, yes, sort of. Every one of the winners recognizes that a catalog can no longer compete in the brutal 21st century ambiance just by relying on naked listings. The Web has superimposed a competitive umbrella over all selling media. And, anticipating an unfriendly postal rate structure along with daily intrusions of new Web competitors, I think copy offering a benefit will outpull copy that just describes, because an increasing percentage of potential customers are being exposed to competitors who happily supply reasons to buy that your catalog doesn’t include.

The usual disclaimer: Lots of gold winners, lots of silver winners, lots of finalists. The callous editors of Multichannel Merchant have, as usual, limited the amount of publication space I can command. So without apologies, here are some comments on just a few of the 2007 winners.

J.D. Power wouldn’t hesitate: If J.D. Power rated soft goods catalogers, L.L. Bean wouldn’t ever have to worry.

Bean’s Christmas catalog, this year’s gold winner in the Gifts category, Print Channel, is a perennial winner. Some may wonder whether this stature stems from so many years of unblemished reputation. Ah, but they aren’t considering the competitive nature of the awards, nor the dispassionate detachment of the judges.

My own judgment reflects only copy, and as always the Bean descriptions are precise, confident (note that word, because elsewhere confidence is often elusive and replaced by braggadocio), and specific.

Observe the convincing tone of this typical description, “Waxed-Cotton/Down Jackets and Vests.” (A minor disagreement — why do they still use initial caps?) Just the first few sentences:

For Men and Women: We’ve been offering waxed-cotton gear for sportsmen since the 1930s. It’s highly weatherproof, wind resistant and rugged. Unlike traditional treated cotton, ours is supple, comfortable and gets better with age. The natural 650-fill-power down insulation provides warmth ….

If you’re questioning how this copy, with the “sportsmen” specific, can apply to women, the question is answered quickly:

Women’s — Shaped for a flattering fit with a diagonal-stitch pattern. Shirttail hem falls at hip.

Looking for flashy, flamboyant copy? You won’t find it here. That may be why the L.L. Bean copy states without shouting, “Dependability.” And copy is 21st century: for example, “it’s,” not the aged “it is.”

Another hardy perennial: Jackson & Perkins traditionally sets the benchmark for home and garden catalogs, and this year was no exception. J&P took the gold award in the Home and Gardening Products category for its “Garden-Inspired Living” catalog.

Of course the photographs leap off the page. That’s expected from Jackson & Perkins, but it isn’t the subject of this column. Copy? Well, of course it’s bright and colorful. Occasional insertion of unexpected nouns and adjectives, such as “a surprise of peachy pink centers” for the Welcome Home rose or “each bloom has a novel, handpainted look, with a cream reverse” for the Color Me Pink rose, keeps readership high.

Poetic copy is in sync with promotional self-serving copy, putting J&P on a plateau well above the competitive floral milieu. An example is this insert, with a strange identifying symbol, between Lady Bird (a rose “personally chosen” by 94-year-old former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson) and Color Me Pink, both identified as Hybrid Tea roses:

Superior-Performing. New Generation Roses. J&P’s breakthrough research has proven that some previously grafted hybrid tea and floribunda rose varieties actually perform better when grown on their own roots. New Generation® own-root roses adapt more quickly and are more winter hardy. They have a fuller, more attractive shape. And with more branches per plant, they produce even more of the blooms you love. This symbol means you’ve chosen a New Generation Rose.

Okay, nice and unassailable positioning statement. And the Lady Bird rose has that symbol, although the Color Me Pink doesn’t, which makes me wonder why a simple and separating one-point printer’s rule under that insert couldn’t have clarified and exemplified.

For parents, for kids: Hanna Andersson is another recurrent winner, and this year the Holiday catalog was the gold co-winner in the Children’s Products Print category.

Okay, what’s the key to selling children’s wear through a catalog in the Wal-Mart/Costco era? Right: a warm tone. Warmth shines through the product descriptions of this catalog, which also has occasional semi-matching outfits for mom and/or dad. (A slightly offbeat note: headings, clarifying for whom a garment is designed, sometimes say “for women” rather than “for mom,” a tone-changer.) Much of the copy is written as a first-person “I,” enhancing the one-to-one image.

Exclusivity is a factor too. The first sentence of a description for the “Magical Moment Crochet Dress”:

From its first sketch, this dress seems to have been enchanted with sweet gifts of simplicity, grace and charm.

(For me, the rest of this description was a turnoff because apparently unproofread text used “it’s” instead of “its” as a possessive.)

Word choice is often superb:

As airy as a dancer’s tutu, my comfy new skirt has dreamy gossamer tiers of tulle that are trimmed in shiny ribbon so she can twirl, shimmer, and shine through the season.

Taking a pleasant walk: Consumer Specialty Products is a category that regularly attracts a huge number of entries. So for the 2007 Country Walkers catalog to win the Gold, appeal had to be outstanding in every element.

A catalog as upscale as Country Walkers has to offer status, ease, and logic. Copy regularly reflects all three, and that quickly positions the many walking tours (in Europe, Africa, Asia, the South Pacific, and Central and South America as well as the U.S. and Canada) as upscale and reliable.

Introductory copy rates the various tours as Easy, Easy to Moderate, Moderate, Moderate to Challenging, and Challenging, describing each category so choices aren’t blind. Tours are one to a page, and in keeping with 21st century attention-getting and skepticism-defanging, inspirational copy is textual and features are bulleted.

Note just a fragment of the description of the walking tour through Norway’s fjords:

We follow the fjords’ shores through small towns, where ancient wooden and stone churches recall the region’s past, Viking hammers echoing through time at the sites of the shipbuilders’ labors. We pass thriving farms en route to tranquil fjordland forests before ascending to apple orchards, flower-dappled fields, and rocky terrain dotted with berry shrubs ….

If any question were to be raised, it might be whether poetry replaces specificity. But the accompanying bullet copy and an easily understood map fill in just about all the blanks.

Remedy for backache: The holiday issue of Relax the Back was the only finalist in the Retail Traffic Driver category. The catalog won a Silver Award.

This is a difficult category because although a catalog recipient can order by phone or online, an equally significant intention is to push the catalog reader to one of the more than 100 retail stores listed in the center spread.

The chairs aren’t cheap. The first one shown, on page 3, sells for $4,495. Does copy justify spending $4,495 for a chair? The headline’s impact is questionable: “introducing a massage chair that looks as great as it feels.”

The headline: “Ultimate Human Touch® Robotic Massage® Chair with Voice Response.” What’s your opinion of the first sentence of text:

Now you can enjoy a state-of-the-art robotic massage in a recliner that’s designed to look and feel like no other massage chair on the market.

My opinion, foreshortened because of space limitations: Although that chair enjoys the lengthiest description in the catalog, copy doesn’t give it a justifiable advantage over other chairs, priced from $799 to $2,499. (I see more benefits in the moderately-priced lumbar cushions, but maybe that’s because my back hurts at this moment.)

Flavonoids and antioxidants: The sole award winner (Silver) in the New Catalog category was Tahitian Noni. I found the copy in this catalog intriguing because the products — “an easy addition to your health regimen” — revolve around Tahitian Noni® Juice:

Try just 1 oz. of TAHITIAN NONI® Juice a day. After the first month, you and your family will start feeling — and enjoying — remarkable health benefits.

Such as? An endorsement by Evi Sachenbacher, an “Olympic Athlete,” and Chauncey Phillips, “Professional Basketball Player,” whose names don’t ring a bell, emphasize enhanced endurance and energy. Well, maybe. Regardless, enthusiasm abounds in this catalog’s copy. I wish it good fortune.

That’s all the space I have. Other winners deserve accolades — or questions. But as I said to start this diatribe, this column is the victim of space limitation. So just a one-sentence conclusion: Except for those b-to-b catalogs that necessarily are front-to-back product listings, winning catalogs accept and endorse the concept that benefit (what it will do for you) trumps feature (what it is).

Coda — if yours was a winner and left uncommented upon, my apologies for the omission. Maybe next year.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 30 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles, On the Art of Writing Copy, Marketing Mayhem, Effective E-Mail Marketing, Asinine Advertising, and the recently published Burnt Offerings, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide. Web address is herschellgordonlewis.com.

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