The best befriend benefit copy

Sep 01, 2006 9:30 PM  By

This column, as veteran (or more accurately, resolute) readers of Multichannel Merchant know in advance, limits comments to copy. Copy isn’t always in the forefront of the overall judging process — nor should it be, because copy is just one component of any catalog’s or Website’s effectiveness or lack of effectiveness. Hmmm. Swap the word “salesmanship” for “effectiveness” and you have the intentions of my comments.

The usual disclaimer: Winners collected some 50 Gold and Silver awards. I couldn’t convince the editors to give me all the editorial space in the September issue, so I have to limit my comments to just a few.

Galls doesn’t gall. Opinion: Bright, dynamic copy is a more profound achievement in a business catalog than it is in a consumer catalog.

That’s not only because the copywriter usually has more constraints and the products are more “vertical” in appeal, but also because recipients of business catalogs usually have little appreciation for romance as they look for a specific.

So Galls, the Business-to-Business Multichannel Merchant of the Year, deserves accolades for some of its product headings, the ones that sell as they describe. We might expect that achievement in a catalog circulating inside the super-competitive consumer world, but for a business catalog the introduction of salesmanship into headlines isn’t all that common…yet. Examples:

Visibility from any angle with 360° Jackets

Maintain your footing in adverse conditions with Bates® CTS footwear

The road isn’t universally paved with gold. Some headings lapse back to the way business catalogs used to structure descriptions:

Galls® offers famous national brands so you look and feel your best

You can depend on Galls® for a wide selection of quality tactical uniforms

Bright or not so bright, headings universally make a clear statement. And that’s worthy of praise.

Visiting the Galls Website is an adventure even for someone not of their world. I can’t judge what was on the screen when the judging took place, but I admire what’s on the screen as I write this.

Harry and David take more golden bows. Why does the Harry and David catalog win at least one major prize each year? (If I counted right, including the online catalog, this year Harry and David won six, including Consumer Multichannel Merchant of the Year.) The answer is easy: Every aspect of every catalog is 100% professional, and the word images that the copy in these catalogs draw are universally appetizing without becoming so poetic they lose the factual core. (I don’t agree with the use of initial caps for headings, but that’s an irrelevant opinion.)

One example of a headline and the beginning of the accompanying copy block, from Harry and David’s “Cool Fruit” print catalog edition, the Gold award winner in the food category:

Royal Riviera Pears: So Big and Juicy, You Eat Them With a Spoon

Celebrate with luxurious winter pears — fresh this spring! This rarest and most elusive pear variety — the one we call the Royal Riviera — is custom grown to our demanding specifications in a few specialty orchards in the foothills of the Andes….

MacKenzie-Childs: silver threads among the gold. I hadn’t seen a MacKenzie-Childs catalog, so I hadn’t been exposed to its superb copy. The catalog won a Silver in the Home and Gardening print catalog category, but in my opinion the copy is solid gold.

I don’t know a writer who could improve on this description of the Chelsea Luster Collection dinnerware, brilliantly pictured in lush grass:

Splendor in the grass! Lusterware harkens back to the lush heydays of Victorian England. Now, we revive this stunning technique using copper luster, a semi-precious metal that becomes iridescent with age. It is applied by hand and will vary in density on the rims and handles — an antique quality that contributes to its timeless beauty.

From front to back, copy in this catalog is the height of the copywriter’s art. I’m hanging on to my catalog.

Black Box, another perennial winner. Computer cables, connectors, and patch panels aren’t very sexy. Industrial customers don’t want romance; they want clearly stated facts.

So why even discuss the copy in the Black Box catalog, Gold award winner in the Computer, High-Tech Equipment, and Software print catalog category? Not because this catalog is surprisingly bright and cheerful: That’s a layout triumph, and copy is ancillary in that respect. But this catalog is more than a batch of listings. Take the two-page spread headed “Guidelines for choosing fiber optic cable.” This touch of statesmanship is a major confidence builder, bestowing an implicit competitive edge.

Then there are “Fiber Termination Enclosures,” whatever those are. The key headline:

Add only the fiber connections you need — where you need them.

At the same time, callouts clarify items and positioning, where many catalogs would simply use listings.

David’s World Cycle pedals away brilliantly. I have a problem with the Gold print catalog winner in the Syndicated/Co-op category, David’s World Cycle (or it with me), and it affects the copywriting peripherally:

This catalog seems to be designed as a feeder mechanism for the company’s stores. The result is a lack of pricing specificity — and pricing specificity is a major factor in any catalog’s selling power. If the catalog is designed as an in-store handout, I’m puzzled. If it’s mailed, as the address panel suggests, I’m still puzzled, because I see no “Come into our stores” invitation.

But the copy, as copy, is a standout. One of the toughest copywriting tasks is describing a multitude of similar products, giving each one cachet and avoiding the trap of making one look good at the expense of others. David’s World Cycle accomplishes the astonishing task of describing model after model of bicycles, and you don’t have to be Lance Armstrong to grasp the benefits of each one. The copy never lapses into tech talk, and yet the career cyclist can’t ever feel the wording is pitched at a primitive level.

So a Trek bike for (gulp) as much as $7,699.99 justifies its price in a simple heading:

RIDE THE SAME BIKE LANCE RIDES.

An individually fitted women’s bike justifies the notion of this type of customization (the one gap is an unexplained “The ROAD WSD series ranges from $629.99 to $2,229.99,” the latter price being that of the only bicycle pictured) with a heading:

Why a Trek WSD bike is better for you
followed by the unassailable subhead:
Cycling should be a pleasure.
Body copy justifies the truism, beginning:

If cycling’s ever caused you back or hand discomfort, it’s because you’ve probably been too stretched out with too much pressure on your hands. The WSD bikes are proportioned to create a more natural riding position for women. Handlebars are closer to the seat so…

Copy is persuasive, but I’d find it hard to order from this catalog, since almost every bicycle has a “range” of prices; for example, the Fuel EX bike I want costs “from $1,099.99 to $4,949.99.”

Excellent copy, puzzling sell: Day-Timer doesn’t influence your decision. As iconoclast-in-residence, I opine that copy isn’t a major factor in the Day-Timer Holiday Gift catalog, Silver award winner in the Office Supplies, Furniture, and Stationery print catalog category.

What’s the basis for that opinion? First, headings are simple statements of what the item is:

Travel Game Set
Solid Wood Coin Sorter
Business Case
Personalized Memos

Second, some copy restricts itself to straight description, while other copy sells enthusiastically. Note the difference in thrust between the openings of these two copy blocks:

(For the wood coin sorter) This battery-operated coin sorter counts and sorts up to 20 coins at a time. Each coin tube holds a full roll of pennies, nickels, dimes, or quarters. Overflow tray catches coins when tubes are full…

(For the Mindcatcher ballpoint pen) Imagine…a pen that carries a roll of memo paper — right inside the barrel! Just twist the top of the cap to advance the paper, then tear! You’ll never be caught without paper again…

Maybe this cataloger has two copywriters.

American Girl understands the American girl. The tabloid-size catalog won the Silver award in the Children’s Products print category. The operative word to describe this catalog’s copy is “cheerful.”

I admit, cheerfully, I’m not a doll collector. But that character flaw doesn’t keep me from admiring the American Girl presentations, carefully aimed equally at girls and parents. Just one example is a two-page, full-bleed spread showing a stable next to an outdoor setting, replete with appropriate dolls and doll horses. The heading, in what seems to be a hand-drawn font:

Felicity rescues Penny, the horse of her dreams!

One of the copy blocks describes the horse, and the other, Felicity’s Riding Outfit, is both spare and complete:

Won’t Felicity look fine when she goes riding with Penny? Her forest green riding habit has a fitted jacket adorned with gold. A matching skirt is just right for riding sidesaddle, and her three-cornered hat features a plume of feathers.

In the catalog, “jacket,” “skirt,” and “hat” are in boldface, to emphasize the components. (As an aside, I’m not enamored of “features” as a descriptive verb.)

Much ado about something: Celebration of good copy is very much in order, because this is the one element of a winning catalog that doesn’t depend on production.

If yours is a catalog in which you’ve lavished attention on photography, paper, and graceful use of space while the copywriter toiled unnoticed in a creative dungeon, why not add copy to the A list of elements? Then enter your catalog in the Multichannel Merchant Awards competition. I’ll tell the judges to look for it.


Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 30 books, including Asinine Advertising and the just-published Burnt Offerings, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.