Catalog Copy

Sep 01, 2000 9:30 PM  By

Clarity triumphs… as well it should The tumult and shouting have died. The Gold Award winners have their award plaques. Some Annual Catalog Award winners know very well why they won, while others figure, “I guess ours was better than any others in our category.” Well, yes. Rivals don’t usually judge their competition with the same criteria dispassionate judges employ. * Among those who didn’t cart off gold – and I know for certain that many of the judges’ comparative decisions were a hairline apart – it’s difficult for one catalog to understand why another catalog bested theirs until and unless the creative and marketing teams perform a one-against-one analysis of copy, layout, art, production, and all the other elements that entered into the judging.

New Pig Like everybody else in this business, I’m a fan of New Pig, Gold Award winner in the Industrial Supplies category…and that colors my opinion. I admire whoever titled the catalog “Leak & Spill Pigalog.” It’s quotable.

One fear I have with “clever” catalogs is that they’ll let their cleverness interfere with salesmanship. Not so here. Copy is clean, clear, and straightforward. Cuteness ends with the title. Score one for New Pig.

The headings are impressive because they project benefit. Three examples:

- Now, an economical way to filter out harmful metal chips from expensive coolant.

- PIG SKIMMER[R] Socks – tough enough to absorb oil off acid baths.

- There’s a PIG[R] Mat for every job.

Note that the third heading, which by itself could be uninspired self-puffery, is followed by an explanation of how to make a selection. New Pig never leaves the reader dangling and wondering. I think they’re button-happy with the [R] symbol, but they win my heart by not using caps/lowercase, except for product name.

Orvis, The Sporting Tradition Orvis, co-winner of the Gold Award in the Sporting Goods category and the Catalog of the Year, really knows how to lay out a spread. Photos are big and bold, yet one senses the “vintage” sepiatone feeling of the bucolic world of yesteryear. That may be because of the preponderance of browns.

Headlines are no-nonsense: – Warm Weather Shooting Shirt

- Open Prairie Brush Pants

- Lightweight Gokey Upland Boots

- New Passport Wallet in Alligator

Are these the stuff Gold Awards are made of? Oh, they’re prosaic. But reading through the catalog, one senses that’s exactly what they ought to be. Only occasionally, intrusive puff-words such as “fabulous” and “breathtaking” and “remarkable” mar the smoothness of descriptions. Example:

New Harris Tweed Pants These handsome pants are manufactured from genuine Harris Tweed supplied by an age-old Scottish firm. A fabulous mix of tan and camel yarns are twisted and woven into a uniquely Scottish blend that looks at once both casual and rugged, yet polished and sophisticated….

Altogether, the Orvis catalog is a pleasure to view and to read.

Patagonia Patagonia is the other Gold Award co-winner in the Sporting Goods category. Year in and year out, issue after issue, Patagonia sets a marvelous pace, not only in copy and layout but also in concept. The catalog is worth studying by any competitor who wonders where customer interest and loyalty has gone.

One key is an explanatory sidebar, complete with illustration, for each item the catalog regards as either an innovation or one whose benefit isn’t immediately apparent. An example is an Optipull Hood on a stretch jacket. Rather than settle for hit-and-run labeling or the basic description in the copy block, Patagonia doubles the reader’s desire to buy with this separate description:

Optipull Hood Our new, helmet-friendly Optipull Hood is the first to secure at eye level and around the face with a single tug of a drawcord. It’s positioned at the back to keep the neck and chin areas clean and clutter free.

Whether it’s a sprightly description of Synchilla[R] Fleece, made from recycled plastic bottles, or the All-Time Shell, “waterproof, windproof, breathable, steam sealed and…” Patagonia never misses out on an opportunity to convince the reader that its item is unique, unduplicated elsewhere. Combined with photos that are both imaginative and relevant, that’s powerful creative work.

Backroads The Gold Award co-winner in the Wholesale/Dealer category, Backroads has to rank among the three or four most impressive catalogs of the year. From a production point of view, it’s a textbook – full bleed, enamel paper, perfect bound, notched for sections, and page after page of eye catchers.

Copy keeps pace. Just one example of dozens of image-creating descriptions, all equally inviting:

Tuscany Biking Under the Tuscan Sun is Frances Mayes’ tribute to southern Tuscany’s canvas of rolling vineyards, golden wheat fields, woodlands and ancient hill towns. You’ll quickly understand why the region inspired her as you pedal between villages so intimate you’ll experience the sounds and aromas of pranzo – the midday meal – as it’s being prepared inside cottages of ancient stone….

Etera More professionals in our business should know of Etera, Gold Award co-winner in the Wholesale/Dealer category. It’s as close as a catalog can come to being a genuine magalog. In fact, in the best magazine tradition, page 3 offers bios of bylined “contributors,” gardening experts who each get a full page to share tips about their specialty.

The catalog is in the Wholesale/ Dealer category because its statement of purpose says “Etera has supplied the finest professional growers and nurseries for 20 years” (that cliched “finest” reference being the only weak copy in the entire catalog).

I certainly feel confident that it would be a winner in any category. There’s no sense of haste. The reader feels the catalog truly wants to transmit all pertinent useful information. But salesmanship doesn’t suffer. An example is this beginning of a copy- block for a Habitat Garden:

A Haven for Butterflies and Hummingbirds

As pleasing to the eye as it is to its winged visitors, this garden shimmers in scarlet, purple, orange, and yellow. The selected perennials also feature fragrance and special characteristics – lusters of small flowers and tubular forms – essential to drawing your small guests. The Butterfly Bush (Buddleia) and Caryopteris shrubs provide shelter for delicate butterfly wings on windy days….

Except for “also feature,” it’s a wonderful and inviting description.

Black Box Black Box, with which I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship for some years, has reincarnated itself numerous times. This year’s Gold Award winner in the Computer Equipment and Software category has almost 1,200 pages of “cabling and connectivity” items, with color-coding on page edges to make even this massive catalog reader-friendly.

Only the technically literate can appreciate the completeness of individual descriptions. The technique is absolutely sound: bulleted copy to specify features, text copy to suggest competitive benefits. New items are easily singled out because they include a bold “New” icon.

This provocative heading will grab even the most jaded technician:

Develop, test, and demo ISDN products without an ISDN line.

Another, with bright pertinent double entendre one seldom finds in a technical catalog:

Heads up! Mount hubs and routers vertically to save space!

This catalog has come a long way in its journey toward combining completeness and readability.

Mountain Travel-Sobek Aside from being a triumph of production, the Mountain Travel-Sobek catalog is a brilliantly produced travelogue. This Gold Award winner in the Travel category gives as much emphasis to what you’ll see as it does to what you’ll do. The result is an irresistible blend of the real and the imagined, and – assuming list selection is at all valid – that combination has to result in inquiries from individuals who, prior to having this colorful and exotic catalog in hand, wouldn’t have envisioned themselves traveling to the Galapagos Islands or Uganda.

Descriptions also serve as positioning statements, emphasizing the elitist difference between Mountain Travel-Sobek tours and conventional sightseeing. Even more prosaic destinations such Alaska seem to gather additional cachet. Straddled by a striking montage of photographs showing everything from Kodiak bears to towering mountains is the description:

Wild Alaska! Alaska is our biggest state and our own Last Frontier, full of the kind of scenic and wildlife wonders you’d expect from a land that will always remain a bit raw, wild, and unfettered. We wager you’re the type who insists on seeing it up close (and not via a 2,000-passenger cruise ship), so we’ve designed this active trip that takes in many of the star attractions like the Kenai Fjords and Denali National Park, plus a few more that are off the beaten track. By boat and sea kayak, on foot and by raft, and in the company of expert guides, you’ll feast your eyes on the power of Mother Nature, discover the haunts and habitats of Alaska’s wildlife, and come away with a true appreciation of the majesty of our 49th state.

Accolades are due, and we can overlook the “feast your eyes” lapse.

Gall’s Gall’s is the Gold winner in the Business Specialty Products category. Layouts aren’t beautiful, nor should they be. The catalog is a perfect match for its merchandise selection and its target audience (police and fire safety officials).

Outsiders may be nonplused by rhapsodizing over items such as police batons and the surprising variety of automobile light bars. But those at whom this catalog is aimed have to treasure the completeness of descriptions and the detailed explanations of differences between this baton and that one, this light bar and that one.

Visualize the confidence descriptions such as this one will generate:

Pigskin Firewall[R] Gloves Last 4 Times Longer than Leather

Durable Pigskin Gloves are abrasion-resistant – so they last 4 times longer than leather gloves. Even after repeated soakings, they stay soft and flexible. Complete with breathable, liquid proof barrier for bacteria and chemical protection, these gloves meet NFPA 1973-1997 edition standards. Made in USA….

By describing comparative benefits, whether those benefits are durability, special application, or price, Gall’s gives confidence to the buyer. I’ll bet its returns ratio is smaller than most.

Jackson & Perkins The Gold winner in the Gardening category, Jackson & Perkins maintains its venerable tradition of causing flower lovers to salivate at its offerings. Jackson & Perkins long since has mastered the art of floral photography, so primary attention now should go to its ability to describe dozens of roses without ever lapsing into trite, repetitive, or non-descriptive verbiage. Note the rare combination of poetic lyricism and classic catalog tautness:

Fragrant Lace An aroma reminiscent of Victorian-era roses. The tantalizing scent of sun-ripened berries, with a note of sweet antique rose radiates from ruffled, 5-1/2″ blooms….

Even for customers who reside in high-rise buildings, the Jackson & Perkins catalog represents nature at its loveliest, a respite from urban sprawl. For those with room to plant rose bushes, descriptions are an incentive to buy and replace, and that’s what a catalog is supposed to do.

More winners My space limitations already are stretched, which means I can’t offer adequate applause to Williamsburg, Gold Award winner in the Gifts Over $75 and Housewares, Linens, and Furniture categories, which includes such gems as “Columbus discovered something called “pineapple” in 1493. The world hasn’t been the same since” (Why no period at the end of the second sentence?).

Magellan’s, Gold Award winner in Consumer Specialty Products, is one of my wife’s favorites because this catalog not only displays items one seldom sees elsewhere but consistently offers logical arguments to buy them. What a perfect heading for a water carrier/cooler:

“…but by noon, when we finally reached the top of the Acropolis, our water was too warm to drink!” (A true story from a customer.)

Harry and David, a perennial winner, won the Gold in the Food category. Most copy is straightforwardly descriptive, but interspersed are grabbers such as this copy for a gift basket:

We grow the fruit, gather the pinecones and fragrant fir boughs, decorate the baskets and pack them by hand (some of our Master Packers have been with us for over 30 years). Even the boxes we ship them in have beautiful, decorative artwork that makes the gift presentation more special.

What makes a winner? Many categories had no Gold Award winner. That’s because some catalogs, strong in production, are weak in their copy; some, with strong copy, lose impact visually. The combination of visual and rhetorical strength not only is admirable in this dog-eat-dog era, with Web catalogs nipping fiercely at the heels of printed catalogs, it’s mandatory.

To the 2000 Annual Catalog Award winners, a universal salute. To those who didn’t win or didn’t compete, take a look at these and make your plans for next year.