Two realities have confronted catalogers since the Internet became a major factor in communications: First, the Web is price driven. And price driving is contagious to the point of being epidemic. Second, a catalog that doesn’t want to succumb to this reality does have a possible counterweapon: image. ▪ Image as such, without the stalwart support of “Why you should buy this,” isn’t going to sell a lot of catalog merchandise. We look back fondly at the days when image really counted — a gift box with the Marshall Field or Neiman Marcus name had cachet. As retailers have moved to the center, Wal-Mart — the ultimate price-driven retailer — has established a new mentality, superimposed on 21st-century marketing.
But that’s retail. Catalogers haven’t ever had widespread image recognition. In its heyday, Sears had a reputation for dependability with its Craftsman tools and Kenmore appliances. So what? Sears catalog buyers weren’t numerous enough to save the big catalog.
Superimposing image onto catalog copy
Here’s an “upscale” catalog of home furnishings. It’s slightly nonstandard in size: 9″ × 10-1/2″. Enamel paper and full bleed, of course, to preestablish the concept of image.
Page 38 (of 76), under a single huge photograph of a bedroom corner:
For truly romantic souls, an ornate collection that is rich in opulent details. Crafted of…
Customers and logical prospects of this catalog excuse “that is” and know even before reaching the price — $1,519 for the Queen Bed, plus $110 shipping, or $1,739 for the King Bed, plus (curiously, less for the bigger one) $100 shipping — these won’t be bargain-basement prices. Rhetoric establishes image.
So, okay. Upscale is established. The Wal-Mart customer isn’t a prospect for this book. And we do see clearly what the items are and what the prices are. But…
How about this one, undated but one I assumed was a pre-Mother’s Day catalog for 2003?
The cover, soylent green in color, has one of those injected-lip female models dressed in a strange peacock outfit. No copy other than the catalog’s name. (If you don’t know whose catalog I mean, you’re out of the Circle.)
Open the catalog: two pages of moiré background, with the only text being a handwritten “Nurture your Nature” on what would be page three if these pages were numbered.
This is the entire text on the next spread, pages four and five:
During this month, we celebrate mothers everywhere — for their love, support, generosity, and unerring ability to remember where we left our sneakers. Their acceptance makes us strive to be the best possible version of ourselves, because a mother knows that, given the right conditions, anyone can blossom.
— Karen Katz
Okay, Karen, whoever you are. On to the heading on pages six and seven: “A Budding Romance — a soap-opera treatment by Hogan Sheffer.” Huh?
I’ll go on with the first sentence of text. Get this:
Word came down from the network that our ratings stunk like dead fish and our demographics were even worse.
This is a catalog?
There’s plenty of room at the top of the catalog heap for upscale sell. But for Web-wise prospects, there isn’t room, in 2003, for look-how-clever-I-am or pomposity. In marketing terms: It isn’t the optimal way to sell.
Don’t get me wrong
I’ve been a customer of the company whose catalog I just assailed for more than 20 years. So why am I attacking this example of a throwback to a time when pomposity did have its place? Because we’re in the middle of the year 2003, and many catalog recipients — obviously including me — have their relative attention ratios tainted by the Web. We regard “Look how oddball I am” covers as nonsense and “Word came down from the network that our ratings stunk like dead fish” annoying. (Incidentally, it should be “stank,” not “stunk.”)
Eventually this catalog shows strange costume jewelry, flour-sack dresses, and oddly displayed items, all with full-page, full-color, oddly unappetizing photos. They spent a ton — no, make that two tons — on a catalog that’s a curio but not a company salesperson. That’s the core of my gripe.
So how does a catalog project “image”?
The touchstone method still works. Here’s a catalog of gourmet foods. Establishing image is as simple as this headline:
Tsar Imperial Caviar.
The emperor of all caviars reigns supreme, only at
[NAME OF CATALOG].
Imperfect and not as regal but certainly salesworthy is workmanlike copy establishing position in a handful of words:
EGG CODDLER, GERMANY
A classic Bauhaus design created by William Wagenfield in 1933. The glass is heat resistant. Dishwasher safe.
Set of two, 3.4″ × 2.6″ $36.
(Why imperfect? Not because the provenance is played up as more important than the structure, a relatively common way of establishing upscale posture; rather, it’s because putting inches into tenths of an inch adds an unnecessary dollop of difficulty.)
Times are tough, many catalogers agree. And how does a catalog compete in tough times? The answer to that question, not intramural ego trips, should dictate how you present your next catalog.
Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 26 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles, Marketing Mayhem, and Effective E-Mail Marketing, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.