Catalog Copy: You Know What You Mean Do They?

Jun 01, 2002 9:30 PM  By

I’m looking at an upscale catalog. Here’s a wine cooler. The heading: “Our Exclusive Compact Cellar — Now in 2 styles” ▪ Okay, we pay no attention to “2” instead of the more image-enhancing “two” (and a “celler” typo in the body copy) and ask, “What are the two styles?” We scan through some bullet copy. Nothing. Nothing.

Nothing. Ah! For pricing, the two are separated. One is rear-venting, and one is front-venting. The rear-venting model is $100 less. Uh…why is that? Is rear-venting for freestanding and front-venting for a built-in situation?

The company knows. The company assumes we know, too. Even one additional bullet would clarify.

Without clarification, the reader moves on, buying impulse stilled.

Good catalogs are salespeople, not clerks

One reason I’m a member of the Benefit Headline School is the benefit of pitching benefit: You have to clarify, immediately and in front, the why. Why should they buy this? Why is it better? Why will their lives or businesses be better because of having whatever it is?

A catalog I admire, Wind & Weather, generates a buying impulse for items other vendors might simply list. The difference is the basic difference between a salesperson and a clerk. Here, for example, is the heading and first two sentences of what we otherwise would think is a ho-hum clock/thermometer:

Get the Early Morning Report

Before you’re even out of bed, this compact digital alarm clock and wireless thermometer give you important information about the day ahead. Decide what to wear while you’re still lounging around!…

A perennial example of well-constructed “tell them what it’s for” descriptions is Hello Direct. A recent catalog had almost 20 pages of headsets. Confusion? Never, not only because the section began with “Which headset will work hardest for you?” (as opposed to what we might see in a clerk-ish catalog, “Choose the headset that’s best for you”), explaining the benefit of each type, from comfort to noise cancellation…but also because each headset had its own clearly defined “why to buy” rationale.

On the other end — a catalog “clerk” — is a description of bedsheets in a current catalog. This is the complete description:

Beach House

Summer flowers are against red ground 200-thread count sheets and white textured bedding. Gingham and madras accents mix with Madeline matelassé. 100% cotton. Machine wash. USA/Imported.

And that’s it. If you’re asking, “So what’s wrong with that description?” the answer has to be, “Nothing is wrong, if by ‘wrong’ you imply an error. The facts are absolute and accurate. They’re exactly as a clerk would state them.”

Oh, yes, much effective copy subscribes to an “only the facts” philosophy. But such copy, when effective, doesn’t describe emotion-based electives. Just in case that comment isn’t clear, here’s an example. A catalog of “support” aids has, in a spread of support hose, this item:

FUTURO Mild Support

8-15 mm/Hg at ankle

Lightweight and sheer. Stays up without binding. Soft high stretch yarn for good fit. Reinforced heel and toe. Nylon and spandex construction. Specify color: Beige, Black or Taupe (Taupe not available in small) Specify size: Small, Medium or Large. See chart 9-2.

Now, can you see why this description is effective and the description of the bedsheet ineffective? Of course. It’s because the catalog doesn’t have to sell the reader on the idea of buying support hose. It’s implicit in the demographic that received the catalog. On the next page in this same catalog is a more lavish parallel product. Note the inclusion of that magical element, reason to buy, in the description:

Support Plus Mild Support Thigh High Stockings

8-15 mm/Hg

Attractive lace “stay up top” keeps stocking in place all day without slipping. Soft new fabric, fashionable appearance. No one will know this is a medical support product. Nude heel and toe. Specify color: Beige, Taupe, Black or Ivory. Specify size: Small, Medium Large or Extra Large. See chart 10-2.

A customer comes into the store looking for support hose. The clerk, page 9, sells her exactly what she’s looking for. The salesperson, page 10, adds a dimension to create a buying impulse beyond what the customer was looking for.

How much “sell” do you need?

These aren’t kind and gentle times. Every commercial move we make is competitive. The jackals always are snipping at our heels, and our customers are hyperaware that they have a choice of sources. The World Wide Web, with Google and various bots and search engines, has made quick inspection of multiple sources so easy that we already are seeing a backlash against “the cheapest place to buy.”

Printed and online catalogs may have parallel merchandise, but they aren’t parallel marketplaces. Attitude at the moment of purchase is the reason so many catalogers treasure their print-catalog customers above their Web customers. Is it a universal syndrome that print catalog customers are less likely to complain, to return merchandise, and to be one-shot buyers? If so, the blame lies with the medium, not the message.

Online catalogs are necessarily becoming more and more aware of the need to transmit a reason to buy, and to do it quickly. That, certainly, is understandable. Online catalogs live implicitly and automatically in a Murderers’ Row of competition — competition not only from other catalogs but also competition from distractions. Those distractions range from a desire to break away in order to check fresh e-mail to the ease with which a prospective customer can comparison-shop to the predetermined amount of time allotted to being online.

So making a comparison with competitors difficult or impossible, by selling benefit instead of product, is simply a good business strategy. It’s a strategy that makes sense for printed catalogs too…if those catalogs want to regard themselves as salespeople, not clerks.

One facet of marketing is universal: You can’t make a mistake by including a reason to buy…not just what you’re selling but, altogether, from you.


Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 26 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.