Creative That Packs a Punch

If your catalog business can’t do better, skip this article. (And call Catalog Age…they’ll want to do a cover story on you!) But if you think you can improve performance — and that creative can play a role — read on. Even if you’re doing well, you probably could do better…maybe a lot better.

The leading creative opportunity for many mailers is to produce a catalog that is more entertaining and easier to shop from. If you doubt this, sit behind the mirrors of a focus group. Many shoppers find catalogs difficult to shop from or just plain boring: “Where’s the copy that sells this product?” “Can I wash it? I won’t buy anything I can’t wash.” “I wonder if they have more on their Website?” “Who is this catalog from, anyhow?”

If your catalog pages don’t provide the answers to these types of questions — at a glance — there is no question that you’re missing selling opportunities. Happily, a number of catalog design techniques can help you create a more powerful book:

  1. Make sure that the covers compel the recipient into the catalog.

    You most likely already know the basics: Make certain that your masthead/logo is in the clear and immediately apparent. If you need a tagline, use one. Don’t make the recipient guess who sent this catalog.

    To get your cover to work harder, use it to highlight important information such as the number of new products, sale items, or any special services you offer. Make sure that these offers are apparent and attention-getting. And don’t be afraid to be dramatic on your front cover. You’re competing for attention in the mailbox, and drama and differentiation will help you stand out.

    Plan a strong back cover as well, since as often as not it’s the first thing the recipient sees when looking through his mail. The back cover should immediately convey what’s in the catalog. Make sure the product category is different from what you’ve put on the front cover. As prime real estate, the back cover is also a great place for best-sellers and “trial” items.

  2. Use the first spread to answer questions and move readers inside.

    Ask yourself:

    • Does the opening spread grab the reader?
    • Are your company’s positioning and product line apparent?
    • Does the spread represent a professional company?
    • Does it say how easy it is to shop from the catalog, and is there an assortment of services and a guarantee to back up that promise?
    • Is it friendly?
    • Is it interesting?
    • If you have many product categories, is there a table of contents to help the customer shop?

    Many catalogs don’t bother with all of this on the opening spread. They opt for either a dramatic creative presentation or a high density of product. “Information about ordering and services is already on the order form,” they say.

    Though that may well be true, if service is a key component of your positioning (à la L.L. Bean), make this clear from the beginning. More important, if prospecting is a key goal, providing service information up front is just one more way of putting prospects at ease about making an initial purchase.

  3. Use universal signals.

    Creative people like new and different treatments. They equate it to better creative. Reinventing the wheel, however, can lead to confusion.

    For instance, consumers know to look for page numbers, Web addresses, and phone numbers at the bottom of catalog pages. Yet I see catalog pages with page numbers on the top or even (gasp!) in the middle of the outer sides of a page — right where a reader’s fingers hold a catalog!

    Along the same lines, place headlines on the top of pages. Headlines in the middle of a page are disruptive and are never read as comprehensively. And whenever you have a choice, put copy blocks under a photograph like a caption, not above it, and when using icons, stick with meaningful emblems that readers can understand at a glance. Stay away from triangles, stars, and unusual symbols that require a legend to be understood.

  4. Be kind to your customers’ eyes!

    Isn’t the baby boomer the most productive target customer for many of us? So why do so many art directors opt for reverse type or type that’s as small as seven points — type that’s tough for middle-aged eyes to make out?

    It’s true that smaller type may feel more upscale. But the fact is bigger type is easier to read. If it needs to look more upscale, consider a different font rather than a smaller point size.

    You need to take into account your customer, your offer, and your positioning when you choose type size. Even factors like paper choice (matte won’t reproduce as crisply as gloss) and print process (gravure produces softer edges than offset) should be taken into consideration.

    As a general rule, I like nine-point type; I think it is readable and doesn’t look cheap. But type treatment, font selection, and leading (the space between lines) all affect appearance. Some art directors feel that serif type (type with “tails” on the ends of certain letters, such as the font used here) looks dated; however, serif type scores higher in comprehension than sans serif type in reader tests.

    Black type is the easiest to read and should certainly be used for body copy. Color headlines may be catchy, but if they’re out of register, they’re going to look blurry. I also think too much color type can take away from color messages and icons on the page, as well as from the product itself.

    Another thing to avoid is wide copy blocks. It’s easier to read a column that’s one-third-page wide than a copy block that’s one-half-page wide.

    Steer clear of hard-to-read reverse type. (If you must use it, make sure it’s a point size bigger than the other type, so that it’s more readable.) And never use vertical type; it is impossible to read.

  5. Create interest with good pacing.

    Pacing is part science and part art. Your catalog should be designed like the most popular person at a party: exciting, fun, interesting, full of surprises, and maybe a bit sexy. This treatment will encourage your reader to spend more time with your catalog and create a mood that is conducive to buying.

    Here are some suggestions that will boost your catalog’s popularity:

    • Use feature and subfeature shots throughout the book. They create interest and movement for your customer while calling attention to key items.

    • Use meaningful headlines to pull product together on a page or across a spread.

    • Vary your layouts from spread to spread; don’t put things in the same place every time.

    • Use bullets, call-outs, and other icons and treatments to help explain product; they add interest to the shopping experience.

    • If appropriate, call out prices or information within the artwork.

    • Use charts to explain or compare products.

    • Use editorial shots or copy to add interest and authority, without compromising product density.

  6. Organize for an easy shopping experience.

    One of the biggest consumer complaints about readability is that a catalog “is all over the place.” My experience tells me that a lack of organization is one of the main reasons a consumer will abandon a catalog that may contain relevant product. Retailers spend considerable time anylzing store traffic patterns to improve layouts; catalogers need to spend time and energy improving the organization of their books. This can immediately increase sales.

    When you hear readers say “I don’t know where to start” or “my eyes don’t know where to go,” they’re talking about a problem with eye flow, the natural viewing paths of the eyes. When design (or lack of design) breaks that eye flow, the process becomes difficult and unpleasant and the reader may become frustrated or bored.

  7. Use editorial to support your position and create authority.

    Be they blurbs, imagery, testimonials, or articles, editorial content can create interest and a sexiness in your catalog. Look at how Williams-Sonoma has built a business in part by “giving away” recipes in its catalogs. People actually save catalogs for those recipes — and buy the necessary products to make them. The Baker’s Catalogue and Penzeys Spices follow suit as well as provide information on relevant subjects, such as vanilla and yeast.

    A good example of using editorial photography to support positioning is The Territory Ahead. This apparel catalog has always used location imagery to add interest and build brand. Speaking of photography, travel products marketer TravelSmith does a wonderful job with demonstration photography that is both clever and meaningful. You wouldn’t doubt the strength of a suitcase that an elephant is standing on…or the space-saving features of clothing that is stacked side to side with “the other brand.”

    Editorials needn’t take up a lot of space. Most catalogs can add them without diminishing product count. But they do have to be frequent enough so they feel like part of the catalog. They have to be planned, regular, and not an afterthought.

  8. Do something different or new.

    Catalogs get noticed when they take a risk and break away from the mundane. But before you go wild, keep in mind that differentiated executions must support your positioning, build brand, help (not hinder) performance, and be repeatable.

Many catalogers have done a great job of developing differentiated elements in their creative presentations. The key is that it’s not creative for the sake of creative…it needs to support or reflect the positioning so that it is not easy to copy. Otherwise, it just becomes a very easy-to-copy creative technique.

Glenda Shasho Jones is president of Shasho Jones Direct, a New York-based catalog consulting firm, and author of The Identity Trinity: Brand, Image and Positioning for Catalogs, published by Catalog Age.

When Bad Design Happens to Good People

No matter how well intentioned, if your creative resources can’t give you organized and easy-to-understand creative that is also exciting and beautiful, it’s time to make changes or move on. Good creative is a combination of hard work, attention to detail, application of appropriate techniques, and talent. Not everyone can do it. The best catalog designers are not only talented, they also understand marketing as a driver for their work. They are able to look beyond design for the sake of design; they understand that proven creative techniques can affect business performance. To develop a strong catalog business, it is imperative to have this kind of talent in place.

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