Experiential vs. experimental

Effective catalog copy reaches the reader within his or her experiential background — that pastiche of experiences that becomes an automatic acceptance or rejection of a marketing claim. Trading experiential for experimental is a crap game. Some experiments succeed and others fail. In my opinion, a competitive 21st-century ambience, salted with enough negative experiences to make skepticism oh-so-easy, makes experimental a weak second choice to experiential.

Accidentally chancing upon a huge outdoor grill, in two catalogs owned by the same company but operating under different names, I was struck by the difference in product description.

Catalog A has as its slogan or rationale or whatever, on the cover, “Distinctive Enhancements For Your Home.” Products and thrust are definitely upscale. The headline and subhead for this grill, priced at $2,750:

The World’s Finest Outdoor Grills

Your friends will tell you that you overpaid…until they taste your steaks!

The nondescript main heading raced into high gear with the skepticism-defanging subhead. Body copy reinforces the rationale behind paying $2,750 for a grill.

Catalog B uses the same SKU number, verifying affiliation of the source. This catalog declares itself as aimed at the masculine gender and has a more whimsical thrust. The headline:

The World’s Finest Outdoor Grills are for guys that take BBQ personally

Note the expansion of the Catalog A headline (or the truncation by Catalog A). You may or may not regard the capitalizing as strange. No subhead here, but body copy begins, in key with this catalog’s overall mood, “Gentlemen, start your grilling! This beast of the backyard is made entirely of 304 stainless steel….”

“Beast of the backyard” is inspired. Now, will all those who know the specifics of 304 stainless steel raise their hands? Impressive number, though, isn’t it? Better than “heavy,” isn’t it?

Acatalog dedicated to wry copy has a John Garfield Shirt. Now, that’s guts, because this solid black shirt seems aimed at a customer-demographic that may not have the foggiest idea who John Garfield was. Yep, was, because that actor died in 1952 (under exotic circumstances, so the story goes). Suppose you ask an under-30, “Who was John Garfield?” Expect a blank stare.

Copy describes the shirt as “27mm silk.” Another blank stare, because even a coat of mail isn’t 27-mm thick. So what does it mean? Don’t compare this with 304 stainless steel, which somehow does connect even when we don’t have an identifying clue…because 27mm is a recognizable term, unrecognizable when describing a shirt.

Let’s move back to an ancient question, one with a hoary history that precedes all but the early Sears & Roebuck catalogs:

Which will bring the most response? A crisp, specific listing of what an item is? Or a litany of product benefits?

In today’s “me!”-dominated society, benefits tend to present the most cogent selling argument. That’s why so many contemporary catalogs have adopted a text-for-benefit opening, followed by bullets or ongoing text for features. Oh, eliminating benefits may not kill a sale, whereas eliminating features will kill a sale, especially in a business or industrial catalog. But effective catalog copy should have little trouble including both.

A catalog of items for the kitchen has this heading and first sentence for a roaster-smoker:

This All-Purpose Roaster Is A Smoker Too

This indoor Smoker-Cooker is a fast, clean and healthy way to prepare some of the most delicious meats and foods you’ve ever tasted. Built of thick hand-cast aluminum with a thick non-stick interior, polished thick aluminum lid, insert drip pan, and meat rack, it’s designed to quickly cook food with no smoke loss. Typically 1 to 2 teaspoons of wood chips are all that’s needed and with three containers of wood chips included, that’s enough for plenty of smoking. Simply sprinkle the chips in the bottom of the smoker, insert the drip pan, the meat rack, and your favorite food. Cover and….

A competing catalog has as its total description of a similar item:

COVERED ROASTER AND SMOKER. Hand cast of 99% aluminum to achieve even cooking, the 13-qt. roaster and indoor smoker cooker both feature easy-clean interiors. Smoker cooker (not shown) also includes food rack, drip tray, and starter pack of hardwood. Roaster with lid is shown.

Okay, which one is more likely to stimulate you to buy?

Of course it’s an unfair question, because the first description has more than twice as many words. To level the playing field, suppose we excerpt about 50 words from the first description. Which 50 words would we choose? Did you consider starting with “Simply sprinkle the chips in the bottom of the smoker, insert the drip pan, the meat rack, and your favorite food. Cover and…”? That’s salesmanship.

Here we are, competing not only with other catalogs whose databases and list selections may be even more delicately honed than ours but also with eBay and ubid and Coolsavings and dozens of other Websites.

Might that indicate black-plate changes enabling us to target existing customers one way and prospects another? Might it mandate a different, more immediate and dynamic online message? In the year 2005, the answer is maybe. But just you wait until 2010!


Herschell Gordon Lewis (www.herschellgordonlewis.com) is the principal of Fort Lauderdale, FL-based Lewis Enterprises. Author of 27 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.


Herschell Gordon Lewis is among the many catalog, e-commerce, and multichannel experts who will be speaking at this year’s Annual Catalog Conference, co-sponsored by Catalog Age and the Direct Marketing Association, May 23-25 at the Gaylord Palms Resort in Orlando, FL. He will also be copresenting the Annual Catalog Awards and I.Merchant Awards luncheon on May 25. For further information, visit www.catalogconference.com or call 800-927-5007.

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