Great copy isn’t limited to the Award winners

Nov 01, 2000 10:30 PM  By

Most catalogers don’t have the opportunity to see the work of their competitors or confreres that won Gold Awards in this year’s Annual Catalog Awards competition. If they entered the competition, they either take the judges’ word that the winners were indeed superior, or they don’t. – As a nonjudge, I have the delightful opportunity to offer my own list of the best and worst, in the January issue of this distinguished chronicle. And I have another edge: I don’t know who entered and who didn’t.

Let’s look at a few comparisons. Some of the unhonored catalogs that cross my desk have truly superior copy…while others aren’t in the same league with the winners.

Which would win, head-to-head? For example, Backroads was a Gold winner this year. This is the opening of the catalog’s description of its biking tour in New Zealand’s South Island:

Picture the Oregon coast on one side and the Tetons on the other, without a stoplight all day,” said Conde Nast Traveler of the South Island’s West Coast.

Dispassionately, compare that opening with this one for a similar biking tour from a Backroads competitor, Butterfield & Robinson:

Moment: Leaving your bike by the Tasman Sea and walking rain forest footpaths to a massive glacier, its incongruous chill rising as mist in the humid air

Butterfield & Robinson has an annoying habit of omitting final punctuation, but this opening is just as poetic and even more action-oriented than that of the winning catalog. Once past the openings, copy in the two catalogs differs widely. Backroads remains lyrical, while Butterfield & Robinson switches to no-nonsense descriptions of day-by-day activities, again marred by lack of final punctuation. Why does it do that?

Does size matter? Black Box won a Gold for a remarkably readable catalog that runs about 1,200 pages. This computer cataloger replaced the usual dry descriptions with headings such as “Cable management and stress relief all in one!” and “Why stack your servers? Rack `em up!”

A semicompetitor, Cyberguys!, isn’t as totally b-to-b as Black Box. One would expect equally informal headings. No. Headings are pure product: “Western Digital UDMA Hard Drives”; “Dual Channel IDE Controller Card”; “Mobile Copyholder Doubles as Clipboard.” Nothing wrong with these, and many catalogs prefer straightforward, unembellished headings. In the Internet era, I don’t. But I cheerfully offer that as an opinion, not as a fact.

Cashing in on historicity Williamsburg won a Gold Award, at least in part because of headings such as this, for a mirror: “Queen Anne at her best”…followed by text that begins

Even after admiring the Queen Anne style for 50 years – unable to keep your eyes off her cabriole legs, her silent curves, her suggestive carvings, her evident hankering, though, for simplicity above all – one cannot ever get enough of her. This mirror is so strongly Queen Anne at her best, it’s nothing but a simple rectangle. But wait a minute…what’s that little curvy effect going on at the top?

Yes, the lengthy first sentence is tough slogging, but the text is convivial, never descending into pomposity. We get the feeling that we know and appreciate the Queen Anne style.

Another history-oriented catalog, The American Historic Society, is more collectibles-oriented than Williamsburg. Its copy is fact-based rather than romantic. An example is the heading “The Legend of the Franklin Half Dollar,” followed by text that begins “When the Franklin Half Dollar was introduced in 1948, it was the first time a person other than a President had been featured on a U.S. coin.”

Uh…well, I dunno. Depends on what you mean by “person.” We had Indian-head pennies in the last century and nickels in the first half of this century. And silver dollars never had a president’s image. But that historical half-claim isn’t as significant, from a selling-copy point of view, as the weak premise itself. Score one for the Gold Award winner.

Eden revisited Etera won a Gold Award in the Wholesale/Dealer category, but it’s a gardener’s catalog, with the subhead “Products for Gardeners.” Lyrical headlines such as “A Quiet Palette of Pastels” (exquisite!) lead into surprisingly no-nonsense, textbooklike text:

Flowering in this garden, comprised of pastel- and white-flowering plants, will begin early, with the Lavender and Columbine, and end with the Aster `Woods Pink.’

A competitor, Gardener’s Supply Co., seems to be considerably more reader-friendly. Typical headings: “Our self-watering planters just won’t dry out.” “A triple whammy to get rid of the dreaded Japanese beetle.” “Rain-Loving Bullfrog Transforms Boring Downspouts.” Except for the uneven caps/l.c. decisions, I’d score one for this challenger, with the disclaimer that it’s more consumer-aimed than Etera.

A third catalog in this category, Gardens Alive!, is the most promotional of this group: “Enjoy beautiful lawns with less watering, weeding & worrying!” The ampersand damaged my enthusiasm for this catalog, which really isn’t parallel with Etera because it’s totally consumer-oriented. But its copy is the most readable of the three. An example: The heading “Why Lawns Alive! is the best thing you can feed your lawn” is followed by potent text, the first two sentences of which are “Chemical fertilizers, those big bags sold in every garden center and discount mart, give plants a quick but short-lived boost. Their chemical salts drive the life out of your soil, until the soil is worn out.” We want to keep reading.

Challenges for Patagonia Patagonia, one of my love-to-read favorites, was this year’s Gold winner in the Sporting Goods category. This catalog has long been renowned for superb copy. The heading “Back Bowl Anorak” is followed by text that begins “Pull this out of your pack when the shadows get long, the peaks turn pink and your snowboard gets heavy.” Unbeatable? Compare it with others in this category.

TravelSmith is a worthy competitor. A typical headline, “The Air-Conditioned Tailwind Shirt – Worn by the World’s Top Travel Guides” (what’s with this “no period at the end” cult?) is followed by “Here’s the next best thing to carrying a personal fan when you’re traveling in sun-baked locales from the Galapagos to the Aegean.”

Tilley Endurables, a long-time favorite, has gone uptown, and in my opinion the image suffers. Much of the copy has become plain vanilla. The first pages, glorifying the famous Tilley hat, retain the exuberant flavor. Then, just a few pages in, the happy mood gives way to ho-hum standardized descriptions. For example, the heading “Tailored Jacket” is followed by clear but un-Tilley-like text:

This fully-lined, four button jacket features a clean, contemporary silhouette with high-notched collar and gently-tapered princess line. Dry cleaning recommended.

Sportif USA has copy that puts the others to shame. Every copy block makes the reader want to buy, and that has to be the ultimate way of keeping score. Just one example: Under the heading “White Water Sport Short” is text that begins

Always buy the best, I thought as I came up for a breath watching my new canoe tumble down the river ahead of me. Pretty tough for fiberglass. Lucky I’m wearing my new shorts…at least my car keys are safely tucked away inside my Velcro back pockets. Now…where the heck is my paddle?

My vote goes to Sportif USA. Just one puzzlement: We never discover who the “I/my” spokesperson is.

Copy is just one factor in determining Gold winners. Even more significant is entering the competition. If yours is a catalog you deem worthy of an Annual Catalog Award, the only way to find out what others think is to enter it next year. You may have a happy surprise.