In living color

Tiffany & Co. is the acknowledged master of color as a marketing tool: Its signature shade of turquoise represents the brand as much as its elegant logo does. But having your catalog associated with a specific hue isn’t the only way to use color as a critical element in your overall marketing plan.

Ideally the catalog creative team should use color for both esthetic and practical purposes, says Carol Worthington-Levy, a creative services partner with San Rafael, CA-based catalog consultancy Lenser. All too often in an attempt to create art, she says, designers overlook the primary mission of the print catalog: to sell product.

“The right color elements can make your merchandise look elegant and valuable,” Worthington-Levy says. “While the wrong color — or too much or too little — can make it look cheesy or just plain unappealing.” The human eye is conditioned to recognize colors that don’t “belong,” she explains. So for a cataloger specializing in dark wood furniture, a subdued palette would work better than flashier and brighter colors.

The New York-based Color Association of the U.S. provides color consulting services for manufacturers, graphic and interior designers, and marketers. Director Margaret Walch cites two merchants of home furnishings for children, Land of Nod and Pottery Barn Kids, as having improved their use of color in their catalogs.

Land of Nod had been “more centered on traditional children’s pastels in the past,” Walch says. It has since implemented a palette featuring more cleaner colors such as light blues, purples, and yellows. Pottery Barn Kids’ original earth-toned palette had reflected the core brand. To appeal to its younger audience — and of course to the audience’s parents — it also uses cheerier shades as well as metallic hues. “Both companies created welcoming looks that are just more fun,” Walch says.

Get out your color wheels

It’s one thing to know the importance of color choices in your catalog. It’s another to select and use the optimal colors to their advantage. Here’s some advice to help you turn theoretical suggestions into actionable improvements:

Establish your color palette

Niles, IL-based Hammacher Schlemmer, which specializes in high-tech gifts and gadgets, uses subdued colors as the background for most of its covers, and it silhouettes the majority of its product shots against white space for a traditional appeal. Kathleen Brust, an art director with Hammacher Schlemmer, says that the color menu you choose should reflect your company’s identity. If you’re a new company, you should begin to establish that identity by repeated rounds of testing.

“Since we are decidedly more traditional than some of our competitors, we do use muted background colors often,” says Brust. “The muted background tones complement the featured items well and make them pop more.”

One such competitor is San Francisco-based Sharper Image Corp. It often uses black for the background of its catalog covers and photographs many of its products against almost-fluorescent green and blue backdrops. As a result, Sharper Image comes across as somewhat edgier and younger.

Beware “the hobgoblin of little minds.”

That would be Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “foolish consistency.” It’s one thing to edit your color choices. It’s another to slavishly adhere to them when doing so doesn’t best suit the products or the message. And practically speaking, some products may clash with or fade away against your chosen palette.

Say you’ve established certain shades of blue as key cover colors, but the product you wish to highlight features those same hues. In that situation, Worthington-Levy says, you need to change either the cover product or the background color, all the while keeping in mind the primary purpose of your catalog: to sell. Even the now-famous Tiffany blue may have originally been chosen simply to provide a strong contrast to the diamond and pearl jewelry the company sells.

Now let’s say a certain shade of maroon as cover background has worked really well for you. Shouldn’t you use that same color — and similar cover design, for that matter — for all of your catalog issues?

No, says Worthington-Levy. Unless you mail only one or two editions a year, “you have to change the background color and move elements around,” she says. “Finding ways to make the same products look different is key.”

And because all audiences are heterogenous to some degree, it’s important to offer some variety in your color selection. For instance, the blues, grays, and beiges that dominate Hammacher Schlemmer’s color selections are generally considered “masculine.” So to ensure that female consumers don’t feel shut out, the catalog sometimes features “feminine” touches such as a rosy hue of orange that Brust calls “blush.”

Understand the importance of white space

White space is critical to directing eye flow and ensuring that each product on a page gets its fair share of reader attention. Ensuring the ideal balance requires you to take into account copy as well as graphics. Breaking up information into digestible chunks, using benefit-driven subheads and strong headlines, and avoiding the appearance of overly verbose product descriptions are just as important as how you size and position your graphics.

Remember that color can be subjective

Sometimes designers make color choices based on something as simple as “I like blue but not green,” says Tom Campbell, creative director of Quad Creative, the design element of Sussex, WI-based printer Quad/Graphics. To avoid allowing personal taste to dictate color choices, designers need to focus on the functions of the colors as much as on the colors themselves. For instance, “color can be used most effectively as a navigation tool,” says Campbell, “and to categorize multiple layers of information.” In that case, the decision to use bars of color along the page headers to correspondent to the colors used to identify the product categories listed in the front-of-book index is more important than which hues are ultimately used.

Test, and test, and test

This advice applies to just about every other facet of direct marketing, so why wouldn’t it apply here as well? As Hammacher Schlemmer’s Brust says, the more testing you do, the more options you give yourself to succeed. Your audience may react more strongly to certain color combinations or backgrounds than you could have anticipated — which you’ll never know unless you test.

Don’t cease to pursue the ideal balance of familiarity and freshness

Used effectively, your choice of colors from book to book can keep your catalog consistent enough that your customers stay connected to the brand identity you’ve built but also fresh enough that people feel they are seeing new, exciting offerings. “This,’ says Worthington-Levy, “is the very essence of marketing-driven catalog design.”

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