Lifestyle: The next big thing

In the late ’80s, “niche marketing” was the name of the game; in the ’90s, “branding” became the magic buzzword. As we approach the 21st century, look for “lifestyle marketing” to become the latest merchandising strategy catalogers use to captivate their customers. n Lifestyle marketing is hardly a new concept-in fact, “lifestyle” has been bandied about by marketers for more than a decade as a demographic tool to help better define customers. But we’re seeing more catalogs that rely less on highly defined niches or strong brands and more on selling goods across several product categories under one title to suit a customer’s taste and style preferences.

The Sundance catalog is one of the earliest examples of a lifestyle marketer. Launched in 1989, Sundance promotes Robert Redford’s viewpoint in its hand-crafted home decor, apparel, and accessories with traditional Southwestern themes and earth-friendly values. Through its merchandise selection and creative presentation, Sundance evokes a sense of being in a particular locale-in this case, Utah’s Sundance Valley-which is the aspirational quality most definitive of a lifestyle book.

Three years ago, Tzabaco introduced its lifestyle catalog, which targeted the gay male community with products spanning several merchandise classifications: apparel, gifts, and home goods. This past March, apparel and home decor catalog Anthropologie (an outgrowth of the Anthropologie stores owned by Urban Outfitters) arrived on the scene, targeting upscale young women. Anthropologie’s eclectic product mix includes merino wool sweaters, hand-beaded Victorian lampshades, Italian leather sofas, undergarments, a variety of costume jewelry, and antique doorknobs. With products inspired by the cultures of Europe, India, and the Far East, the book reflects a high-end yet very hip lifestyle.

Even upscale cataloger/retailer Abercrombie & Fitch is shedding its conservative image to create a younger lifestyle brand with its A&F Quarterly magalog, which launched in July 1997. Peppered with editorial about campus trends, A&F Quarterly captures the college student lifestyle.

Brand backlash? After years of conventional wisdom dictating that catalogers must target a specific niche to develop a strong brand, why would some mailers risk diluting their punch by selling customers everything from pea coats to pillowcases?

Blame it on a brand backlash. To be successful in the early ’90s, a catalog had to speak with authority to its market segment via a clearly defined merchandise mix. Catalog marketers such as Williams-Sonoma and The Sharper Image started out as mail order distribution channels, but evolved into brands. For example, Williams-Sonoma’s Catalog for Cooks has come to be synonymous with the best in each category of kitchen tool it offers, while high-tech cataloger/ retailer The Sharper Image touts innovation and product development to reinforce its brand as a purveyor of cutting-edge technology.

On the other hand, high-ticket apparel mailer J. Peterman started out in the ’80s as a lifestyle marketer of “hard to find” garments and accessories that have a “factual romance” to them, and has since become a brand. The cataloger defines its brand through its catalog creative, which uses a distinctive voice and design approach.

But while branding has been key for many catalogs-including launches from Disney and Coca-Cola-it’s no longer the bellwether of catalog success. For one, developing a brand is no longer unique, but rather a strategy employed by most savvy catalog marketers. Even start-ups are looking to create instant brand awareness. For instance, Logical Living, a housewares book launched this year, takes a branded approach to marketing. From its opening spread promoting commercial-grade, multifunctional products to its inclusion of useful household tips and schematics to help readers organize their homes, the catalog fulfills the promise of its tag line “Products to Make Your Home Run Better” with a branded authority.

Moreover, the overemphasis on branding has brought about the evolution of the “antibrand.” There’s evidence of a brand backlash in the “buy global, think local” school that speaks to patronizing your local coffee shop rather than Starbucks, or a neighborhood bookstore instead of Barnes & Noble. Certainly the brand name on a pair of jeans hasn’t nearly the same impact as a decade ago.

Witness the birth of the Simple athletic shoe, a retro sneaker introduced a few years ago at the Atlanta Sporting Goods Show. In an environment replete with brand names like Nike and Reebok, Simple sold 20,000 units of its ’70s style sneaker. Likewise, cataloger The Territory Ahead has built a $30 million-plus business in menswear based on a sense of style and a quality product without touting anyone else’s label. True, the company has developed its own brand of clothing, but the merchandising, creative, and editorial promote the goods as quality casual apparel in which to enjoy the great outdoors, pushing lifestyle rather than label.

Keeping ahead of competitors In a marketplace rife with choices, the definition of a catalog-appropriate product-an item that is hard to find, is appropriately priced, fits well with the product that surrounds it, and is appealing in a photograph-is still valid. But a catalog built on this product premise alone may well struggle today.

Moreover, the intense competition for market share has driven traditional retailers to improve their offer-be it through point-of-sale database development, the advent of increasingly compelling catalogs to drive store traffic, or the creation of destination retail locations, such as Recreational Equipment Inc.’s and The Discovery Channel’s flagship stores. Category killers such as Home Depot and Office Max, as well as outlet malls and discounters, are also vying for market share. And with the advent of infomercials, direct response TV shopping, and the quickly evolving world of Internet shopping, the novelty and convenience of mail order shopping are no longer unique.

Indeed, today’s consumer is bombarded with a vast selection of product offerings available through a variety of shopping channels. But as we are able to learn more about our customers through database marketing, we can get a better idea of how they live their lives-what they like to wear to parties, hang on the wall for decoration, give to others as gifts-and we can put together product offerings in creative presentations that suit those needs. For instance, running lifestyle segmentation on your house file can reveal your customers’ hobbies, sports preferences, vacation choices, and other useful information.

The adage of not trying to be all things to all people still applies-the demise of Sears’s “big book” catalog and the ongoing troubles of general merchandise cataloger Spiegel are proof of that. But as it gets harder to find customers and more expensive to prospect, it makes sense to market a lifestyle and sell the merchandise your customer wants through a single catalog title.

Indeed, in the 21st century, you may find that lifestyle is the defining factor that keeps you one step ahead.

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