Live from NEMOA: Putting the Sell in Creative

Cambridge, MA–The creative departments of catalog companies concentrate too much on esthetics and not enough on showing off merchandising and copy to drive response, Bill LaPierre, vice president, brokerage division of Peterborough, NH-based list firm Millard Group, told attendees of the spring 2005 New England Mail Order Association conference here.

Making a catalog pretty isn’t going to improve sales performance, LaPierre said; a 50% lift in response can be achieved only through merchandising. “Creative changes or tweaking circulation won’t help,” he said. Instead, catalogers should be asking themselves “what are you doing to drive average order in your merchandise, what’s the overall mix, and how does it match with your mission statement, and how does it compare to what your competitors?”

Getting practical about creative means being realistic about what the catalog means to customers and prospects, he said. Once a recipient takes a catalog out of his mailbox, he will most likely only spend 2.5-3 minutes with it. What’s more, 40% of customers read catalogs from back to front, making the back cover and the last pages nearly as critical as the front cover and opening spreads.

In terms of specifics, LaPierre advised catalogers to skip knock-out or reverse type, as well as any other type that is more artful than legible. Serif fonts are more readable than nonserif type, he said, and with baby boomers aging, making the type large enough to be read without squinting is key. In addition, because catalogs are read as spreads, not individual pages, you need to make connections between the products on each page of a spread, thereby telling a story, or “selling a dream.”

LaPierre illustrated his points with critiques of catalogs from Penacook, NH-based bird feeder mailer Duncraft; White River Junction, VT-based baking/cooking supplier King Arthur’s Flour; Burlington, VT-based Gardener’s Supply Co.; and Madison, VA-based “country lifestyle” cataloger Plow & Hearth, which he applauded for a holiday 2004 spread that touted “Hearth cooking is fun for the whole family.” The spread featured 14 products, including a 19.95 hot dog iron, a $29.95 two-prong fork, and a $59.95 8-qt. Dutch oven, that can be used separately or in conjunction to cook over a fireplace. “You can just see yourself sitting around the fire with your family cooking grilled cheese sandwiches during a blackout,” he said.

By contrast, King Arthur, in its holiday 2004 Baker’s Catalogue, erred in not grouping together logical accessories to tell a story, LaPierre said. Instead of offering a $15.95-$19.95 baking mat and $11.95-$17.95 pan along with a $19.95 cooker dough scooper, the company chose to feature a picture of cookie dough being scooped onto a mat with the mat and pan sold next to it, along with copy instructing customers to see another page in the catalog for the scoops. The three products should have been shown together, he said, along with a discount for purchasing all of them together, to encourage the reader to envision an afternoon baking the perfect chocolate chip cookies.

Another creative no-no is copy that doesn’t emphasize the benefits the customer will enjoy after purchasing the product, LaPierre said. Instead of featuring a headline exclaiming, “Spring in December,” on a holiday 2004 opening spread selling long-lasting bulbs, Gardener’s Supply should have opted for copy stressing the benefit of color that lasts for weeks in a succession of blooms over a long period of time.

Sometimes products simply don’t have enough benefit to be featured in the catalog, he said, pointing to a solar-powered footlight that Gardener’s Supply boasts “illuminates up to 5 ft.” LaPierre said that while that may be a big deal for a solar-powered light, it doesn’t sound impressive to customers. He said that the company should have asked itself, “Is this product appropriate for a catalog, because it doesn’t have much benefit compared to the other products being sold?”

When the catalog spread features multiple versions of the same kind of product, as Duncraft made of habit of doing with its bird feeders, then the copy should make a recommendation on which is the best to buy if the customer is going to buy only one. LaPierre said that because the copy made one of the feeders seem like the most value-added choice, that item should have been emphasized: “All the feeders are the same weight, have the same look. If that’s the one you’re recommending, why not blow it up?”

Catalogers also need to be careful depicting “exclusive” items, LaPierre said. Plow & Hearth made a misstep in its presentation of its $60 Original Mokasso, a moccasin similar to those sold in countless other catalogs. He said that instead of featuring accompanying copy that only repeats the name of the product, the catalog should have done more to show how it differs from the nearly identical shoes that can be found elsewhere, especially given its costly price tag.

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