The old Sears catalog and the Alden catalog and the Montgomery Ward catalog were all things to all people. What these catalogs have in common is that they’re all extinct. Twenty-first-century marketing psychology laughs at “mass marketing” (even when that’s the intention) and opts instead for “targeting.” Catalogs not only are following that concept; many are leading it. So a savvy description, especially in a consumer catalog, doesn’t emphasize what something is.
Instead, the description emphasizes how perfectly it matches the reader’s demographic/psychographic profile. That’s dangerous territory, because a wrong guess can result in a huge batch of merchandise sitting dead on the warehouse floor.
Who wants a Madras shirt? A Madras shirt isn’t one a guy would wear to the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles. Depending on personal psychology, the prospective buyer who sees a Madras shirt in a catalog thinks “casual” or “comfortable” or “dress-down” or “informal” or “sporty” or “that’s what I wear to work.” The ambience in which the cataloger describes the shirt either matches the individual, educates the individual to a different level (the height of the catalog copywriter’s art), or loses the sale.
Here’s the reborn J. Peterman catalog. The description of the Madras shirt begins with history (East India), then settles on comfort with potent copy: “Traditionally made, exceptionally comfortable cloth, from one of the hottest places on earth, in traditional colors that manage to be both elegant and great fun.”
Maus & Hoffman, whose clientele is largely chiseled from the business community, says, “Our ‘Lago’ Madras Sport Shirt is a refinement of the typical — all the lightweight comfort and rich color of Indian madras in smooth 80’s-count two ply cotton.” You can see a wavering executive thinking, “I won’t lose image by wearing this around the yard.” The word “Lago” isn’t explained, but apparently it’s just a proprietary appellation, because other shirts on the same page are the Colori Cashmere/Silk Polo and the Pietro Cotton Cable Crewneck.
Bobby Jones, a catalog determined to ace the competition in production and product prices, shows two Madras shirts, with a necktie and almost no copy. The entire description: “Woven Cotton Red 563 Yellow 704 1317-018 S-XXL.” Nowhere does the word “Madras” appear, apparently because it would be too proletarian for this catalog.
(J. Peterman’s price is $58 for a long-sleeve Madras shirt, Maus & Hoffman’s $70 for a short-sleeve shirt, and Bobby Jones’s $155 for a shirt that’s folded so the reader can’t tell sleeve length.)
Now, suppose you get all three catalogs, as I did. And suppose you think to yourself, “Hey, I’d like to have a Madras shirt.” Which one would you buy?
Obviously the answer has to be tied at least partially to the laws of economics. But for a moment, assume all the prices are the same. Wouldn’t you buy your shirt from the source you feel best matches your own lifestyle?
From a family rather than individual point of view, home furniture identifies lifestyle more than an individual garment, because we change clothes every day and can redo our appearance based on whether we’re going to a barn dance or a formal party. Furniture is a fast definition to a visitor, and any seasoned furniture salesperson will fold image into comfort to sell a chair, a table, or a lamp.
Catalogs sell lamps based on the cataloger’s own image. For example, home furnishings marketer Ballard Designs has an Apothecary Lamp. In keeping with the catalog’s positioning and the typical upscale customer’s expectation, the description of this lamp begins, “Faithfully reproduced from turn of the century antiques…” and includes carefully chosen descriptive terms such as “aged natural brass.”
Levenger, a catalog marketer of “tools for serious readers,” is aimed at upscale customers with contemporaneous tastes. The catalog heads the description of its two-light Multitask Lamp with total intelligibility: “Light the room and the page.” The wording maintains the clarity, so the reader can’t misunderstand what this is (a recommended way to cut down returns): “Our Multitask Lamp offers incandescent ambient light, via a stationary shaft, for your reading area and a halogen task light, through its movable arm, for the page.”
Grandinroad, a catalog from luxury home products marketer Frontgate, positions its table lamp as state of the art, with the heading “Soothing light in an equally soothing design.” Body copy is heavily hyphenated: “Advanced-technology light source provides soothing, color-balanced illumination. Improved clarity reduces eyestrain and glare. Includes a low-heat, energy-efficient bulb that lasts up to 10,000 hours.”
Which lamp would you buy, assuming you are looking for a lamp and all of them are the same price? Why, you’d buy the one that has you nodding, “Yes, this is my kind of lamp.” (Well, maybe — 10,000 hours is a powerful incentive.)
Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and author of 28 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles and the just-published Asinine Advertising.