Mailer Takes a Creative Meeting

This month our reviewers take a meeting with Marco, a Harrisburg, PA-based cataloger of supplies and accessories for meeting and event planners. Critiquers Charlene Gervais, president of Chicago-based agency The Chicago Catalog Group, and Sarah Fletcher, creative director of Charlestown, RI-based consultancy Catalog Design Studios, evaluated Marco’s 2004 Summer Product Guide.

REVIEWER NO. 1: CHARLENE GERVAIS

At 88 pages, Marco’s catalog of meeting supplies and promotional items is well stocked with a wide line of products. This extensive offering and competitive price points, as well as the fact the company actually has a catalog in a field where relatively few exist, help establish Marco as a leader. But as with everything else in life, there is room for improvement. Some changes could make this book not only easier to use but also easier on the eyes.

People do judge a book by its cover…

The front cover features “Marco’s $5 meeting makeover,” with before and after pictures of a harried woman transformed by Marco products. This shows personality and a touch of humor, but the poorly lit subject and the busy background fail the concept. I recommend professional photography and strong art direction for a high-impact, successful cover.

Marco’s logo has the company’s name spelled out horizontally and vertically, sharing the letter “r” and set in a circle. I find that round logos are typically difficult — they always seem too big or too small. This one gets lost on the cover, along with the company’s branding opportunity. While a complete redesign of the logo may not be feasible, a masthead version could be developed that falls in line with Marco’s brand identity and makes a more prominent statement on the cover. The new nameplate should include the tagline as well, to reinforce the catalog’s purpose and content.

The highlighted products at the bottom of the front cover do a good job of directing the reader inside the book. The phrase “Under budget!” in a subhead will certainly catch the attention of meeting planners.

From chaos come orders?

Marco uses space throughout the catalog to communicate the benefits of the product and sell the company. Several pages show the products in use, and the models add interest to the catalog. The company also uses cross-selling techniques and consistently presents the product specifications and order charts. Marco is doing many things right.

The main improvements needed for the catalog’s interior are visual and organizational. The pages tend to be cluttered, making the products difficult to find, difficult to differentiate, and just plain difficult to look at.

Let’s start with the opening spread, which is visually chaotic. All the elements have equal weight and are very small, leaving nothing to stand out and no starting place. This creates a confusing presentation that readers could bypass rather than try to figure out. A well-designed layout with balance, flow, and interest should be created to draw in readers.

The content needed to brand the company and educate the reader is all there in the opening spread. We have the requisite letter from the president, important ordering information, and a customer testimonial. There’s also a “Don’t miss these new products!” section that directs the reader inside.

But page 3 shows two products in their entirety, complete with ordering charts and specifications. It is not clear why these items are featured here. They crowd the page, and since they don’t fit organizationally, they should be moved inside. We would then have space to expand the new-products section, giving it more impact and using its weight to create a more balanced, visually interesting layout.

Marco also has an alphabetized mini-index. The alphabetization is of questionable service because it is so limited — an index should be a complete, thorough guide. Because this is a large catalog, Marco should consider adding an expanded index in the back of the book. In this index, products should be listed under every name used in the industry to make it very easy for time-crunched customers to find what they are looking for.

Although some are better than others, the products pages overall look much too busy. It is not necessary to reduce the product density — the same information can be presented differently, and more effectively. Specific recommendations include:

  • Tighten headline type

    Marco uses the product name as the main headline and a subhead to state the benefit of each product. The main headlines are “tracked” or stretched out, and bold caps are used, so that the head and subhead read like two eye charts rather than a single unit. A tighter and more legible treatment that ties the headline and the subhead together would result in a neater product presentation.

  • Showcase hero product

    On most pages, all of the products are given nearly equal weight. Giving more prominence to top sellers to create lead products on each page would greatly improve the flow of the book, make it more interesting to read, and generate a bump in sales.

  • Improve photography

    Marco should strive for more consistency in style, lighting, and propping. Shooting similar items at similar angles helps make the page appear less busy. If an item is inherently busy, crop out unnecessary information, or style it in a cleaner way to simplify the shot.

    For example, the catalog spread selling neck wallets pictured to the left is full of neck cords that look like black scribbles against the white background. Rolling or bundling the cords neatly would create a cleaner, more organized layout.

  • Recall the callouts

    Marco uses a great number of gradient blue bars and boxes to deliver callouts and other information. Some of these are fairly large and compete with the product, which should always be the hero. Marco should redesign them so that they attract attention but aren’t so intrusive that they overshadow the products and the headlines.

REVIEWER NO. 2: SARAH FLETCHER

Right away, I’m not fond of this front cover. The quick read for me is that the woman was assaulted or had a heart attack and was somehow transformed into an angel — complete with a glowing halo of light — all thanks to Marco. Since Marco is also a man’s name I found myself wondering if she was attacked by Marco or saved by Marco? The logo is also a cross, made from the name “Marco,” which adds a bit of idolatry to the mix. I found the whole thing disturbing.

Once I read the headline “Marco’s $5 meeting makeover” it became more clear that it was a before-and-after treatment rather than an emergency situation. This is so utterly overdone that it distracts from the message rather than reinforcing it. Though meeting and promotional products are important, they simply aren’t dramatic enough to warrant unbuttoned clothing and panicked last gasps. The subhead of “The difference that gets noticed!” is great, but the photo that gets noticed is the poor woman clutching her chest and trying valiantly to keep her blouse from falling open.

I would like to see a stronger logo treatment that has the logo set off from the background, along with a brand positioning statement. Page 2 and the back cover have the line “Where Superior Service and Quality Products Meet,” which works. But it would be stronger if it contained a claim such as “first,” “best,” “number one in,” or something of the sort as well as highlighting Marco’s key competitive advantage; selection, price, service, quality, etc.

Changing the red tabs above the smaller product offerings on the cover would help. “Under budget!” would get more attention as “save money.” “Visibility” doesn’t have as much sell as “exclusive items.” “Identification” could be changed to “wide selection.”

Visual hierarchy is probably the single most important factor in creating a good quick read for the customer. In the case of this catalog, too many elements compete for the reader’s attention. The creative team and the merchants need to determine what the most important elements are and rework the spreads accordingly. The first thing that draws the eye should be the most important.

On the opening spread, the index is taking up the most valuable real estate. I would move it to the left and let the products have that space. The rays or tails on the orange and purple bursts do nothing but confuse. I would get rid of them.

I like the “Request a FREE sample” offer. Unfortunately the red type on blue is very difficult to read. Better organization and a grid would help this spread a great deal.

Keep an eye on eyeflow

One of the biggest problems I had with this catalog is eyeflow, or the lack thereof. The overuse of bars, bands, and banners combined with products that are silhouetted and not substantial leaves nothing to anchor the eye. As a result, the eye bounces along rather than reads.

When opening a catalog, the typical customer starts in the upper right corner of a spread. The elements on the page will determine where his eye goes from there. Therefore it is important to provide a good flow so that one element leads to the next and the eye moves easily around the page. Too many bright elements or pages without a visual hierarchy pull the eye in multiple directions, creating bounce. This is tiring and reduces the amount of time a reader will spend on a page. Making some of the product shots “square ups” (boxed images rather than silhouettes) would have helped create visual anchors.

The biggest no-no I found was that some of the prices were floating in open areas rather than consistently appearing after the product copy. This lack of consistency makes shopping feel like a puzzle, and many confused customers will simply turn the page.

Product names are tough to read quickly because they are in bold capital letters, with the letters tracked out so that there is extra space between them. Typography that pulls together rather than spreads out would help the reader navigate. Initial caps rather than all caps would be a better choice.

The swatches and insets are given different and inconsistent treatments. Again, this makes the catalog difficult to read quickly. In a few places item numbers are floating near several products, and I had trouble figuring out which item which number referred to. Every product number should be clearly aligned to the product it identifies.

The overall catalog organization is good, however, with colored headers at the top for navigation. I would prefer to have the phone, fax, and Website information at the bottom, rather than at the top. People expect to see them at the bottom, and when they’re placed as footers they don’t add an additional element to the navigation.

How about some headlines?

While pictures get attention, it is copy that sells the product and closes the sale. Marco makes good use of bullets, but they are frequently the only copy for the product. Catalogers should think of copy as the salesperson. Copy should have a recognizable voice that promotes the brand and explains the product benefits. Bullet copy is used to quickly promote key features — it should reduce but not replace body copy.

Product names are used as headlines in the catalog, and that’s a shame. Headlines are a great way to promote brand, differentiate product groups, create excitement, and pace the catalog. Section-starting pages would also help provide pacing and add room for an editorial component that would support the Marco brand by reinforcing key competitive advantages.

One of the things I liked were the product positioning sentences that appear under many of the headlines: “BadgeBoards organize and streamline registration!” “Versatile case holds vertical and horizontal ribbons!” Although I don’t think every sentence needs an exclamation point, they help get the key benefits across.

Good design can do a lot to increase sales and create a strong customer connection. Marco already has a great selection and strong pricing, so upgrading the design should give the catalog a real boost.

WOULD YOU LIKE YOUR CATALOG TO BE CRITIQUED?

If so, send four copies of the same edition of a catalog, along with basic information about your company (target market, merchandise niche, competitive advantages), to:

Catalog Critique, Catalog Age magazine, 11 River Bend Drive South, Stamford, CT 06907

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