Making a Fine-Art Catalog Finer

The subject of this month’s critique is the 20-page Holiday 2003 catalog from The Greenwich Workshop, a Seymour, CT-based marketer of limited-edition prints and other fine-art items. Our reviewers: Jeff Haggin, president of Haggin Marketing, a catalog, direct marketing, and retail advertising services agency in Sausalito, CA, and Carol Worthington Levy, a San Jose, CA-based creative strategist.

REVIEWER NO. 1: JEFF HAGGIN

The Greenwich Workshop catalog is targeted to art collectors. It’s mailed to authorized dealers’ customer lists and to the dealers themselves (galleries and frame shops, mostly). These approximately 850 locations that make up the dealer network effectively provide distribution for the goods offered in the catalog. So it’s worth noting that this catalog does not present a classic consumer-direct proposition; rather, it’s an online driver and lead generator for the dealer network.

Art for who’s sake?

The front cover presents an unusual picture of a cheetah, a lady dressed in flowing silk, and a shiny red 1930s dream car, all perched on a dune in Death Valley. Like it or not, the image has stopping power just because it is so weird. The tagline is virtually unreadable as it is rendered in small red type spanning the width of the catalog: “Catalogue of Limited Editions * Prints and Canvases * Books * Fine Art Gifts.”

The opening spread, the most important real estate after the cover, calls out a few “new” pieces in a sidebar treatment and presents the requisite mug shot of the publisher/president with a “Publisher’s Choice” introduction highlighting a new artist, whose work is prominently featured on the rest of the spread. This tactical approach reflects sound strategic thinking. But the copy fails to deliver. It meanders from ruminations on what Santa will be doing in January (“still hanging out at the Pole?”) to a pedantic P.S.: “Remember, Roadsters, bouncing balls are always followed by children.” Yikes.

The catalog features pictures of paintings and lithographs, mostly shown unframed and cropped at the edges. It’s fun to flip through this catalog because the subjects and styles are so varied: from humorous art to serious Christian subjects; from a 1957 Chevy painted in a photo-realistic style to a basketful of kittens depicted in a greeting-card illustrator’s style.

But the wild variance of styles also make leafing through the catalog somewhat disconcerting, because there is almost no sense of organization. The catalog pagination should be rethought from the ground up in a way that will help customers navigate the book and recognize genres, styles, and artists of interest. Adding to the sense of disorganization is the inconsistency of the typography. Too many fonts are used. In addition, clip art — snowflakes, stars — is used throughout, cheapening the overall presentation and undermining the perception a fine-art catalog should have.

The images themselves offer no sense of scale relative to each other or independently. Canvas dimensions are provided in the short product descriptions, and while this is adequate, it would be worthwhile to explore some layout and photography/art solutions that move beyond the basics. One design approach might incorporate a special presentation every spread or two, highlighting a key item — a hero product presentation — where the art would be shot in a great home environment. This approach would add some drama and break up the monotony of the current product presentation.

Call to action: Where is it?

The Greenwich Workshop catalog displays a street address and phone number at the top of page 2, and the company’s URL very small on the bottom of each page. This is the extent to the call-to-action messaging in the catalog.

If you venture online, you may glean through some detective work that you can’t buy these canvases directly from the company. You are referred to a dealer in your area. I tried the dealer locator online, and after some forays through the clunky search functionality I gave up.

I would advise dedicating the center spread to the call to action or adding a simple insert to the catalog. At a basic level, the catalog should address common customer questions and provide prospects with risk-relieving reasons to buy, not to mention some direction about how or where they might go to purchase the items pictured.

If the catalog is, as it seems to be, primarily an online driver, the company name and URL should be displayed in much bigger type. The catalog should also include some screen shots of and copy about the various sections of the Website. Teasers for the Meet the Artists section of the site and customer testimonials would lend immediacy to the offer.

This might be a good place, too, to play up the “limited edition” nature of the offering. Online I discovered that many of the reproductions are limited to as few as 200. I would suggest developing a polite “bug” violator element to replace the pitifully small graphic device currently used to flag this exclusivity. Some carefully crafted copy on the subject should be included in a prominent place in the catalog too. Exclusivity is a unique selling point that Greenwich Workshop has but doesn’t promote.

More story power, please

For the most part, the largest display type in the catalog is used for the title of each artwork. This approach seems appropriate. In some cases, though, product headlines are also used, and they tend to trivialize the material: “For Two by the Sea!”, for instance, is the headline given to a simply rendered landscape entitled “View of New Harbor.” In trying to be clever, these headlines are instead distracting.

Most of the product copy in the catalog focuses on the subjects of the art — in other words, it describes the pictures. For example, on page 9, three paragraphs are dedicated to a limited-edition “miniature canvas release” entitled “Running Eagle Falls.” The painting shows two Native Americans on horse stopping at a waterfall. The copy describes “the unusual behavior which gave Running Eagle its nickname, the Trick Falls.” The copywriter’s tone and approach are reserved and dispassionate. (“As the number of people moving west steadily increased, the Blackfeet, Salish and Kootenai were forced onto reservations….”) It sounds as if a boorish history professor is holding the pen.

To be fair, the catalog does feature some respectable story power in the product copy. For example, on the very next page, the artist himself describes the impetus for his depiction of a leopard in the wild: “Driving along a bush trail early one morning in Kenya, I heard a huge commotion — two leopards were engaged in serious combat with dust, fur and chunks of dirt flying everywhere….” Here the authenticity and excitement of the art come through.

The stated strategic objective of the catalog is to “showcase the finest examples of limited editions by more than 55 of today’s most sought-after and up-and-coming artists.” Perhaps a few artists could be selected by the “Greenwich Workshop Advisory Board,” or some such esteemed body, and profiled in each edition of the catalog. The artists’ names and stories would be featured, new collectors would be welcomed into the fold, and Greenwich Workshop could build even more credibility. The artist bios and testimonial blurbs featured on the Website offer a compelling model for the kind of story power and tone that would bring more energy and passion to the catalog’s creative presentation.

REVIEWER NO. 2: CAROL WORTHINGTON LEVY

The Greenwich Workshop catalog looks terrific and is well written. But improvements can be made to build more customer confidence, affinity, and loyalty.

Let’s start with the back cover, since that’s often the first thing the customer sees. The word “New!” in the headline will get the attention of house file names, and it may be just the thing to let prospects know that this catalog regularly has lots of new items — a great positioning.

But the back cover suffers from what I call Socialist Design — all the images are close to the same size, so nothing appears to be very important. To create a dynamic on a page, you need to choose one item that you believe is the most newsworthy and make that the biggest image on the page. What’s more, the headline and the visuals need to make it clear that these are books rather than the prints and canvases that make up most of the product collection.

While the headline refers to these books as good for gift-giving, the product copy is feature oriented rather than benefit oriented. Gift copy needs to make the potential giver feel that he will be a “hero” when his friend or loved one gets this gift. For example, the copy for the book Bound for Blue Water begins “If you could have one book in your library on contemporary American maritime art, this should be it….” Here’s another option: “A gift book every sea-loving friend will treasure. If you have someone in your life who loves the lore of the sea in art and the artists who depict it, this is the ultimate addition to his bookshelves. A masterful collection of contemporary sea art, written by the acknowledged authority in the field, Bound for Blue Water may just be the book you want for the holidays too….”

On the front cover, the surrealistic image certainly grabs attention while creating an intriguing atmosphere. But the catalog name and tagline disappear against the blue sky of the image. A different color treatment would work, and perhaps a tiny drop shadow would help too.

Talk to me

The pictorial table of contents on the inside front cover works well, though I don’t understand the reason for the picture of the elephants on the bottom — and I should. The plug for the Website disappears in the weak left corner, with the word “eCatalogue” printed in a light green. To encourage people to visit your site, you need to be more assertive.

The publisher’s letter is a bit disarming and candid, making it a relief from the blah-blah-blah letters you see in so many other catalogs. A good letter is a positioning statement, so I think a few extra lines of reference to a new item might make the letter better directed.

The lack of specific references within the publisher’s letter relates to the consistent lack of information about the artists throughout the catalog. Granted, the periodic commentary by the artists describing the inspiration for the paintings is a great way to sell, but buyers also want to know about the artists themselves. These are quality pieces with good-size price tags. If they were merely posters, then biographical information would not be needed. But if a consumer is going to pay nearly $1,000 for a piece of art, loving how it looks and feels isn’t always enough; he’s looking for a way to justify the cost.

Buyers of art want very much to know the artist — to get a sense of his stature in the art community, the way he creates, the media with which he works. They crave this kind of knowledge so that they can tell their friends about it once the art is hanging on their wall. A small photo of the artist and a brief bio and perspective on his work would really enrich this catalog and develop more followers.

Not every artist’s bio needs to be included — perhaps three or four for each issue. At the end of each bio could be a reference to the Website: “More information about this artist — and all Greenwich Workshop artists — can be seen at www.greenwichworksop.com/artists.”

Moving from copy to pagination, I’ve seen very positive results in catalog testing as a result of mixing like-themed product on a spread rather than all prints in one place and all “dimensional” items in another, as Greenwich Workshop does. When one of my clients shifted to “theme” spreads, response and average order sizes shot up. To that end, I’d suggest, say, putting a collectible box with a Native American theme on a spread with Native American canvases, and putting a carousel-pony box on a spread with Americana-themed pictures.

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