Not So Suddenly, We’re Competitive

They’re singing my song. For fifteen years or so in the pages of this publication I’ve been applauding, endorsing, and recommending benefit copy for catalog descriptions. That isn’t because of a personal prejudice. Well, maybe it is. But “prejudice” suggests a faith-based initiative, and I’d rather think I’m embracing a more contemporary enterprise — competitive advantage.

Two truisms underlie the typical 2004 buying impulse: 1) The prospective customer responds to what an item is plus what he/she thinks it is; 2) benefit spurs a buying impulse stronger than that of a raw description. If you argue with those truisms, then your mind-set is as crazy-glued shut as mine is. Pry yours open just far enough to accept multiple test results in which the same item, described beneficially, pulled more orders than that same item described clinically in the same number of words.

(One exception is a listings-type industrial catalog whose products don’t need presell. I’m referring here to generating an impulse buy.)

Benefit doesn’t demand many words

On the same page of a spring fashion catalog are three items. The headings are as prosaic as headings can be: “Verona necklace”; “handstitched Italian leather thongs”; “Olivia dress.” Emotional content = zero. But take one step beyond the headings, and benefit kicks in. First sentences of body copy: For the necklace, “Fire-polished, carnelian beads evoke vintage elegance.” For the thongs, “Exceptionally soft, Italian leather upper and lining.” For the dress, “Soft and flowing illusion rayon. Vintage-inspired print.”

No, I wouldn’t give this an “A” in a catalog copywriting class. But without the “Fire-polished” and “Exceptionally soft” and “Soft and flowing,” the salesworthiness of these descriptions would rate a C-minus.

Does benefit copy benefit men’s fashions? I chanced upon a description that stopped me because of what appears to be a strange typo: “Polo Ralph Lauren Fatique Pants.” Fatique? OK, assuming that the writer meant “Fatigue” and along with the proofreader is no longer with the company, note this grabber first sentence of body copy: “As easy to wear as regular chinos, but with an attitude that’s a little more laid back.” I don’t quite know what that means, but I have to admire the concept.

Computer and office products catalogs should be sensitive to the realization that their targets are more likely to be businesses than consumers. That’s because businesses are more likely to acknowledge obsolescence.

I’m looking at a computer catalog on whose cover is a discounted computer with the imperative cliché “Act Now!” Uh-uh. Even “Right now!” would be better. We need an expiration date to justify the benefit of acting now. Otherwise, it’s just typical sales blather.

Solutions and Improvements solve and improve

If the very title of your catalog suggests benefit, copy had better follow suit. A catalog called Solutions follows this happy philosophy slavishly. Note this headline: “Everyone will want this chair — it’s like having a personal masseuse!” Or this one, classic in its simplicity: “No worry about dripping wax with this tabletop candleholder.” Now consider how much weaker the impact would have been if the copywriter had headed the chair description “Massaging chair” and the candleholder “Votive candle holder.” We all have seen generic headings such as those.

Improvements is another catalog whose copy matches the mood set by the title. An example: “36 pairs of shoes (or their boxes) but no floor space to put ’em? Hang ’em on the door!” Or this challenge: “The end of soda-can clutter in your fridge.”

I have to mention one of my favorites — Pleasant Lane Marketplace. This charming catalog is crammed with items the reader hasn’t even thought of wanting. Benefit-laden headlines generate the buying impulse. For example, we’ve seen dozens of offers for clocks that project the time onto the ceiling or the wall. The headline, “You don’t even have to turn your head to see what time it is!” substitutes benefit for raw fact. And, bless the folks at Pleasant Lane Marketplace, they don’t use initial caps.

Are these examples harder to create than basic descriptions? The answer to that question lies in the ability to ask, before slapping fingertips onto the keyboard, “What does this do?” and/or “Why would somebody want this?”

Business catalogs profit too

Discovering — or inventing — a competitive edge can be considerably more difficult for business products whose differences may be largely in the label. But that’s what professional catalog copywriting is supposed to do.

Here’s a page with five PowerPoint projectors. How does the writer establish a buying rationale for each one? In this case, some confusion exists, because the main heading is “Small Price. Big Performance.” The projector, an Epson, sells for $999. But hold it: Below is one from NEC headlined “PC Magazine Editors’ Choice Winner Aug. 2003,” priced at $899. In between is a Powerlite headed “Monitor Loop-Through” at $1,999, one headed simply “Sony” for $1,399, and one headed “Only 2.2 lbs!”, a PJ250 for $1,879.

What we have here is a missed opportunity. Options might have been an ascending or descending price range, or announcement of a unique selling proposition for each projector. Instead, each gets in the way of a buying decision for any of the others, leaving in the wake of the copy and layout that ugly sales-killer, word confusion.

Does benefit enhance clarity?

A question every creative director should ask, scanning page by page: Have we established individual benefit for individual items? A “yes” answer has to result in increased sales, because of increased clarification of the “Why buy” factor.

So when you can’t scream “Save 30% to 70%!”, benefit becomes a worthy — and sometimes considerably more profitable — substitute.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises, based in Fort Lauderdale, FL. The author of 27 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles, Marketing Mayhem, and Effective E-Mail Marketing, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.

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