Sensible, with flashes of brilliance

Looking through the pages of Catalog Age’s 1999 Annual Gold Award catalog winners, I have the comfortable feeling that sensible and straightforward descriptions won more points than copy designed to draw attention to itself. That’s good… in a way. Clarity has to be a major factor. When clarity yields to self-promoting cleverness, when “look how clever I am” ego replaces salesmanship, the ability of a catalog to establish rapport with its recipients has to suffer. The negative side of sensible and straightforward descriptions is that they march in place. In catalog copy as in electronics, advances come from pushing the envelope, not from nestling complacently inside it. That said, let’s analyze the copy from some of the Award winners.

Orvis

This outdoor goods cataloger’s trustworthiness is beyond question. Every aspect of the Orvis catalog – copy, illustration, and layout – reflects the company’s integrity.

But in some of this Award winner’s copy, the writer seems self-conscious trying to be a salesperson; the result is unclear and uncomfortable. An example is this description of a hat:

The Leather Rough Rider Hat Lets You Walk Softly with Style

New. Good leather improves with age. If ever there was a material enhanced by patina, it’s well finished leather. The Rough Rider is rugged oil-treated cow hide that offers a classically unique and irregular look which improves with age and use. Classic western profile with rawhide chin strap and split grain hat band. Comfortable sweat band on the inside….

What’s wrong with that? Oh, nothing major. But note that sentence, “The Rough Rider is rugged oil-treated cow hide that offers a classically unique and irregular look which improves with age and use.” “That offers” is awkward wording; “cowhide” usually is a single word; “a classically unique and irregular look” demands rereading, and even then it’s a strain.

Description of a twill shirt says, “The cotton fabric has an absolutely incredible hand.” Oh? How many recipients of this catalog know what “hand” means in this use?

Disclaimer and apology: It’s no trick to pick at any copy-heavy catalog. Altogether, I’m an Orvis fan.

Sundance

The Gold Award-winning Sundance catalog has some copy gems, such as this description for coffee cups:

Greet the morning with a whole garden of bright flowers, splashed on cheery ceramic spongeware.

How many writers would have thought of the inspired “splashed on”?

Still, Sundance copy is sometimes uneven and sometimes repetitive. I’m trapped because I heavily admire the idea of the Southwestern-style gifts catalog but object to its carelessness. Two side-by-side descriptions; the one on the left begins:

Handsome, simply styled fireplace accessories blend with any decor and will last several lifetimes.

The one on the right begins:

Handsome, simply styled tools blend with any decor.

I guess the tools last only one lifetime, but what’s the rationale behind identical copy? If the fireplace accessories and the tools are designed for pairing, box them or use a common headline.

Crutchfield

Crutchfield has a plethora of audio-visual items and yet somehow it makes them all sound exciting. That’s Gold Award caliber!

I’m looking at a two-page Crutchfield spread of MiniDisc players. It’s handled with 21st-century hyper-professionalism. In the upper left section is generic hype for recordable MiniDiscs, including a comparison with cassettes, a complete physical description for those who don’t know what a MiniDisc is and can do, and suggested uses, such as “Recording MDs from your CDs is super-easy!” Then we have a batch of player/recorders, each of which is described to advantage without denigrating any others. Nice job.

French Country Living

Home decor catalog French Country Living combines first and third person. This catalog is a good “read,” whether you buy from it or not. Typical is a page with a standard “How we got it” column down the left edge, product to the right. The background column begins:

The Perfect Provenial Pottery

We criss-crossed Provence for ten years in search of the perfect Provenial pottery. Many were tried – in Biot, Valauria, and Aubagne – until we finally found the modest fabrique of Jean Espanet outside Avignon.

An adjacent product description for the pottery begins:

Provencal Pitcher and Wine Goblets

Frederic Mistral called Provence the “Empire of the Sun”, and it seems to be his sun that is captured in the radiant yellow glaze of this pitcher….

Two little points: 1) Why use the cedilla – that little hook – under the “c” in Provencal in the basic story and not use it in the selling text? 2) a comma would be better than “that is” between “sun” and “captured.”

Jackson & Perkins

Jackson & Perkins does its usual superb copy job. I’m vaguely annoyed by its dedicating a “radiant new hybrid tea [rose] to Diana, Princess of Wales,” but then, I don’t typify the gardener who would plant “the rose that continues her legacy.” (Legacy of what?) After all, J&P also has a Billy Graham rose (“Our exclusive tribute to an inspiring orator”), a John F. Kennedy rose (“The most aromatic white hybrid tea”), and a Mister Lincoln (“One of the most popular red roses ever”).

What lifts Jackson & Perkins’s catalog copy above the average is the exquisite choice of adjectives, except for overuse of the word “radiant.” Its blooms are “stunning…thick and velvety…sugary white…luminous…enchanting…an intoxicating mix of scents reminiscent of the old rose gardens of France.” That’s nice copy.

Restoration Hardware

Restoration Hardware deserves the accolades heaped on its catalog. Suppose you had the job of selling a vintage photograph of Chris Craft boats. Would you be as nonplused as I’d be? Not the writer who composed this superb first-person copy (I’m quoting just the opening and ignoring the prosaic heading):

Some folks swoon over Ferraris, while others lose their cool gazing at a rare bottle of LaFitte. I am a bit daffy over the older wooden Chris Craft boats, the racers and runabouts that stole America’s hearts in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, and still have mine pattering today….

Notice the tiny glitch? Chateau Lafitte Rothschild shouldn’t capitalize the middle “F.”

Mountain Travel-Sobek

Mountain Travel-Sobek is a Gold winner whose copy is 18-karat. I’ve succumbed to Mountain Travel-Sobek’s copy, taking several trips based on its irresistible descriptions. Much of the copy is first person and self-congratulatory, such as “Kilimanjaro & Beyond,” which begins:

We pioneered commercial treks to Kilimanjaro and walking safaris in East Africa, and feel this grand safari adventure is in the best Mountain Travel-Sobek tradition.

I wouldn’t have used the phrase “commercial treks,” which suggests a bunch of time-share salesmen on the prowl, and “feel this grand safari adventure is in the best Mountain Travel-Sobek tradition” is thin. But the pages of this catalog are ultimately seductive, with headings such as “In Search of the Snow Leopard” and “Lost Valleys of the Turkestan Range” and “The Gaelic Explorer.” Sign me up again!

Backroads

Exotic lands, exalted prose: One dream every catalog copywriter has to have is being hired or commissioned by Backroads, first to take one of its bike trips and then to write the catalog copy selling it. (I volunteer.)

Backroads knows that selling bicycle vacations can’t be accomplished by piling three or four on a page, so copy is king, with a couple of hundred words allocated to a day-by-day description. The headings are delicious! For southern Tuscany, “Porcini days, white truffle nights”; for Scotland, “A wee dream, a bonny castle and thee”; for the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, “Bicycling to a bluegrass beat.” Here is just the opening of the description of a biking trip along the Mediterranean Coast of Turkey:

A magic carpet ride by bike and boat

The sun-bleached ruins of Knidos have witnessed a multitude of tempestuous love affairs. What is it about the Mediterranean Coast that inspires such passion? Perhaps the ambrosia of culinary fare – fresh olives, eggplant, feta and garlic. Or maybe the buzz of exotic bazaars. The mesmerizing call to prayer chanted from mosques? Find the answer while pedaling a spectacular coastline and sunning yourself on a gulet (wooden yacht), lulled by the turquoise waters lapping the hull.

Salivation leads to salvation.

McFeely’s

What a pleasure to see a Gold Award bestowed on a catalog of washers, screws, drill bits, and sanders.

McFeely’s doesn’t take the reader’s familiarity for granted. The differences and comparative advantages among flat-headed screws, oval-headed screws, super-round washer-head screws, and the others is spelled out with total clarity. In fact, what separates McFeely’s from many other catalogs of its type is the comfort factor. Whether one is a master carpenter or a guy wondering how to cure a squeaky floor, this catalog doesn’t just sell items; it sells answers.

Speaking of squeaky floors, here’s a sampler:

Squeak Relief

Simple Brackets Put an End to Squeaks

Lots of things can cause a squeaky floor, but there is really only one cure. Floors squeak when one piece of flooring rubs against either another piece of flooring, or a flooring nail. The solution is to lock the offending piece of flooring into a position where it can’t move anymore. Squeak Relief does this from the underside of the floor….

I wouldn’t have put that comma after “piece of flooring,” but what a perfectly clear combination – description of a problem and, following, the solution. Credibility is 100%.

Edmund Scientific I’ve been a fan of Edmund Scientific since I was a kid. The company has moved from the jumbo weather balloons and gyroscopes I remember to high-tech optics and lasers and stuff far beyond a kid’s imagination of backyard ballooning. No, I don’t see myself wanting a Metrologic Helium-Neon Laser, but I do see myself admiring the clarity and crispness of descriptions in this big (270 pages) catalog.

What’s most impressive is compressing descriptions into moderate space and yet having them complete enough to make informed ordering possible. An example is this one, for IR Cutoff Filters:

Since common light sources deliver light that has a very broad spectral output reaching beyond the visible, many visual and detector-based applications call for a filter that is designed to pass only light within the visible spectrum. For example, monochrome cameras are often used with IR cut filters to eliminate the effects of the presence of near infrared light incident upon the detector.

It’s so precise even I can almost understand it. Uh…almost. One suggestion: The words “that is” aren’t any more necessary than they were in the French Country Living catalog.

It’s just one component

Copy is just one of the major bases on which the judges made their choices. The other factors – which include design, illustration, customer service, perfection of match up to the target individuals, financial success – may have kept some catalogs whose copy reaches brilliant heights out of the King Midas orchard. But certainly, we in this industry have reason to applaud these winners, whose careful professionalism shines a golden glow on all of us.

(To Black Box, The Natural Baby Catalog, Daniel Smith, and all the other Gold winners I haven’t covered, my apologies based on space restraints. But not to worry: I suspect you’ll be back for another Catalog Age Award next year.)

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