The 10 BEST Catalog Copy Headlines

Jun 01, 1999 9:30 PM  By

As every reader of this publication knows, catalogs use one of four standard headings:

1. Name the product.

2. Describe the product “phylum.”

3. Describe the product use.

4. Indicate the product benefit.

Presenting the 10 best catalog headlines is a tricky assignment for three reasons: First, I naturally lean toward the fourth category, product benefit; second, to be considered as “outstanding,” a heading that limits itself to the first two types automatically eliminates itself; and third, although I get hundreds of catalogs, I get only the ones sent to me…which means that unquestionably I’ve missed some gems.

For this exercise, I ask that you suspend your own prejudices and join me in mine, recognizing the game as just an exercise. On a more serious level, recognize that Web headlines almost universally skew to the fourth category, with good reason-it’s a psychological truism that benefits outsell features.

We have to add another factor. Benefit headlines implicitly have to be longer than basic product naming. Space limitations can be a factor, making it impossible for the writer to be as creative as he/she is capable.

Cleverness counts only when it doesn’t interfere with clarity. “Cute” headings can suppress response if they don’t initiate a buying impulse. So some of these would never be considered if cuteness were a factor in judging.

The 10 I’ve chosen were winnowed-arbitrarily, I grant you-from 25 semifinals, which in turn were culled from a stack of about 50. And some semifinalists are worthy of mention:

Coldwater Creek consistently creates provocative headlines. This one was just outside the top 10 headlines:

The silvery pool

What is it? A pendant. Copy begins, “If every cloud has a silver lining, then why not silv’ry drops of rain as well?” The item is “sculpted like the purest droplet of them all.” Nice.

Speaking of jewelry, a Ross-Simons headline warrants a mention for establishing a mood with just a couple of words. For a page of jewelry made with a multiplicity of small precious stones:

sprinkle sparkle

After considering this headline, I found another from Ross-Simons almost as charming, the heading for topaz gems:

big baby blues

Neatly done!

Then there’s Data Comm Warehouse. This catalog often bothers me because of overuse of words such as “blowout” (shades of dearly departed DAK), but the catalog also intrigues me by its ability to popularize difficult technological gear. The headline worthy of note:

Future-Proof your Remote Connections with Ascend!

I found a winning headline in another well-written catalog, TopiX Innovation Gallery-difficult name, isn’t it? But understanding projected benefit from this headline is anything but difficult:

>From Skis to Christmas Trees, Transport Anything on Top of Your Car-Even if you Don’t have a Roof Rack

A near-perfect headline. Why “near”? Because of the peculiar caps/lowercase treatment, and because it cries for a punctuation mark.

A headline from Intelihealth Healthy Home made the semifinals because it uses a clear comparison to exemplify product benefits:

Imagine! Shoes more comfortable than your favorite socks

Another semifinalist is a headline from Sporty’s Preferred Living, a favorite of mine for years (going back to the original Sporty’s Tool Shop). Some of its headings are prosaic, but this one is worth quoting. For a verdigris-finished pair of lawn ornaments:

Pink Flamingos May Become an Endangered Species

One more semifinalist. Good Catalog Co. won my heart with headings such as:

Enjoy a Van Gogh Without Spending Millions

Most descriptions in this catalog are no-nonsense, but deceptively simple headings such as “Is It a Real Orchid?”-matched against the prosaic way so many catalogs might have introduced a silk flower-qualify the catalog for inclusion among the elite.

THE TOP 10 1. Can this “High Tech Gum” raise your IQ?

Tech Update (Comtrad Industries) is the consummate master of headlines. The writer plays a dangerous game with provocative headings such as this.

In that same catalog were other killer headlines, such as this one that takes dead aim at competitors:

Stereo systems costing ten times as much can’t do this!

And one I’d have chosen if it didn’t suffer from lack of punctuation:

“We knew the storm was coming before the Park Rangers did”

2. Invite Purple Martins To Rid Your Yard Of Mosquitoes

One way of judging headlines-comparing between two catalog descriptions of the same item-isn’t always available. But this heading for a birdhouse, in Improvements, became a choice after I compared it with a heading for the same item in a competing catalog:

Welcome 12 Martin Families With This Definitive House.

Which of these would you have chosen?

The difference in appeal is immediate and apparent. The Improvements headline wins because it promises a specific benefit, as opposed to the implied benefit of the first heading.

3. One alarm. Two schedules. Workdays. Weekends. Power failures. Daylight savings time. The Emerson Atomic Clock Radio could very well be the last clock radio you ever buy!

I absolutely and positively had to include a headline from Lifestyle Fascination. This catalog has reader-grabbing headline after reader-grabbing headline. The winning headline for a clock radio just edged out one for an in-the-ear device called the “Nod surpressor”:

Keep awake at the wheel-this tiny device could save your life!

4. Weather, news, traffic updates, stock quotes, sports scores-while you shower!

Reliable HomeOffice has mastered the art of salesworthy terseness. I also liked:

Yes-fine wood furniture is still being made

But I couldn’t include it among the top 10 because next to it is the word “new,” which makes “still being made” puzzling.

5. These waterproof boots make you surefooted as a mountain goat (and much better looking).

This headline in Field Trips wins my heart because it doesn’t take itself too seriously but never lapses into sophomoric humor. Again, I had a hard time choosing and was tempted to include another from the same catalog in the top 10. Note this one, for a battery recharger:

A simple way to save money and the environment while bringing back the dead.

And, oh…thank you, Field Trips, for not using readership-impairing caps/lowercase.

6. Go beyond “client/server” into the brave new world of network computing

IBM Direct is (for a staunchly conservative marketer) surprisingly sprightly. I chose this headline because it isn’t at all IBM-ish.

7. Gone are citified suits and all sorts of boundaries. These are everyone’s clothes. Soft. Colorful. Easy. Expect a few wrinkles. Forget about black. We love the slightly gathered A-line skirt, high-water pants and lowslung surplus trousers. And everything goes with flats.

You may regard my choice of Bergdorf Goodman’s headline as controversial because the company’s best headings aren’t for individual garments but are a sort of introductory statement.

I was ruminating over “Forget about black” when considering another catalog, which had as a heading “The Indispensable Black Travel DressTM.” I discarded the other catalog because of that TM symbol, a wretched way to end a selling headline.

8. Built-In Air Conditioning Makes Our Tailwind Shirt a Cooler Way to Travel

TravelSmith is loaded with eye-grabbing headlines. It was a close call, because nearby was another jewel:

Hemisphere Jacket Spurns Wrinkles, Welcomes Adventure

When headlines are actually good reading, a catalog copywriter is doing something right.

9. How many pockets can you find in this vest?

The Nature Co. Catalog knows how to keep skimmers glued to the page. The winner from this catalog was a question, as was the first winner. Questions are automatically reader-involving…if aimed at the reader. A less-effective question headline in this catalog, but one that in any normal competition would be regarded as superior:

Anybody seen my specs?

10. Our handmade Mosaic tables are works of art-but you don’t have to treat them like it

The final member of the big 10 is from Frontgate, a home, gifts, and gardening products catalog that some might accuse of being too highfalutin because of semi-inscrutable headings such as:

A profusion of color and charm-our two-tiered occasional table

Or seems-difficult headings such as:

Our Professional 27″ Grill can be tailored to your exact outdoor cooking needs

Too, Frontgate avoids punctuation in headlines. But the catalog’s best headlines, such as the winner cited above, are gems.

Go Thou and do likewise! If you’re disappointed because some of the chosen catalog headlines on this top 10 list aren’t what you’d regard as “award winners,” consider whether you’re judging them based on the ultimate way to keep score: generating buyer interest.

And if you’re on the creative team of a catalog that, by edict or fiat, eschews benefit-oriented headlines, consider presenting an argument on their behalf, perhaps for a handful of logical candidate items. After all, the difference between straightforward description and presentation of benefit is, in every instance, the difference between a clerk and a salesperson.