The experts’ picks: Who are today’s creative leaders?

Minix: Great catalog creative is first and foremost demonstrated by a total package that resonates with customers and makes them want to shop with you. Effective catalogs demonstrate that they know their customers to a T by creating a shopping experience that showcases the product in a manner that relates to what is important to customers.

Kitchen products cataloger Williams-Sonoma has been outstanding creatively for quite a long time, and is getting even better. The presentation and the products demonstrate that it is, as the tagline says, “a catalog for cooks.” Product is hero in this catalog, and even when props are used, the product takes center stage. The pacing is great, and the focal points on many spreads give the eye a place to land yet move you around the spread. One change I would make is to use more photos on the top outside edges of the pages. Williams-Sonoma often has copy here, and these hot spots would be better served with pictures.

The Sundance gifts catalog demonstrates its knowledge of its customers with many creative details. The brand clearly relates to those who want to surround themselves in a casual, simple, but beautiful life. The creative is not bright and shiny like a new penny. Instead it is a little dark, a little moody, very brown, and a little weathered. The paper is somewhat rough to the touch and not too shiny. The whole experience makes you want to curl up on that big worn leather chair from page 15 and read The Horse Whisperer.

Finally, I’d like to touch on great business-to-business creative. Even though b-to-b catalogs mail to companies, people are making the decisions to buy the products. And whether they’re buying for themselves or for their company, people are usually motivated by similar things: quality, price, service, and, most important, emotions. A few b-to-b catalogs consistently keep this in mind: Lands’ End Corporate Sales, telephony products mailer Hello Direct, and industrial clean-up products marketer New Pig.

One of the most effective ways these three show that they understand the importance of emotions is by showing people using their products. The catalogs are not just cold reference books with product pictures, features, and price listings. Each develops a personality through its use of copy tone and photography, and that personality sets each apart.

Levy: Creative leaders are the catalogers that cross over the lines and color outside the box. Let’s face it, great creative involves risk-taking. And most of the bean counters and managers on bonus programs don’t want to rock the boat. Little do they know that the boat is slowly sinking when there’s no creative rowing and rocking.

Marketers have to go beyond merchandise-driven creative to drive the customer to bigger purchases and longer-term relationships. That means you must educate your creative team about your prospects’ psychographics and your customers’ needs, aspirations, activities, and priorities. You also need to give the catalog creative team more time to consider alternatives to the product-on-a-page cookie-cutter stuff.

So who’s producing great creative these days? I’d put multititle food and plant gifts company Bear Creek Corp., whose titles include Harry and David and Jackson & Perkins, and apparel cataloger Lands’ End near the top of the list. The catalog designers at these companies work very hard to creatively sell through repositioning, storytelling, and customer education, as well as a dozen other smart and interesting methods, to sell products that we’ve seen a million times.

I really enjoy the creative verve in teen girls cataloger Delia’s – the company is always on target with its offbeat design treatments. And the Porto Banus catalog does a great job with its creative as well. The swimwear mailer uses space that a traditional catalog manager might say is wasted by plugging in small added-value lifestyle snippets on the pages among their wares – a nice touch.

I also love the travel products catalogs TravelSmith and Magellan’s. I especially admire TravelSmith’s search to keep growing and trying new things, while Magellan’s takes a smaller budget and spices up the catalog by digitally placing models in travel scenes. And Magellan’s copy has an intimate, `I’ve been there, too’ voice that you trust.

Syverson: The best examples of artistic creativity demonstrate execllence in merchandise, design, and copy. These catalogs draw the reader in with appealing covers, and then once inside, they do not disappoint.

The Levenger catalog of reading materials and accessories gets my vote for most-distinctive product covers. Everything on the covers strategically supports the company mission of providing, as the tagline says, “tools for serious readers.”

For instance, Levenger titled its Early Summer 2000 catalog “The American Game” and featured The Rawlings Baseball Folio and Major League Briefcase on the cover. This theme continued on page 2 with a “Play Ball!” opening letter salutation and was expanded upon later with a spread titled “Primed for Opening Day.” The products, design, and copy all worked synergistically.

Books cataloger Chinaberry takes a friend-to-friend copy approach that sets it apart from others. Catalog owner Ann Ruethling shares her own musings in each catalog, while artist Louise Popoff creates for each issue enchanting original cover art that acts as an invitation into this glorious reading experience. In addition to categorizing books by reading level, there are other categories called “Tending the Hearth” and “Simple Pleasures.” The engaging, relevant copy makes this primarily black-and-white catalog colorful.

The Whispering Pines and Black Dog catalogs major in “state of mind” and take you places – a lakeside cabin and Martha’s Vineyard, respectively – with their creative use of paper stock, photography, copy, and customer testimonials. You get the feeling you are browsing through your family’s summer vacation photo albums. Even if you aren’t planning a trip to one of these locales, you just might buy some of these products so that you, too, can go there…without leaving home.

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