Three Trends that will drive Creative

Jun 01, 1998 9:30 PM  By

As the catalog industry marches with increasing good health toward the 21st century, three separate creative trends are becoming noticeable. What makes these trends worthy of comment and analysis is that they aren’t in sync with one another. Trend number one: increasing hyperspecialization of product within an already hyperspecialized catalog category. Trend number two: return to roots-catalog copy and layouts of the 1940s and 1950s. “Feel good” and “good earth” concepts now are mainstream. Trend number three: reduction of lavish descriptions and two-page spreads for a single item. (Notable and logical exclusions: high fashion and exotic travel catalogs.)

Mind you, now, I certainly am not claiming that all catalogs fall into one of these categories. Ours is a business that doesn’t run on tracks, and we don’t have a single mother lode…nor a limit of three mother lodes, for that matter.

What we do have is the two-edged sword of database: Our best targets are the best targets of everybody else. That in itself is 21st-century justification for hyperspecialization, the catalog parallel of positioning.

I haven’t mentioned Internet cataloging as a trend, because it’s not a trend; it’s a permanent fact. (Okay, semipermanent, anyway.) That so many practitioners misuse the Web, that so many believe Web surfers to be parallel recipients of their printed catalogs-well, that’s all to the benefit of the more astute marketers who tailor their offerings.

Therein lies the present-day quandary for online catalogs: Is it worth the cost to custom-create an online catalog presence for the relative handful of logical prospective buyers lurking in that neighborhood? As of mid-1998 the answer might be yes for computer-related products, sports equipment, and entertainments such as CDs and videos. (Egghead Software has closed all its stores and eliminated printed catalogs in favor of Web marketing only.) The answer is a cautious “Well, maybe…” for automotive items, books, and travel. The answer is a dubious “We’re waiting for it to take hold” for mass merchandise.

How long should a cataloger wait? The year 2001 is as good a guess as any. The timeline is shorter for specialized catalogs, both business and consumer, and probably considerably longer for consumer catalogs that require greater Web market penetration.

>From a marketing point of view, catalogs on the Web face a challenge that their printed cousins don’t: the inability to aggressively solicit speculative targets. The Web is passive, awaiting attention by anyone…and that can be a powerfully positive characteristic, because serendipity can be at work. Mailed catalogs are active, singling out those people the cataloger feels can and should buy.

That’s unlikely to change, in 1998, in 2001, or in 2010.

Forces at work Are we discussing the creative process or the broad aspects of marketing philosophy? In analyzing catalog trends, the two facets are scrambled. The effectiveness of hypertargeting is in direct ratio to convincing the target that uniqueness is beneficial-and this is the copywriter’s function. The effectiveness of an old-time “feel good” catalog is in direct ratio to a yearning for the kinder, gentler times the baby boomers remember from their childhood. The diminution of lavish product descriptions? My guess is that this is the natural child of the laws of economics.

(No trend is universal. Upscale travel catalogs, such as those selling offshore cycling trips, have picked up the mantle of multipage descriptions.)

We can rationalize that a generation ago, neither lists nor databases were sophisticated enough to make possible the isolation of enough targets to make issuance of “product fragment” catalogs possible. But equally rational, if not more so, is that these catalogs reflect the fragmentation of society. Just as the general-circulation magazines have largely vanished (for example, Collier’s, Liberty, Look), so have the general merchandise catalogs largely vanished (Montgomery Ward, Sears & Roebuck, Alden’s). That Sears survives in fragmented specialty catalogs underlines the trend.

Many forces have been at work here. First television, then cable, then the Internet established niche groups, rescuing as best they could a word that seldom applies in the heartless 20th fin de siecle marketing ambience: loyalty.

The word “loyalty” no longer means, in a marketing sense, what it traditionally has meant in interpersonal relationships. Airlines, restaurants, theaters, credit cards, even yogurt shops have loyalty programs. So do many catalogs. Are they really based on loyalty, or are they based on greed-what’s in it for me?

What’s your specialty? A generation ago, who would have anticipated the presence of a catalog dedicated entirely to Third World CDs? Who would have envisioned two slick, colorful catalogs dedicated entirely to soccer apparel and gear? (I’m not a soccer dad, but if I were I’d order from the one that numbers its pages. The other is frustrating, because the text makes cross-references to specific pages…and the pages aren’t numbered, damn it.) Who would have forecast a catalog dedicated entirely to gifts for grandchildren?

The Incredible Shrinking Universe Rule poses a 21st-century challenge to the writer of hyperspecialized catalog copy. The Rule: Testing expands the universe of buyers. Inflexible repeats shrink the universe of buyers.

The Rule, originally designed to prevent overdependence on the database for direct response mailings, strikes home when the writer’s job is to generate business from two disparate quarries-the solid base of aficionados or specialty-product owners without whom the catalog surely would fail, and “likely” prospects whose interests haven’t been declared but might be parallel.

The perplexity and paradox are obvious: Both terminology and demand are implicit in copy written for the in group; use of proprietary terminology and assumption of demand can drive away those on the periphery. Yet a single copy block has to draw response from both.

Here is a catalog of puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles. “Kit” puzzles. Illusions and tricks. The catalog’s copy is bright, and the illustrations are clear. So what is missing from this description, under the heading “3-D Jigsaws with Custom Wood Display Bases”?

Build Your Own Russian Cathedral. Our replica of Moscow’s landmark, St. Basil’s Cathedral, brilliantly captures the vibrant colors and intricate details of the original. From the spectacular designs of its soaring domes, to the graceful brickwork below, it’s a stunning scale model of one of Moscow’s most celebrated and enduring structures. Measuring 17″ x 14″ x 18-1/2″ and made of foam-backed pieces with heavy-duty cardboard roofs. $39.95

Missing? Nothing is missing if you already know the characteristics of a 3-D jigsaw puzzle. The copy exemplifies the 21st-century dilemma: How do we balance an appeal to prefabricated kindreds against anappeal to those who don’t quite know what’s involved in a 3-D construction offered under the jigsaw puzzle umbrella?

As hyperspecialization intensifies, the answer had better be there or the catalog will succumb to the Incredible Shrinking Universe Rule. One easy solution: Include an extra copy block, a boxed enthusiastic description of what 3-D jigsaw puzzles are.

How hyper can you get? Here are some of the hyperspecialized catalogs that could never have survived as solo catalogs in the days of less sophisticated database compilation:

* Wall Street and financial collectibles

* commercial matting

* historical European reproductions

* gifts for the dental professional (really!)

* British videos and curiosities

* lighting fixtures

* Shaker furniture

* specialties for enjoying wild birds

* accessories for one model of automobile

* pest control products

* home baking equipment

* Alaskan seafood

You get the idea.

A generation ago, every one of these catalogs could have represented a section within a more generalized catalog. What has changed is the type of appeal to the customer base. Specialty catalogs in no way pretend to be supermarkets; they say to their recipients, cover to cover, as 21st-century physicians will say to their patients, “General practitioners can only refer. All problems are specialized, requiring specialized treatment.”

And on the other hand… Call this a countertrend. We’re seeing catalogs whose copy and layout might have graced our mailboxes 50 years ago.

I have to admit, I’m a sucker for nostalgia. No, I’m not talking about first-person copy; that’s the ongoing use of a 1970s development whose effectiveness is so elusive some catalogers wonder why their me-myself-I copy hasn’t bowled over everybody exposed to it.

Nostalgia-or more significantly, the desire to buy based on nostalgia-comes from catalogs whose product mix includes lace dickies and toenail scissors along with the mandatory cordless phone holders and “As seen on TV” icons that remind us we’re on the cusp of the new century.

This is from a spring/ summer 1998 catalog. Except for the reference to PVC, which was probably still experimental in those days, it could have been from a spring 1948 catalog:

Easter Lawn Ornament Set Delightful 3-piece set is the perfect decoration for your lawn or garden. Adorable bunnies are brightly colored in pastel hues, egg basket has space for you to personalize Easter greetings with your name. Weather-resistant pvc, each ornament approx. 13″ x 8″, with lawn stake for easy insertion.

How about this one, as an indication of the reaction against the constant pounding of New! New! New!?

PINE TAR SOAP Grandpa’s soap is the natural moisturizer. Called the “Wonder” soap, it’s especially useful for removing scales of eczema, psoriasis, dandruff and dry skin. Thousands of testimonials and word-of-mouth are the only advertising this 100-year-old product has needed. No additives. Only pure soap and sweet-smelling pine tar oil. Lathers white.

In the same catalog with the pine tar soap are throwbacks such as leather slippers, corn salve, nonbinding socks, a flexible shoehorn, magnetic bracelets, and a shoe stretcher… along with some contemporary sex aids that would have shocked Grandma, but we have to temper nostalgia with reality.

The catalog that most aptly demonstrates yesteryear’s approach is the catalog of office products that labels its sealing tapes “Good, Better, Best,” just as the Sears catalog did in bygone days.

Precious real estate The laws of economics too often bruise or even demolish the cataloger’s desire for ego gratification. For instance, I haven’t yet seen this year’s candidates for the Annual Catalog Awards-the winners will become public about the same time this issue of Catalog Age is in your hands. I suspect, though, that the number of entries whose individual product descriptions exceed half a page are considerably fewer than was the case even five years ago.

Disclaimers: 1) Upscale fashions may demand a full page, if only to justify the price. 2) Travel demands long copy and multiple photographs to justify the price, and the number of such catalogs is increasing.

What seems to be vanishing is arbitrary dedication of more space than an item can justify. Candidates for space reduction are exercise equipment, utilitarian furniture, consumer electronics, and automotive equipment.

The rationale is obvious enough. For example, in the early days of personal computers or fax machines or cellular phones, the catalog’s educational job was dual-first, to convince the reader of the generic value of what was being sold, and second, to convince the reader of the comparative value of what was being sold.

As a product phylum matures, the need for generic education diminishes. Telling the reader what a computer or a fax machine or a cell phone does isn’t at all parallel to telling the reader of a puzzle magazine how to assemble a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Every logical prospect of the year 2001 knows what computers and fax machines and cell phones do. We don’t need the common exposition. We sell comparatively and competitively.

Eliminating that basic education also eliminates the need for the extra space that once was required.

But yet another factor enters into the mix: turn-of-the-century impatience.

Our grandparents looked forward to the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs as entertainment. Many an evening, sprawled near the fireplace, they would marvel over the latest catalog, savoring its pages one by one.

Compare that with today: Will tonight be NYPD Blue or HBO3 or maybe a couple of hours in chat rooms? What are others in the family doing? Their own thing.

So if we’re going to grab and shake the casual prospect, we’ll need to do it inside that prospect’s experiential background and obvious or hidden desires. Courtship is competitive. Compete fast or get out.

All of which means what? We’re in danger of drowning.

But then, argue those who mistake pure history for sociological trends, we always were. What’s the difference between getting three catalogs of 1,000 pages each or 30 catalogs of 32 pages each?

Simplistic answer: The difference is in the number of catalogs.

More complex answer: Norman Rockwell is dead, and no single picture of Americana exists…so each of us is a boiling cauldron of multiple interests. And those interests change with the wind.

For the alert cataloger of the year 2001, this means refining the siren song: drawing enough of the right people into the specialized orbit to counteract defections, and staking out an unassailable position, the way a gold miner stakes out a claim.

Not easy? Of course not. If it were, anybody could do it.