Opinion and Response

Mar 01, 2003 10:30 PM  By


Steve Sorensen, menswear copy director of Warren, PA-based Blair Corp., on the importance of copy voice.

“Her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low — an excellent thing in woman.”
King Lear, act v, scene 3

I won’t argue with the Bard. I will add, however, that voice is an excellent thing wherever you find it. It is an excellent thing because it reveals identity. As written word, it gives the reader insight into the personality, the motivations, the integrity of the writer.

But while catalogs are well served by having a voice, few in today’s marketplace have a unique voice. Many factors convey the identity of a catalog, including company logo, photography, and copy style — but copy, by itself, is seldom distinctive enough to convey a catalog’s identity without the support of other elements.

Catalog voice is the product of synergy — a whole that is more than the sum of the parts, and what every marketer hopes his catalog is. Copy is not the whole voice of the catalog; it is a sign pointing to the character of the catalog, much the way clothing reveals something about a person or furnishings in a home indicate the interests and values of the family living there.

An impressive example of this synergy can be found in The Territory Ahead. Founded in 1988, this clothing catalog is thoroughly distinctive in a variety of ways. Anyone who thinks that “voice” in a catalog depends on the style of the copy alone should study how all the elements in the list below are indispensable to the creation not of a copy voice but of a catalog voice:

  • The Territory Ahead offers a collection of unique merchandise, designed and developed with a strong image and identity.
  • The catalog communicates personality, offering clothing for a specific kind of customer.
  • The clothing has a distinctive presentation, with dramatic photography on scenic locations suitably themed to match its rugged spirit.
  • The product copy is entertaining and celebrates the maverick spirit and allure of wide-open spaces as personified by Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn: “Well, I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and civilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

The following description of the Crisscross Cord Shirt is a typical example of The Territory Ahead copy. Note how all the elements described above are integrated by the copy into a distinctive, coherent catalog voice. It fits the catalog theme; it describes a distinct product; and it includes background, humor, geographic references, fantasy or imagination, and even a made-up word:

If you’re shy, this isn’t the shirt for you. The fabric — a richly colored, cross-hatched cotton corduroy — is so supremely soft and texturey it has a tendency to attract unsolicited attention from complete strangers. In fact, when our Director of Human Resources wore it on a recent trip to Denver, an otherwise well-mannered young woman with a French accent had to be gently dissuaded from stroking his sleeve long enough for him to board his plane home. The aforementioned gentleman, who is not shy, has requested we carry it in additional colors next season…

Because this copy block is well written and interesting, it is easy to overlook its length. And fully two-thirds of the copy is devoted not to direct description, but rather to an image — the romance of the product and the experience of wearing it.

Moreover, the copy starts by qualifying the customer with the negative “this isn’t the shirt for you.” The negative is risky, but here it implies exclusivity, leaving the customer little choice but to become involved and to continue reading. He sees lots of background, a buildup, a story line, a plot, characters — who wouldn’t want that shirt?

Voice is indeed, as Shakespeare says, an excellent thing. In a catalog it will be the shopper’s escort. It will have the liberty to bring the reader’s attention to the important things, and to steer it away from the unimportant. It will fan the spark of interest into flames of benefit. It will motivate. It will close the sale.

Does Sears Need a Lands’ End Service Lesson?

Its new parent company, Sears, may be selling Lands’ End items in its stores, but don’t expect the same stellar service for which the Dodgeville, WI-based apparel mailer is renowned. A relative of a Catalog Age staffer bought a pair of Lands’ End pants in her local Sears store in December. The customer brought the pants home, removed the tags, and then realized they were the wrong size, so she took them back to her Sears store. Although the customer had the receipt, the salesclerk told her that she couldn’t return the pants, asking in a very un-Lands’ End way, “How do I know you didn’t buy them somewhere else?” The customer fared much better calling the apparel cataloger directly; she was transferred to a coordinator between Lands’ End and Sears, who then transferred her to a sales manager for the women’s department of her local Sears store. The manager told the customer to come back to the store, where the manager would either find the right size for her or give her a credit for Lands’ End to ship her the pants in the right size — with no charge for shipping and handling. Now that’s more like it.

Cheesy Exposure for Grainger

Here’s an unlikely spot to promote an industrial products cataloger: on a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. But Lake Forest, IL-based marketer W.W. Grainger, sponsor of NASCAR driver Greg Biffle, nonetheless appears on the pasta’s packaging, since Biffle appears on the box in a jumpsuit bearing the Grainger imprint. Grainger is getting a lot of mileage from the Biffle sponsorship, as the driver and his jumpsuit have appeared on the cover of TV Guide and on ESPN earlier this year. For its part, Grainger is giving the NASCAR navigator some alternative exposure of its own, putting Biffle in its catalog, in its print advertisements, and on its Website. No word on whether Biffle was required to say “Cheese!”

A Picture Worth $1 Million Words

By now, the tawdry secret of TV’s Joe Millionaire — that “star” Evan Marriott is not really a new-moneyed nice guy but a truth-challenged construction worker — has been revealed. But it seems Marriott previously revealed plenty moonlighting as an underwear model for cataloger/Website California Muscle. According to Website SmokingGun.com, Marriott did a photo shoot for the Los Angeles-based menswear marketer in November 2001, modeling such flashy unmentionables as a $12.99 Gladiator Brief, a $26 Posing Suit (?), and a $36 Arabian Boxer. We can’t speak for the girls vying for his affections on the ribald “reality” show, but it was clear to us from the get-go that Marriott was a big poseur.

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