Clarity ber alles

Sep 01, 2005 9:30 PM  By

Seems to me, as a dispassionate observer, that the World Wide Web has wrought a happy evolution in descriptive copy. That evolution is a seismic shift away from “cute” and “clever” and “guess what?” copy to wording that clarifies rather than obfuscates. And what a pleasure it is to see awards bestowed on catalogs — both print and Web — that recognize the 21st-century shift in reader acceptance. The Clarity Commandment has always been there for us to observe and, I’d like to think, venerate: When you choose words and phrases for force communication, clarity is paramount. Don’t let any other component of the communications mix interfere with it.

So here is L.L. Bean, a consistent follower of this ancient principle, honored with the Gold Award for apparel. Consider: What category is more competitive than apparel? And with the maturation of Web catalogs and the accompanying deterioration of buyer loyalty, shouldn’t desperate copywriters fall back (read “lapse”) into tricky, super-provocative copy?

L.L. Bean staunchly says, No. And this catalog is a tribute to clarity. The catalog recipient can order with confidence, knowing that what she orders will be the faithful reality of the description spurring that order.

A typical product description, for Bean’s Perfect Fit Pants, begins:

We call these pants “Perfect Fit” for good reason. The resilient Lycra 3D fabric stretches and moves comfortably with you but recovers its shape — even after all-day wear. Smooth, jersey-knit 88% combed cotton and 12% Lycra elastane blend is yarn-dyed so….

Just one caution, Old Bean: Be careful about noticeable repeats that damage credibility. The description of Bean’s Turtlenecks begins, “These silky-soft knit shirts…” and in the very next spread, the description of Bean’s Crewnecks and Mock-Turtlenecks begins, “These silky-soft knit shirts….”

Roughing it with smooth copy: I admit cheerfully that I don’t understand the Retail Traffic Driver category. [Editor's note: It's for catalogs whose sole purpose isn't to spur an immediate phone or Web sale but instead to drive traffic to a store.] I certainly do understand the exceptional copy in the Patagonia catalog, which won the Gold Award in that category.

Patagonia’s dedication to the environment pleasantly saturates this catalog. Some catalog creative directors would cringe at the way the description of a Men’s Highball Snap Shirt begins (“Highball rule number one: Turn off the mind and let the body flow…”) or at the start of the adjacent Men’s Retro Rhythm Hoody (“This hoody is the equivalent of a day in the Black Canyon — burly yet rewarding…”). But those creative directors would be outside the orbit of both the Patagonia catalog and the Patagonia customer.

Business-to-business and specialty catalogs always have a cross to bear. The recipient of the catalog is as likely as not to know more about any given item in that catalog than the copywriter describing it. Year after year, McFeely’s Square Drive Screws achieves the near-impossible, loading its 96-page catalog with hundreds of items (10 on a page isn’t unusual), each of which somehow suggests benefit along with clear description. Adding to the superiority of McFeely’s copy is economy of words (which makes it possible to have so many items on a page without sacrificing lucidity). Random example: two adjacent descriptions, one for a Mag Bit Holder at $5.75 and the other for an Improved Mag Bit Holder at $7.76.

Jim Ray, McFeely’s president, is omnipresent, which validates the occasional first-person catalog copy. The Mag Bit holder, for example, concludes its exposition with “Inadvertent use with a ‘Ball Detent’ style bit makes it almost impossible to remove the bit — believe me!” What a courageous description!

The entire copy for the Improved Mag Bit Holder:

You are not alone if you have trouble removing the insert bit from your magnetic bit holders! This bit holder uses a threaded collar which tightens down on a small “O” ring to lock the bit in position. Convenient and easy to use, it may well save your knuckles and your temper!

What an exquisite combination of clarity, benefit, and exclamation points!

New Pig Corp. won the Gold Award in the Industrial Supplies category for a massive 420-page catalog loaded with good humor that never interferes with clarity or benefit.

One of the appeals of “The Big Pigalog” is that the words never are threatening. Even those descriptions that are necessarily long are easy to read and use bullet-point copy — either as ancillaries or alone — to assure totality of information.

Even a beginning janitor will have no trouble understanding exactly what to expect from this drain cover:

DRAINBLOCKER Drain Covers can’t be beat when it comes to keeping spills out of drains. New Pig’s unique formulation features a super-durable, high-visibility yellow top layer that withstands repeated use and resists abrasion; tacky bottom layer tightly seals drain opening.

That’s ample, but a bunch of bullets add everything else a potential buyer might want to know. Multiply that totality by the hundreds and you’ll understand the professionalism of New Pig catalog copy.

Franklin Covey won the Gold Award in the Office Supplies, Furniture, and Stationery category for a catalog that defies the “No romance, please, we’re all busy” look just about every other office supply catalog regards as mandatory.

The catalog calls itself the “I Will” edition, and the cover, instead of showing product, has close-ups of men and women exemplifying the “I will” theme: enjoy…not quit…succeed…laugh more…focus…plan…dream…achieve. Open to the opening spread and…still no product. Here is a woman’s face in repose, spanning both pages, with a big “I will” heading followed by inspirational body copy:

It’s a declaration of what matters most to you, and it means choosing to live life on your terms, in your time, and with your plans in mind.

Are you wondering if devoting prime space to philosophy enhances or diminishes selling power? If you’ve seen this catalog, are you wondering whether dedicating two pages to a $49.95 planner is a solid investment in use of space? Me too. Only those privy to the comparative results of this unusual catalog know the answer to those questions…and to the accompanying question of whether, having lured a customer away from more-traditional office products catalogs, Franklin Covey has established the increasingly rare and fragile relationship of customer loyalty.

Mayfire’s MotoGuide is a syndicated catalog for high-end motorcycle retailers. It also is the name of the Gold Award winner in the New Consumer Catalog category.

This particular edition was created for BMW Ducati Triumph Motorcycles of Birmingham, AL. Right out of the latest Star Wars, this is not your father’s Honda. Here are motorcycles and gear so futuristic the old-timers will think they’ve stumbled out of a time warp.

The catalog is a lead generator/traffic builder rather than a direct sales book, because much of the pricing is indefinite. A Ducati 999 is “From $21,995.” A Pro 7 Sport Conversion Kit is listed as “Starting at $379.99.”

Whether one has to hike to this Alabama shop to pick up his or her treasure isn’t specified. But copy is ultraspecific, within the exact orbit of the exact customer the catalog is trying to attract.

Here is part of the hyperhip description of the Arai XD Helmet:

The brand new XD takes Arai’s innovative designs to a whole new level. Perfect for whatever kind of riding you do, the XD is both a fully functional dirt and street helmet. Its Mr. Hyde side features a fully vented chin bar, peak and works with goggles. The Dr. Jekyll side includes an ingenious full face shield design that lifts up and nestles neatly under the visor…

At $483.99, this is the least expensive helmet of the three on that page. I guess you won’t find it at Wal-Mart.

I had occasion to discuss Orvis — winner of the Gold Award in the Sporting Goods category — with one of its customers. A nod and a telling comment: “They aren’t always the least expensive, but what they send matches what they describe. I feel safe ordering from them.”

That may be the ultimate compliment to a catalog. (Incidentally, a salute to Orvis, whose copywriters know the difference between “compliment” and “complement” — the Lovat Tweed Driving Cap is “A superb complement to the Lovat collection.”)

Copy is just one consideration the benighted judges face when deciding whether a catalog warrants a gold, a silver, or a not-quite appellation. Illustration, layout, and overall image count just as strongly — and that’s only among the creative considerations; merchandising, customer service, marketing, and results factor in to the decision as well. But on behalf of those of us who labor in keyboard trenches, I opine that weak copy is more damaging than poorly lit photographs or thin paper stock.

This year’s Gold Award winners are in my opinion truly golden, setting a pace of professionalism and integrity the entire industry should emulate. Being able to write catalog copy within those parameters and adding the difficult dual leavenings of credibility and rapport — well, that’s a level worth, yes, pure gold.

So go thou and do likewise!

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 28 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles, On the Art of Writing Copy, Effective E-Mail Marketing, Marketing Mayhem, and the recently published Asinine Advertising, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.