The rule of specificity

May 01, 2006 9:30 PM  By

Matching the offer to the prospect is a “given” in any professional sales situation…except for some catalogs. Why? Catalog marketing managers either have an awareness of the psychographic/demographic profile of their typical customers and prospects, or they don’t. If they do, copy swings toward benefit oriented. If they don’t, copy necessarily is safely vanilla descriptive. In today’s hypercompetitive marketplace, plain vanilla can be so tasteless that response is at best accidental or casual. Within the pages of catalogs whose content is psycho/demo aware, the thrust of selling copy can differ widely. That’s as it should be, with just one proviso, a mini-mantra truism we might call The Rule of Copy-Psychology Specificity:

The more precisely copy aims at a specific target group, the more it excludes potential buyers outside that group.

Suppose you have a collapsible bed, one you can stow in a closet. A gift catalog and a mailer targeting homeowners both feature this bed. That knowledge alone gives the copywriter basic direction, as it did in two catalogs on my desk. The gift catalog heading: “Give overnight guests the gift of a good night’s sleep with EZ Bed.” Subhead is: “With the turn of a dial, the EZ Bed transforms any room into a holiday guest room.”

Note that neither the heading nor the subhead refers to the benefit of storage in a closet. The immediate pitch is entirely for use. Overprinted on a photo of the bed seemingly opening itself is “The EZ Bed automatically unfolds and inflates itself.”

The homeowner catalog heading: “From closet to a real raised guest bed in 2 1/2 minutes.” The subhead begins to parallel that of the other catalog: “Treat your guests to the comfort of a real bed that stows away in a closet.” Below the photo of the bed unfolding itself, with an attractive model watching, are descriptive icons showing the storage-to-full process.

If these two descriptions were reversed, each appearing in the other catalog, would the number of orders shrink? The individual leafing through a gift catalog might wonder about a nongift heading, while the individual leafing through the conventional catalog might bypass the item just from seeing “Give” as the first word. An obvious solution for a catalog unsure of who is looking at it (and when) is a universal heading such as “Greet the unexpected overnight guest in style” or “This queen-size bed waits patiently in the closet, then opens itself automatically when you need it (and eventually you probably will).”

Two catalogs show the Bose Wave Music System. One catalog, whose approach is moderately bold and showmanlike, prices the unit at $499. The other catalog, whose copy throughout takes a subdued but Olympian position, has it for $499.95. (Just about everything in that second catalog has a 95-cent suffix.)

The first catalog deals in unexplained comparatives, with this heading: “Even richer sound, even simpler design — Bose Wave Music System.” A boldface lead-in sentence continues the comparative: “NEW With even richer sound….”

The second catalog has an all-caps heading: “THE BOSE ADVANCED WAVE MUSIC SYSTEM.” This catalog doesn’t use subheads or boldface lead-ins, and the first sentence of text is a long one: “This compact Bose Wave Music System provides expansive, room-filling sound in an easy-to-use CD player and radio that has an audio range one-half-octave lower than the original Bose Wave Radio CD player.”

If we make a wild assumption that an individual has both catalogs on the desk and is about to order the Bose Music System from one of them, which would it be? The 95-cent differential isn’t a considered factor; in fact, to a catalog recipient whose reaction to the second catalog is a generic response to its posturing, even a substantially higher price may not be a determinant. So here is another quiet battle between salesmanship and seller image. But who can assume a potential customer does have both catalogs at hand? Stimulus is a dynamic, and although the first catalog’s copy isn’t a masterpiece of conviction, the selling overtones are there. The second catalog, all of whose descriptions share the same descriptive dignity, obviously depends on image more than salesmanship.

Would you describe a painting as this upscale catalog describes it? An abstract expressionist painting — “Was $620, $494.90” has this as the entire description: “HANALEI PAINTING. Hand-painted canvas with wooden frame is signed by artist Richard Casey. 40″W × 3″D × 50″T. Can be hung horizontally or vertically. Mounting hardware included.”

I’d like to think that you wouldn’t have described it that way. You’d have made the horizontal/vertical possibility a plus feature rather than an “It’s just a wall covering” throwaway, with simple positives such as “The miracle of this painting is its ingenious design, which is just as effective horizontally as it is vertically.”

Thinking as you create a description, “I’m the reader of this catalog, and what wording matches my psycho-demographics?” may not bring an instant crush of orders, but you’ll know you’ve done a professional job. The eventual benefit to you, as thoughtful matchmaker between the catalog and the targets: Professionalism ultimately attracts positive recognition, both inside and outside the organization.


Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Fort Lauderdale, FL-based Lewis Enterprises and the author of 29 books.