A peek under the covers

Have you noticed a peculiar mini-movement among some catalogs: a cover illustration totally unrelated to what’s for sale inside? Hmmm. Trying to analyze the concept parallels Herbert Hoover’s analysis of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Prohibition — a “noble experiment.” As best as I can tell from the catalogs arriving at home and office, the procedure thus far limits itself to consumer catalogs. I haven’t seen a business catalog that has experimented with this risky move.

Why is it risky? Two words: tradition and recognition.

We, as both practitioners and analysts, recognize and understand the rationale underlying the concept of departing from tradition: By having a striking illustration on the cover, our catalog has a better shot at getting itself opened by “cold list” recipients. The natural follow-up question is “Oh, does it?” At the moment, I’m not privy to comparative results (assuming the unrelated cover is part of a split test), so comments pro and con are guesswork.

Mushrooms for sale? I’m looking at a catalog on whose cover is a display of mushrooms. Here’s the dilemma on whose horns I’m impaled: I know this catalog. I’ve ordered from this catalog. I have no desire to order mushrooms by mail. And — here’s where you and I may be in disagreement — I’m mildly curious about why the cataloger depicts mushrooms on the cover instead of some elegant and exclusive merchandise ranging from bedding to garments. My question is whether the cover is competitive in a cutthroat ambience with the day’s mail bringing an entire gaggle of catalogs.

Too, nowhere do I see an explanation of why the catalog has mushrooms on the cover. So I’m left with the conclusion that we have an irrelevant attention-getting device.

A similar catalog has crystal doorknobs on the cover. Does the company sell crystal doorknobs? Nope. Does any item or group of items described in the catalog’s pages relate, even peripherally, to doorknobs? Nope. So what’s the deal?

More: I’m really puzzled by a jumbo catalog printed full-bleed on enamel paper. It’s a furniture catalog, but unless we recognize the name we wouldn’t know it from the photograph on the cover. I think it’s a row of pears or a similarly shaped fruit, but that’s a guess. Inside, together with signature furniture ensembles, are full-page photos of underdescribed porcelain and glass accessories, but none resembling the cover photo. An example of a total description: “Blue and White Porcelain Vase $139 / Mei Ping Porcelain Vase $149.”

Does art trump salesmanship? Doubtful, because here not only do we have no indication of size because the photograph is deliberately dark, but only one vase is depicted. It’s blue and white and Chinese-like in decoration. So is it the Blue and White or the Mei Ping? If I order, it’s a game of Russian roulette.

Here’s a catalog of clothing for “big and tall” men. What’s on the cover? A quartz wristwatch.

Now, what does that have to do with big and tall jackets, pants, shoes, and athletic gear? Simple: Next to the watch, in a big red reverse, are the trigger words “Free Gift with any order.” So we don’t have obfuscation. We have that magical word relevance. If it’s relevant, dynamic, and salesworthy, logic is a worthy accompanist.

(As a copywriter, I’m not enchanted by the reprise on the inside cover: “Receive your free sportswatch while quantities last.” But that’s a creative issue, not a marketing issue.)

Want to test the idea? No aggressive cataloger can argue with the idea of testing a cover concept that might increase response. If you’re thinking, “Our catalog has become pretty much a feeder mechanism for our online marketing, and we need some marketing Viagra,” consider three crucial elements as you put the notion into play.

The first of the three is an old standby too often ignored as a marketer succumbs to panic instead of responding to the state of the market. It’s the Clarity Commandment: When you choose words, phrases, and concepts, clarity is paramount. Don’t let any other facet of the marketing mix interfere with it.

The second is a caution against letting a pet theory drown other considerations: Don’t split-test your mushrooms or doorknobs or wristwatch against dead or flat descriptions. The intramural competition should be equalized, so use a product special or a brightly touted exclusive as the sparring partner.

The third consideration is the dependence you have or need on established image. If sales to your established customer base are steady but appeals to reinforce that base from the outside are lagging, then consider a split: three sheets to the wind for catalogs mailed to outsiders but caution in ruffling the feathers of your multibuyers.

We’re in the Internet era. Attention spans are short. An easy question is whether you’d have that odd or exotic illustration as the key eye-grabber on your online home page. If you chuckle, “Are you kidding?” then proceed with a yellow caution flag.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 30 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles, On the Art of Writing Copy, Marketing Mayhem, Effective E-Mail Marketing, and Asinine Advertising, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.

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