Catalog design 2.0

Catalogs today are about much more than selling products in print. They need to be compelling engagement tools that reinforce the brand, build customer relationships, stimulate desire and solve problems. A great catalog creates a “desire dance” — that stirring of interest that leads the reader deeper into the brand and down the path to a purchase.

And in today’s multichannel environment, even designers who are focused on print catalog design must think beyond the page. The next level of catalog design involves managing the relationship with customers and engaging them in exciting and interactive ways.

That’s not to say you should ignore the basics of catalog design — you shouldn’t. (If you need a refresher, see “Spread design 1.0” on page 15.) But consider these six tips to advance your catalog design for today’s market.

  1. Tell a story

    The most effective catalogers always intuitively understood that 90% of consumer behavior is driven by emotional impulse (as opposed to reason). Reaching consumers on an emotional level is the key to converting browsers to first-time purchasers, and single purchasers to repeat customers and ultimately brand advocates.

    Listing product features won’t make that emotional connection. You need to create stories based on what your customers care most about.

    Your stories will nearly always relate in some way to the problems that your products solve, but you also need to understand how your typical customer goes about the decision-making process.

    For example, if you are a food cataloger specializing in gift giving, is the customer most driven by price point or by the item’s presentation or contents? Identify the need and then build spreads that demonstrate to the customer how you fulfill it.

    Often, stories will emerge from your analytics, or success in a particular category will lend itself to a theme. For example, an electronics marketer might employ several top-sellers to create a road-trip-themed spread featuring GPS navigation, a car stereo and a DVD player that keeps kids entertained in the back seat.


    You can also build around a unifying graphic element, such as a color or pattern. The critical point is that your stories and themes must resonate with your audience. Always ask, is this something that your customers and prospects care about on an emotional level?

  2. Weave your brand promise into the story

    Challenge yourself to infuse your brand promise into every spread. If your brand provides “peace of mind,” for example, find ways to use photography and copy to “prove” that you deliver on that promise.

    You can achieve this through the headline, in editorial or product copy, as a benefit incorporated into product call-outs, or even through a footnote at the bottom of a spread.

  3. Hook them before they see the price

    Strong design is guided by an understanding of how prospects and customers shop catalogs. Readers are drawn first by the product image. If their interest is piqued, they typically will seek out the price.

    If the price does not align with the perceived value of the product as formed by viewing the image, readers will usually move on without investigating further. The benefits that warrant this price point may be explained in detail in the product copy, but that doesn’t help if the customer has moved on without reading that copy.

    The solution to this problem is a “copy violator,” an attention-grabbing callout that interrupts the typical eye-flow and gives the reader the primary benefit before she moves on to the price point.

    For example, in selling a pair of Italian leather shoes, adding a copy violator that reads, “Ultimate comfort in Italian leather” would serve to notify prospects of the key comfort feature before they read the high-ticket price.

  4. Let the customer endorse you

    Testimonials have always been one of catalogers’ most powerful marketing weapons. And now it’s even easier to take advantage of them, thanks to the huge popularity — and power — of online customer reviews and rating systems.

    Within your catalog, prominently identify the products with five-star customer ratings. Cull customer comments for testimonials that speak to your brand promise, and infuse your headlines, editorial content and product copy with the language of your customer.

  5. Have a smart social strategy

    If you’re in the social media game, it’s simply not enough to place “follow us” next to a familiar social media logo. You must have a strategic plan to offer customers something of value — a real reason for them to stay actively connected.

    A good call to action might read, “Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for decorating ideas and design tools.” But a really effective invitation would offer a more specific, compelling promise that focuses on the benefit to the customer: “Discover your design style! Find decorating ideas, entertaining tips or find help on your next project. Follow us!”

    Social media is about offering ongoing content that customers care about. So if you are providing such content, it’s fine to place the social media invitation throughout your catalog, rather than feature it only on the opening spread or the back cover, as most catalogers do.

  6. Engage in new ways

    Emerging technology has given us a slew of new ways to engage the customer. QR codes allow smartphone users to scan a printed piece to be taken directly to a web page customized with mobile content. This is a major opportunity to move prospects and customers beyond the limitations of a static page and engage them in your dynamic content.

Other tools at our disposal now include short text codes (for the non-smartphone user), personalized URLs and video.

Keep in mind that with all of these, you must promise and deliver content that consumers really care about — content that provides an informational, how-to or entertainment benefit, whether it’s weekly recipes, a deal-of-the-day, customer product reviews or a truly funny video.

As with social media invitations, you need to provide a compelling reason for the consumer to go beyond the page, and infuse the invitation with your brand promise. For example, a QR code that leads to an instructional video demonstrating how to order the right bra might word the invitation this way: “Three easy steps to the perfect fit! Scan this code and watch a short video that will guarantee a more comfortable-fitting bra.”

Vincent van Gogh once said, “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” Think of this when designing your next catalog, and how you can incorporate dynamic online elements into the creative.

Lois Brayfield ( is president of J. Schmid & Associates, a catalog consultancy based in Mission, KS.

Change is good, but when it comes to catalog design, don’t ignore the time-tested basics. Here’s a short list of rules to live by:

  • Design in complete spreads, never page-by-page. Catalog shoppers process catalog spreads as a single entity. The goal is to grab their attention and strategically lead their eyes around the page.

  • Place a product image — preferably a best-seller — in the hot spot in the upper right-hand corner. The eye begins there, proceeds across the top, and then continues to the rest of the spread.

  • Create an anchor that immediately draws attention. You can accomplish this by giving a “hero” product a large amount of space. Or if it’s a grid layout, use a strong, emotional headline addressing the spread as a whole.

  • Provide an easy shopping environment. Be sure that you’ve supplied all of the options, allowing customers to quickly discern compelling details and options that distinguish good, better and best.

  • Practice clean design hygiene, aligning images with copy blocks and striving for consistency with graphic details. Always place your URL and phone number in a consistent location at the bottom of the page, where readers are most likely to look for them.

Customers won’t notice your attention to detail, but you can bet that they’ll respond viscerally to your clean design. — LB