Catalogs Are Morphing into “Megalogs”

Our world is changing and so is the role of catalogs. Never before have catalogs been called upon to do so much. Until recently, most catalogs had a singular focus: sales or traffic. This focus, which defined “cataloging” for so many years, has now yielded to broader objectives.

Catalogs are no longer just direct-selling tools: They drive web and store traffic, are a channel between technologies and, perhaps most important, they communicate and build brand. They are no longer simply catalogs, they are hard-working megalogs.

The good news is that because catalogs have been around for so long, they have become very sophisticated, strategic vehicles. We’ve learned from a long history of testing and measurements, and have developed effective “best practices” that give us a strong foundation for change.

As we examine the roles catalogs play, it’s important to consider individual company goals and initiatives. Any effective catalog plan requires setting up a thoughtful hierarchy of the objectives critical to a company’s business growth and success.

And budget: It doesn’t help that budgets are tighter than ever. The increasing cost of postage has made catalogs a challenging choice for investment. Still, there is often no better choice for accomplishing a powerhouse of goals effectively—especially as we look at today’s megalogs. Consider what they do:

Catalogs build brands
For general marketers, building brands to establish recognition and trust has long been a priority. This imperative to build strong, indefatigable brands created a huge advertising industry. Small agencies grew exponentially in order to support their clients’ marketing needs, which included brand development.

Although the recent decline of larger agencies may be a result of the economy, the rise of small boutique groups that handle even the biggest of businesses is a reflection of the continued value placed on developing unique, differentiated, strong and compelling brands.

More companies are taking aggressive action to use catalogs as branding agents. They know they must use imagery and copy strategically to do so. In some cases, their expression of brand may actually negatively affect short-term catalog sales, but build the business in the long run.

So what does a strong brand look like? Brand is the expression of a set of beliefs and unique positioning. Strong brands show this in a variety of ways.

Think Patagonia: For years, this source of adventure gear has used its catalog as a branding tool. Its strategy has been to show what Patagonia stands for first, in the belief that sales (in every channel, including retail and Internet) will follow. It is known for dramatic cover shots that embody the “adventure” of the brand. Patagonia sells superior merchandise in a clear and compelling manner enhanced with catalog space devoted to adventure shots, people profiles and causes the company supports.

Williams-Sonoma has built its rock-solid brand with an uncompromising dedication to the aspirational home chef. Its styling and photography is unrivaled, and its editorial content is on target and expansive on the website. Store layout and cooking demonstrations reflect this focus on the mission to assist, educate, motivate and satisfy its customers.

One thing that strong brands have in common is an established authority. The variety of unique branding activities they develop and apply creates the perception that they are specialists or experts in their fields. They do this not just in their catalogs, but in every media. This characteristic naturally creates higher levels of confidence and trust with consumers and prospects. It’s a key reason why stronger brands typically do better, for longer.

Catalogs drive sales
Without question, selling is a primary objective for any company, whether the catalog is used for multiple purposes or not. Product must be clear and evident so that the recipient “gets” the whole story quickly. The ultimate good service is to create an effortless buying environment. That means a “comprehension-at-a-glance” shopping experience, the easiest ordering and superior fulfillment.

Luckily, we’ve been doing this for a long time, and catalog best practices are evident in those that are best of class. As a result, there are many more new, small companies entering the marketplace doing a better job on initial catalogs than ever before, simply because there are so many great examples for them to follow.

Companies doing a superior job of selling within strongly branded catalogs exist at every price point and in every product category. To name a few, think FrontGate, Garnet Hill, Lands’ End and New Pig. Much has been written on what it takes to make a catalog an effective selling vehicle. It is the product selection and the applications (photography, copy, illustrations, etc.) that present those products in an easily digestible, quickly understandable manner, that make purchasing easy.

Catalogs connect media
For years now, many companies have been driving business to the web for quicker, less expensive fulfillment. Catalogs have had good success driving consumers to the Internet, although most agree that there is still a lot of opportunity to create more “connectivity” for consumers. This could have multiple benefits, including improved service, branding and sales. The customer wants to experience easy transitions from print, web, email and mobile. The business owner wants to experience maximum value from the interaction of these channels.

The use of drivers to a URL is only the starting place for catalogs. The underlying reasons for a consumer to go to the web must be compelling and diverse. Williams-Sonoma does a great job by offering and calling out, throughout its catalog, recipes, wine pairings, sign-ups for free technique classes, gift cards, catalog quick shop, ratings and reviews, discounts, gifts with purchases, its Visa credit card and more.

And it’s just as important that all media reflect the look and feel of the brand. What prospects see on the page should be easily recognizable in other media. Colors, type, configuration, photography, voice, graphics and more—all must give customers the feeling that they’re still within the brand. Style guides for companies should reflect all the media they utilize.

Tablet commerce and mobile commerce represent the fastest growing commerce opportunities. QR codes are being used more frequently, and time will determine their effectiveness and consumer adaptation. Meanwhile, it’s imperative that we evaluate how best to use them in our media and how to measure their effectiveness.

The focus on multimedia becomes all the more important as catalog pages reduce in number. The cost of mailing a full-size catalog has become prohibitive for many, so we’ve got to provide the content our consumers need in different locations. Encouraging consumers to use other media effectively is our responsibility, and doing so will lead to the continued value of the catalog as a marketing tool—not its demise.

An interesting observation here is that those who started as Internet-based businesses are often the least effective in driving customers there using other media. When an organization has been web-only all along, there is usually a lack of experience and internal intelligence about the effectiveness of a catalog, so those companies often get it wrong and quit before they get it right.

Catalogs drive traffic
More retailers are depending on their catalogs to assist with store traffic. For years, retailers have had big advertising budgets to drive store activity. Catalogs have always been part of this mix and are recognized as effective tools, particularly among the more targeted audiences (e.g., credit card holders). Marketers with retail locations want to capitalize on the population of people who are reticent to buy via a direct channel (particularly for apparel or cosmetics), and want to motivate those who simply prefer a store visit.

Drama is the technique used to motivate a retail-friendly audience to take action. There is less emphasis on the product and related copy. Stronger luxury companies like Godiva, Neiman Marcus and Sephora place greater focus on brand development and imagery. More moderate companies like Staples, Pottery Barn and Container Store put more emphasis on price point and promotion.

What’s too much?
Can trying to do too much with a catalog dilute the entire effort? The answer can be yes if insight and strategy are not involved. Equally weighted goals and silo’d departments can create disastrous results, since there are many activities that enhance one objective but undermine another.

An example would be trying to accomplish the diverse goals of generating immediate sales and driving store traffic. Catalogs that focus on generating a direct response must offer a broader selection of merchandise and provide adequate information for product purchase. Conversely, a traffic-generating catalog must be less about product copy and more about drama and promotional messaging that generates action.

Megalogs, or catalogs with expanded roles, require leadership and foresight. They are strategic in nature and are most effective when objectives are prioritized from the start. Each participant in the development process must understand the key goals and the tactics that will be employed to accomplish them. Megalogs are much more strategic than the catalogs of the past; they sell, build brand, drive traffic and unite media. They are our foot in the door to the future.

Glenda Shasho Jones is president of catalog consultancy Shasho Jones Direct.

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