Creating your best holiday catalogs ever

It may be the middle of summer, but in the catalog world, the holiday season is here. Merchants have finalized their orders, marketers have anticipated circulation, and print orders are in. But what about your creative plans? What are you doing to plan the best holiday catalog ever? Here’s what I do.


    First things first, get “the skinny.” Creative staff can be most effective when they have facts and information.

    Meet with marketing. Find out all the specifics you can: When does the holiday book mail? Has the print date been established? Will there be different versions and, if so, will they all be prepared at the same time?

    How many pages will be completely newly designed vs. revised? How many cover versions will there be and to whom will they be targeted? What offers will be carried on the front cover? What other information needs to be included on the front cover?

    If you don’t have it, ask marketing to provide a positioning and/or brand identify statement. Ask them to provide a target audience profile.

    Who are your customers, what are their demographics? Do you have psychographic or lifestyle information that would give you a better sense of the buyer? Of the prospect?

    What about the competition? Map out on a chart of attributes, where you stand compared to competitors.

    Meet with merchandising. Ask the merchandising staff for an overview of what’s going to be in the catalog, and what categories and product highlights will be most important. Holiday catalogs usually have a different mix of products, which may translate into alternate layout presentations and photography plans.

    Get a sense of what trends are affecting your customer. What’s important to her — color, texture, assortment, selection? How does she feel about product performance? Fashion? Entertaining? How does she think about pricing and how might that affect the presentation of price points in the catalog?

    Prepare a comprehensive schedule. The information you’ve gathered will help you put together a thoughtful timetable for catalog development.

    Backing up from the mail date, determine how much time you need for planning (discussion and brainstorming), concept development and actual catalog development (turn over of product information, layouts, copywriting, photography, page development, mechanical development and turn over to printer).

    It’s not unusual for companies to anticipate four or even five months for all of this, depending on the scope and content of the catalog.


    Now it’s time to put your heads together to begin to anticipate creative development. This head start with creative provides the opportunity to go further and do better work.

    It also helps you better plan against time and budget requirements. And there are several factors that can make your meetings more productive.

    Attendance. The core members of your main creative staff should attend, naturally. The answer to “how many is too many?” differs from company to company.

    You may also want to invite key freelancers. Some companies make sure representatives from other departments attend. Marketing and merchandising can bring a lot to creative brainstorming, and including them can be a real team-building activity.

    Preparation. Make sure everyone comes to the meeting armed. First of all, notice of the meeting should include a “background sheet” that shares information the participants should start thinking about: a positioning statement and a brand identity description, important company goals, customer profile, competition, catalog mail plan specifics, etc.

    Ask the participants to do some homework, such as reviewing previous catalogs, looking at the competition, and collecting and bringing “swipe” (examples of photography, layouts, copy or general creative work that might be considered) to the brainstorming discussion.

    Note-taking. Designate a note-taker beforehand to capture all the great suggestions and ideas that surface. This also helps you keep track of the action plan: Who is responsible, and how and when will they follow up?

    Discussion leader. The person in charge of this meeting should be a good leader and listener. It’s important that he or she set a clear framework for the meeting, including communicating the scope of the discussion and timing. This person must be able to energize the group, draw people out, cut short conversations that have become unproductive and summarize.

    Time, location and refreshments. If there’s ever a time to get out of the office, this is it. Book a hotel conference room for half a day and have it catered. Or ask a local restaurant to host the group in the morning and then provide lunch.

    If you need to use an internal conference room, make sure you provide refreshments and put up signs (and send out e-mails) that reflect a real “out-of-the-office” message. Being away from computers and the demands of day-to-day work is essential to free thinking and productivity.


    Creative concepts allow your creative staff to examine different scenarios and ideas before beginning actual catalog development. A common complaint of creative staff is that they don’t have time or opportunity to explore or demonstrate their ideas. Provide your team with the time and tools to develop concepts as part of the process.

    The concept stage is the perfect time to re-look at positioning and brand statements. Are they clear? Is everyone on board and “rowing in the same direction”? A clear vision for the brand is a necessary foundation for successful concepts and strong creative.

    When done correctly, concepts have many benefits. They can reveal new treatments for old presentations, solve ongoing challenges, uncover time- or money-saving activities, update a look and improve the overall design.

    Concepts can move a company to the next level, since they challenge the team without jeopardizing a schedule. If your staff is too swamped to create concepts, or you think you might benefit from outside perspective, consider an agency, freelancer or consultant.

    Scope of concepts. Treat concepts as defined assignments. There should be a creative brief defining what is to be accomplished. Normally, these pages are examined in concepts:

    • Front cover — This is an opportunity to explore dramatic options for your most important page.

    • Opening spread — These pages typically contain some editorial and set the pace for the rest of the catalog.

    • High-density spreads — Explore how the most challenging spreads might be handled.

    • Impact/low-density spreads — Determine how to get powerful pacing pages for the most important item.

    • Specialty spreads — Take the time to plan pages unique to the holiday, such as price-point spreads, category spreads, gift spreads and so on.

Next Page: Holiday affairs

Holiday affairs

There are several specific creative considerations for a holiday catalog. For one thing, the cover is always critical: When consumer mailboxes are at their most full, you need an appealing, attention-getting cover to stand out from the pack. (For more, see “Dos and don’ts for holiday catalog covers”)

Here are four ways to make your holiday book a winner.

  • Add seasonality throughout the catalog. Use seasonality to reflect the time of year. If it “feels” new and different, the customers are reminded of what’s coming up and they get in the mood to shop.

    Color can support a holiday feeling in the form of type, rule lines, icons and background tints. Green and red are obvious choices, but gold and black is an elegant way to lend a holiday feeling. Kwanza colors, or even blue and white might be appropriate, depending on your audience.

    Illustrations and artwork can be festive as well. A red wreath around a spread might call out a special section. Small, illustrated gift boxes could call out gift favorites.

    Props and surfaces are great tools. Garnet-hued tablecloths, twinkling lights in the background, wine glasses, wrapping paper — there’s no end to the warm and fuzzy signals that are all holiday reminders.

  • Reposition product with photography. Changes in photography can up the holiday feeling in a book and reposition product to be more appropriate for a season. A new shot, different propping or a different environment can communicate a different message.

    A blouse becomes a gift, a dress is now for entertaining, a serving dish offers Christmas cake, and candles are housewarming gifts. Just don’t let props get in the way of the product — they should support and enhance, not overpower.

  • Create layouts to better support holiday merchandise. This may be the one time of year that grids really work well for almost everyone! Grids hold together categories (“Gifts for him”) or price points (“Gifts under $100”) or themes (“Stocking stuffers”) and help the customer shop. Following the cue of the merchants to solve other problems, this might be a good time of year to anticipate navigational bars, category openers, more (or fewer) silhouettes, editorial visuals, etc.

  • Refine your voice. Just as a warm spirit is translated into friendly greetings during the holidays, it is appropriate to align the copy in a catalog to reflect the mood. Holiday spirit can be reflected in headlines, subheads, lead-ins, selling (body) copy and/or editorial copy.

With the right planning, concept development and execution, you can make this your best holiday book yet. To improve your odds for success, have a published schedule with presentation and approval dates that will be respected and adhered to by all participants.

Glenda Shasho Jones ( is a New York-based catalog consultant.

DOS AND DON’TS for holiday catalog covers


  • Do push yourself on drama and differentiation. Impact is critical.
  • Do place your logo front and center, high and easy to read. Make sure it stands out in a pile of mail.
  • Do place offers (FREE anything, % off or $ off) high on a page (upper right preferred) in a dot-whack, and please use the color red.
  • Do put your phone number and Internet address on the bottom of the page; they’re a signal to buy.
  • Do make sure the cover reflects your positioning and builds your desired brand.
  • Do make sure it’s relevant to your customer base.
  • Don’t muck up the cover with less important messages.
  • Don’t plan a cover that anyone could do; the harder it is to do, the less chance you’ll see it somewhere else.

And don’t forget about the importance of the back cover: Holiday is the time to work hard and show the catalog recipient a variety of products and price ranges right off the bat.

This is crucial for prospects not familiar with your offer. If you place two or three products representative of different price points on the back cover, you’ll invite more people in. — GSJ

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