Creative on a shoestring budget

Your catalog creative budget has been cut, but your revenue expectations have not. Can you manage these opposing directives?

Yes, if you look carefully at all opportunities, from target marketing to technological solutions. Here are some ideas on how to handle some creative cutbacks — and where there may be opportunities to stimulate additional sales.


Any cutback on your photo budget is tough, because the multichannel medium is visual: Customers have to see what they are buying.

The priority has to be photographing new merchandise because you need to sell through the inventory. And your shots must give customers the best views of the product.

If you can’t photograph the item, using vendor-supplied photography can work. Just keep in mind that images supplied by the vendor often lack the quality and the specific composition that you may need for your brand. One way to get around this is to ask the vendor for different images, such as the outtakes or alternates.

If you can’t afford new photography for the products, Photoshop is your friend. You can use the program to manipulate images to make them look better or different.

Your graphic designer or your color separator/prepress vendor should have the skills to do this well, whether it’s changing a fabric color or removing a product from a kit, or adding a relevant background.

Many merchants are relying on Photoshop to change the look of images this year. You’ll see the work of Photoshop on a Website in which the product may have color options and the image itself remains static.

You can also use the product’s packaging to Photoshop certain images or elements. For example, you may like the way product is depicted on the package, but the background or propping may not be relevant to the season or to your brand. Using Photoshop to remove unwanted elements is a low-cost solution.

When you don’t have the budget for a photo shoot, use a combination of stock photos and existing images. Stock photography is a great source for additional images that portray product use or visually represent the brand.

You can also use stock photos to help create a combination image that joins several photographs into one cohesive image. For example, you could use a stock image of a dining room and add a product you sell, such as a chandelier.

This works in business-to-business catalogers too: A b-to-b merchant could buy stock photography of a product in-use or a relevant environment with an implication of the product’s benefit — whether it’s a mechanic working on a car or a classroom with happy students.


Copy is crucial to the selling process because it closes the sale. From headlines to captions, product copy and editorial information — every word makes a difference.

If your budget is cut and updating the copy isn’t an option, use the budget you have to at least develop new headlines and captions.

Why? The customer processes the elements on the page in a hierarchy: picture, price, headline and body copy — with captions interrupting the process.

New headlines can inform customers of additional benefits, incorporate seasonality and bring thematic cohesiveness to the pages. Another budget-friendly option is to review prior copywriting efforts and incorporate some of the alternates.

You can also include customer feedback in the form of a traditional text-version of an endorsement or testimonial. If your company has online ratings and customer reviews, include relevant examples throughout your catalog.

This technique changes the layout of the page (space is needed for this nonselling copy) and provides supporting information to help close the sale. What’s more, it refers customers to the Website for more reviews, ratings and, ultimately, additional merchandise.


One of the most immediate and productive ways to reduce cost is to work directly with your printer. Aside from renegotiating contracts, review the production process with the team to identify lower-cost options.

For example, testing shows that segmenting customer groups and providing relevant merchandise to the target market will increase the return on investment. This type of versioning is a good idea, but it can be expensive if you are not aware of how the pages will be printing on press.

Working with your printer allows you to learn the most cost-efficient way to achieve your marketing goals. Oftentimes you can change the front cover, back cover, inside front cover and inside back cover for the same price as just the front cover.

If your catalog has a 16-page form, you can use the opportunity to change the pages on one form and avoid touching the other forms. If the marketing and creative teams are aware of this price advantage, the versions can be more targeted and, ultimately, have a higher return on investment.


As part of the discussion agenda with the printer, review paper samples as well as the size and format of the catalog. Many catalogers feel that the greater the weight of the paper, the more brand-aligned or noticeable the catalog is to customers.

This may be true for some brands, but reducing your paper weight is a sure way to cut costs. I have tested this at least a half dozen times with different organizations, and there was no difference in response.

How low can you go? I haven’t been in a situation to test anything lower than a 40-lb. stock, but several well-known multichannel merchants print on 38-lb. paper.

That said, be more careful with the brightness of the paper. The lower the grade of paper, the more color fibers you’ll see and, oftentimes, a gray or yellow overtone. This nuance becomes more relevant with two factors: ink coverage and the color-sensitivity of the product.

If your catalog has high ink coverage (typical with b-to-b catalogs), or if the color of the product is not critical (such as with books, music, nonfashion items), you are more likely to benefit from a lower grade paper because brightness is not a mitigating factor.

If you are thinking about a change, ask your printer to run samples on the paper. Printers will usually accommodate your request — particularly if a job is running on the paper you want to consider, and the printer can readily make plates for your catalog.

Paper discussions often lead to the format of your catalog. Talk about the most economical dimensions and page count for your catalog and evaluate if the optimum is a good fit for your organization.

Earlier this year, a multichannel merchant I work with was reducing the number of products available for the catalog. (The company features all products on the Web.) When the final count of products was available and layouts developed, the total page count was a bit unconventional and not the most optimum on press.

But when quoting the costs for the paper requirements and the printing, we found it was 12% cheaper in total to manufacture the catalog using the less optimum press run. The lesson clearly was to evaluate all costs of the project to determine a total price.

Boosting revenue

You can cut costs — creative or otherwise — only so much. At some point you have to focus on driving sales, and that’s not going to be easy right now.

The good news is that anecdotal evidence suggests that consumers have pent-up demand and are waiting for a reason to buy — with perhaps a nudge. How can multichannel merchants take advantage of the optimism?

Particularly with the holidays in mind, use messaging on the Web and print to communicate the last date to place an order in time for holiday delivery. Do a countdown on the Web for regular shipping and then expedited so that customers recognize the urgency and know there’s still time to order. Many multichannel merchants experience the highest order volumes on the final day to place an order to meet holiday deliveries.

If you currently offer gift cards, you might create a $5 gift card (or relevant amount) and include one card in every outbound order package. Craft a marketing message to promote online shopping either immediately before or during a slower period.

The goal here is to encourage a next purchase — and you’ll often experience the effect of stretch dollars: Customers spend more than average because they have the gift card. Most often, merchants that use this method see on average double-digit percentage increases, not just a dollar or two more.

Gina Valentino ( is president of catalog consultancy Hemisphere Marketing.