Intelligent Design

Often it’s not talent that separates the good catalog designers and copywriters from the great ones; it’s knowledge. Specifically, marketing knowledge. While most merchandising and marketing professionals live and die by the “numbers,” taking the time to share the data with their creative peers can pay off in more-effective, and more-profitable, presentations.

Here are the types of analytical data we’re talking about:


At your merchandise turnover or creative kickoff meetings, take time to go over previous catalogs’ sales figures. Share the performance of each spread, and point out which products sold very well (“top dogs”) and which products’ sales were dismal (“real dogs”). Solicit your creative staff’s opinions about how to improve results. Maybe a product could have used an inset shot to call out an essential feature, or maybe the copy could be rewritten to emphasize different benefits.

We’ve found that asking your creative team to spend some time improving the presentations of products that have sold about 70%-80% of their target number gets you better results than asking them to try to improve the presentations of items that sold less than half of their target. As any good catalog merchant knows, there are some items that, no matter how much you believe in them, just won’t sell. So it’s better to spend time kicking up the results of the products that are already showing potential.


The value of your average order goes hand in hand with your sales results. Let your creatives know what previous catalogs’ average order was and what the goal is for future catalogs. Challenge your merchandise, marketing, and creative teams to work together to come up with ways to bump up this dollar figure. Discuss incentives, bundling, product discounts, and out-of-the-box ideas. You’ll be surprised by how excited and involved designers and writers will be when you include them in these discussions.


It’s common knowledge that square-inch analysis is key to a catalog’s success. Walk your creative staff through a square-inch analysis exercise, and suddenly they’ll understand why you’ve allocated X number of inches to one product and Y number to another. Be sure to give your designers some leeway, though. If they feel they need to devote a bit more space to adequately sell a product, listen to their reasons. They may be right.


Many mailers share overall catalog response rates with their creative department. But smart catalogers go a bit further by sharing individual list response rates. Tell your creative staff which rental lists responded best and which didn’t. You don’t have to go into a deep list analysis, but letting your designers and writers know which prospect lists are performing — and why you think that is — can help them when laying out and writing your catalogs by giving them a better idea of whom they should be appealing to.


No one wants to talk about returns, but we’ve found it useful to let the creative team know what merchandise is being returned and why. Was a critical piece of information omitted? Was a size relationship not portrayed properly? Was the copy so enthusiastic that it oversold the product’s benefits? In this age of blogs and near-instantaneous communication, it has become critical to handle customer complaints and revise creative presentations accordingly as quickly as possible.


As a multichannel merchant, you’re likely conducting e-mail campaigns, direct mail campaigns, and pay-per-click search engine programs, as well as running space ads in magazines, advertising via direct response TV, and using numerous other media. It’s crucial to let your designers and copywriters know what’s working in each of these media. A winning e-mail campaign, for example, can often translate to a winning catalog presentation for the same or similar merchandise. Winning Website copy can often be successfully used in your print catalog and vice versa. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel if you already have data that say a product is a winner.


E-mail and the Internet make it easier and faster than ever to test everything from creative approaches to price points to offers and incentives. Be sure to share test results not just with the marketing staff but with your catalog’s creative team as well. Many times the people who created an e-mail campaign aren’t the same people who will be working on your print catalog.

Expect some pushback from your catalog team along the lines of “that creative approach works as an e-mail but not as a catalog presentation.” That’s fine. But ask your catalog creatives what they could adapt from the e-mail campaign into the catalog’s presentation.


Let your creative team know how your competition is doing. Share any articles and information about your competition, and encourage your creatives to do the same. Be sure your designers and copywriters are aware of what your competition’s catalog presentations look like. Building an atmosphere of competition can get your creative team fired up.

A word of warning: Don’t praise your competitors’ creative presentations; share them with your creative team as FYI only. In fact, I’d recommend you emphasize that your team’s presentations are better. You want your team knowing you believe that they’re the best and the other guys are playing catch-up.


It’s not enough to tell your designers and copywriters, “This catalog is targeting people who want to buy nice gifts.” Detailed demographic and psychographic information will give your creative staff a better picture of what might appeal to your audience and the language that would persuade them to order.

Another tip: Showing a few photographs of actual customers (or people you believe look like your customers) to your creative staff makes them seem a lot more “real” than any picture your creatives may have in their mind.


If you conduct focus groups, send your creative staff an initial top-line report that highlights what you’ve learned and later a more in-depth report.

Whenever possible, bring your designers and writers along to your focus groups. It gives them a chance to see and hear what real customers and prospects think of your catalog and the language they use when talking about your merchandise. Having your creative team hear a customer say, “I don’t really understand how this product works” or “I can’t find this piece of information, and I’d need to know it before I decide to buy” goes a long way toward getting them to design and write with the customers’ needs in mind. You can, if you choose, ask your creative team to view the video record of the focus group, but there’s nothing like being on the other side of the glass in real time.

A bonus: Sometimes a focus group will all but hand your creatives the information they need to sell your product. Not long ago, at a focus group for one of our clients, a participant said, “I get it. It’s like adding a photo lab to my computer.” The copywriter turned to me and said, “There’s our headline.” And he was right.

Keep in mind that designing and writing a great-selling catalog is indeed a creative process. It’s possible to get so absorbed in the mechanics of hot spots and space allocations that your designers get locked into boring, uninvolving layouts. Every catalog designer who’s been around for a few years has a story about a merchandiser who wanted every hot product to be in the upper right-hand corner of the spread because “that’s where the eye goes first.” But smart designers know how to guide the eye around a spread and get it to stop where they wish.

Remember the numbers, and be sure to share them with your creative staff, but don’t forget about intuition and experience — both yours and your creative team’s.

Kevin Kotowski is president of Redondo Beach, CA-based creative consultancy Olson/Kotowski.