Rewriting the Rules of Catalog Copy

On an episode of AMC’s “Mad Men,” the irascible and ubiquitously intoxicated Roger Sterling prods the precocious Peggy Olsen to hire a new copywriter. Peggy cringes, concerned that the potential new Mad Man might be a little, well, mad.

“Define crazy for a copywriter,” Roger retorts. “Sleeps all day? Disrespectful of authority? Drunk half the time?”

With that succinct, biting quote, Roger Sterling perfectly encapsulates the personality of the copywriting professionals of “Mad Men” in the gilded age, when the gin was mightier than the word.

That quote also reminds us that times change.

As copywriters, we cannot define ourselves in the terms and methods—the language—of the past, no matter how drunkenly delicious it might look on TV. We have to translate ourselves for the modern world. Catalogs, despite the apocalyptic prophesies, are still going strong. We should reinterpret tried-and-true catalog best practices into an exciting new visual and verbal language of catalog design.

Let’s look at three key catalog copy elements—front cover, spread 2-3 and product copy—and how specific catalogers rewrite and redefine the rules to make their copy and their catalogs new, exciting and more engaging.

Front cover
The cover is the most important page of the catalog. It’s the storefront, the centerpiece. Traditional perspective on catalog cover execution: It’s all about the intriguing imagery. Show a top seller. Limit copy to benefits, offers and inside page references.

No argument here. All of those contribute to an effective cover. You know what else can be effective? Strategically diverging from these best practices and translating them in show-stopping new ways.

We’ll start with New Pig (more on that catalog a little later, too). It devoted an entire cover to actual customers wearing pig noses with the tag, “There’s a little pig in all of us.” No product image. No product copy. The result? A clever cover that screams to be looked at and read.

Conversely, Land’s End executed a completely different point of view by filling an entire cover with—gasp—copy! In this case, more is more. Telling a story on the front cover can be risky, but Land’s End wrote a cover that stands out, with a singular focus. The clear storytelling and deliberate use of typography translate into a cover that WANTS to be read.

Spread 2-3
The opening spread of the catalog is a perennial hotspot usually occupied by a table of contents, a welcome letter, a guarantee and bestselling products. All of these things are perfectly appropriate and effective for 2-3, but that doesn’t mean you can’t break the mold with a new approach to the copy to get some extra attention. Madness? Absolutely!

Take Anthropologie, for instance. No one would ever accuse this catalog of being overwritten, which works brilliantly as a fashion showcase. The taciturn approach translates to a recent, dramatic page 2: Stark white, with a few colorful words (both figuratively and literally) promoting a free shipping offer. It’s eye-catching copy execution that simply cannot be ignored.

New Pig sets the business-to-business world aflame with a searing brand of industrial leak and spill products. Doesn’t sound exciting, but the brand’s irreverent name and jump-off-the-page personality engender creative copy techniques. This recent opening spread has drama, benefits, sales propositions, product in-use, customer interaction, catalog contents, personality and brand language—all with only two images and a few meticulously crafted copy elements.

Body copy
True or false: You need to include every possible piece of copy information on the printed page for every product.

Short answer: FALSE. Don’t litter your catalog page with too much copy, particularly in product descriptions. Use the website to list every bit of minutiae. Let the photography tell the story. Take a different approach to body copy.

Crate & Barrel gets it (as it does with so many elements in the catalog). Vibrant room scenes sell the product, while body copy is limited to motivational editorial introductions, selective benefit-driven callouts, and product dimensions in individual copy blocks. With a few words, it supports the visual without overwhelming readers.

Boden, a British apparel catalog, uses some traditional, but brief, product copy, but it also tries something different. For all the full-page model shots, it includes a single Q&A with each model that has nothing to do with the apparel. Irrelevant? Unnecessary? Some might argue that. However, what I see is a clever tactic to engage readers, a magazine-style approach to create linger time on the page. Why not get readers thinking about how they might answer those same questions?

Land of Nod creates whimsy on practically every page. On a spread devoted to stuffed animals, some catalogs might spend dozens of words describing each and every plush beast. Not so in the Land of Nod, a land where magic lies in brevity; the spread casts a spell with a few scant words without losing any impact.

“Mad Men” recalls an era when the three-martini lunch was as much a part of the copywriter’s arsenal as product spec sheets. The industry evolved, as did the copywriter. We have to move beyond the tools of the past to keep and translate them for a new audience. Let’s keep rewriting the rules.

Matthew Fey is a strategic copywriter with J. Schmid & Assoc.

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