Breaking away from the pack

Carving out and maintaining a niche in the catalog industry is becoming more difficult each year. To protect market share, several mailers have been beefing up their brand image and identity, protecting their brand, building brand loyalty, and using their brand to stand out creatively. But before your eyes glaze over at the prospect of reading yet another article touting the importance of brand, consider this fact: In most cases, breakthrough creative exists in catalogs that successfully create an image that supports their uniquely defined brand. The concept sounds simple, but with increasing competition nipping away at our heels, it becomes tougher to accomplish with every edition.

All key players involved in creating a catalog must develop and embrace what I call an IQ, or intrigue quotient. Does your catalog pass the IQ test? Simply put, what makes your catalog so special? Here are a few ideas that might help define your intrigue quotient:

* product uniqueness, quality, or selection

* pricing

* product expertise

* special service proposition

* company history, experience, or credibility

* affinity to a target audience.

With an IQ to work with, you can more easily execute creative identity on the printed page. For example, if your intrigue quotient is exceptional product quality, you might couple it with an appropriate quality-conscious “attitude” and exploit the concept with pagination, photography, copy, color, typography, paper-anything that will help you tell your story.

Apparel catalogers are particularly challenged to stand out in a highly competitive market. Two apparel catalogers that have embraced their IQ and broken through with great creative are J. Jill and Boston Proper.

While providing great product with attractive layouts, neither of these two catalogs seemed to stand out from the crowd a few years ago. But over the past several years, J. Jill has used casual lifestyle photography and styling to create an attitude that complements its upscale, natural, comfortable wear. J. Jill hires many of the same beautiful models with streamlined bodies who appear in other books, but it photographs them with a keen difference. The poses and clothes styling reflect a lifestyle-not just clothes on a model. In a look you might call “sloppy chic,” many

J. Jill photos reflect clothes that are comfortably suited to a woman involved in everyday activities.

For instance, in one photograph the featured model, who appears to be a busy mom, is greeting her daughter who has just won a trophy in karate. Incredibly, the clothes and the brand attitude do not get lost in what could potentially be a disastrous photo. Hats off to the art director and the photographer! And on the catalog cover, the model is carrying what appears to be pizza boxes across a street. Overall, the catalog presents a dose of realism supported by clothes that appear to be comfortable. So using a unique photo art direction technique, J. Jill has added attitude to help differentiate its unique product line.

Using a different creative technique, Boston Proper also demonstrates to its customers the quality and exclusivity that set it apart from the pack. Copy and typography work hard to push the Boston Proper brand name, with phrases like “Proper Guarantee,” “Proper Fit,” and “Boston Proper’s design exclusives.” These statements are presented in headlines and subheads that get noticed. Even when the apparel design is created by someone else it becomes “Karen Alexander forBoston Proper.”All told, in its Splash 99 catalog edition, the name “Boston Proper” appears 148 times-and strangely enough, it doesn’t seem like overkill.

A redesign case study One of our clients, an apparel catalog competitor from North Dakota, entered the marketplace a few years ago. Cheryl Gjevre, president/ founder of Frabjous Originals Casual Wear, developed a line of apparel by printing images of her neighbor Joy Lavik’s cross-stitch designs directly onto comfortable and easy-to-care-for sweatshirts and tops. The garment designs appear cross-stitched thanks to a unique raised-ink printing process. Gjevre’s cottage industry, which targets older females, began selling merchandise from kiosks in malls and quickly grew to include seven stores-mostly in the Northwest and the Midwest-and eventually a mail order catalog.

The IQ of Frabjous Originals is the unique product. To further enhance the product line, Gjevre created a “whole outfit” concept offering matching pants, dickeys, earrings, and socks. The first catalog creative attempt was admirable, but it did not exploit the garment’s beautiful designs, the whole-outfit concept, or even the high-quality and easy-care fabric. After a year of marginal catalog results, Frabjous Originals decided that a creative makeover was necessary.

Embracing what makes the company’s apparel so special, creative was changed by

* photographing more products off-model so that the designs could be shown up close and in detail. This technique also helped show off the fabric quality. To accomplish this, the company increased the catalog’s trim size from 5-1/2″ x 8-1/2″ to an 8-1/2″ x 11″ format.

* presenting every garment as part of a whole outfit. Almost every top was shown with a matching dickey, pants, and sometimes other accessories such as coordinating socks and earrings.

* adding customer comments to testify to the unique offerings and high product quality.

* changing the cover to present a closeup presentation of the cross-stitch-look design, coupled with an inset shot to indicate the apparel featured inside the book. The tagline “Original Designs with a Unique Hand-Stitched Look” was also added (and come this fall, the catalog will remove “Frabjous” from its name).

Proof in results The Frabjous Originals Casual Wear makeover looked great, but the million-dollar question is “Did it work?” Response rates jumped 28% for prospects and 303% for its small but growing customer base! Also important to note is that the average order size increased 28% due to the exploitation of the whole-outfit concept. “I’m convinced that the increased results are due to the large photographs, which better depict the unique designs in detail,” Gjevre says. “Plus, prospects automatically understand that we are providing them with a unique and comfortable outfit that is already put together.”

What makes your catalog so special? Does your catalog page clearly and consistently reflect your IQ? By identifying your brand and its uniqueness, you can use every catalog creative element available to tell your story to both customers and prospects.

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