Catalog Copy: Does the cover convey the catalog?

I’m looking at a catalog cover. The catalog is Mrs. Field’s Cookies.

I know Mrs. Fields and her cookies. Yumm. But this cover shows a coyly smiling Mrs. Fields holding an armload of flowers. The legend on the cover: “Look What I Got…Fresh, Hand-cut Flowers Delivered Right To My Doorstep!” Uh, Mrs. Fields, does that mean somebody sent flowers to you? We’d better have a look inside.

Here’s the first spread: Cookies. More cookies. And cookies. The page heading: “Sweet Treats For Your Sweetheart.” Hey, what about flowers? Oh, way down there in the corner is a box of roses. If you’re hiding them, Mrs. Fields, why feature them on the cover? In the Internet era, recipients of printed catalogs don’t have the attention span they once had.

I’m looking at the cover of a catalog called Duluth Trading Co. Four hot sauce bottles. One is “Immeasurably hot and saucey.” Another is “Original Hot Boss Hot Sauce.” The third is “Beg for Mercy Hot Sauce.”

Okay, let’s open the catalog so we can order some hot sauce. Oops. The catalog’s first inside spread shows seven items. In sequence, they are: a desk organizer; a titanium hammer; a nail-gun holder; a cell phone holster; a bag for jumper cables; a tool carrier; and a bigger tool carrier. No sauce to be seen, here or anywhere in the catalog. Yes, a line at the top proclaims, “hot stuff.” The question is: Does the cover work?

Two theories of irrelevant cover art

We can choose from two theories, either of which may be valid: Theory one is that whatever grabs the attention of the recipient, impelling attention, represents sound marketing philosophy. The pictures of hot sauce are deliberately irrelevant. The purpose isn’t to suggest the company sells hot sauce; it’s to grab and hold the catalog recipient.

Theory two is that the cover misrepresents the catalog, and those looking for tools may not even open it. They may chuckle…or they may not. The chuckle-reflex or non-chuckle-reflex won’t relate to the buying impulse, which relevant catalog cover art might.

Neither theory covers a third circumstance in which the cover sets a mood and the catalog’s contents back up that mood. For example, the spring issue of Explorations has a woman in an Oriental dancer’s costume, lifting her arms to the heavens from within a cave; the planet Earth is seen through the mouth of the cave. This is a mood-setter for the catalog’s contents, ranging from books on the Kabbalah and a product theme of “Healing with Light and Color” to celestial navigators and Indian prayer chimes.

In the same category is a catalog called Gaiam. We have symbols of peace and tranquility on the cover, with the legend, “Simple Choices Make a Difference[TM].” (Huh? You trademarked that line? It doesn’t bode well for what’s inside the cover.)

But strangely, what’s inside is well done. Product presentation is in sync with serenity and cosmic harmony. Although headings are simple product descriptions, there’s no impression of haste nor frenzy. So maybe simple choices do make a difference.

On the reverse side of this principle is the Hard to Find Tools catalog from Brookstone. The cover I’m looking at shows wooden drawers of a man’s wardrobe – socks, neckties, and shirts. Tools? Hey, these ain’t tools.

The problem is with the catalog title, not with the content. Inside – not on any early pages – are a few tools, such as a 102-piece tool set, an air compressor, and some shovels (none of which seem to be particularly hard to find). Most of the products in the sprightly, well-produced catalog are around-the-home items such as showerheads, pillows and mattresses, and, yes, wardrobe items.

What happens when the recipient believes the title but doesn’t have any interest in tools? Beats me. I find the title provocative, but then, I’m nosy.

Sell on the cover?

We’re moving into a highly competitive Internet era. That suggests catalogs with a price edge can maintain or enhance their competitive position by selling on the cover.

By “selling” I don’t mean just showing product. I mean selling, and that in turn means playing up price.

Print catalogs that can compete with the Web on price (including direct competition with their own online versions), such as computer and office products catalogs, embrace this concept – as they should, to prevent defections to the World Wide Web.

The Web is price-driven, and that skews the whole marketing ambience. Catalogs that scream “bargain!” and “free!” on their covers are the most Web-competitive.

But they aren’t the only catalogs that successfully sell on the cover. I treasure the arrival of a catalog called Heartland America, which sells on the cover with copy that should win an award for its appeal. Mechanically, a problem exists, because body type is 7 or 8 point size, reversed out of four colors. But the cover headings are grabbers. Instead of the typical pedestrian “Inexpensive shredder,” this copywriter, whoever he or she is, heads the copy block, “Keep Sensitive Information Out of The Wrong Hands – Transform It Into Confetti In Just Seconds!” For a circular saw: “The Power Of A Tornado With Cordless Convenience!”

One suggestion to this catalog, to Mrs. Fields, and probably to a thousand others: The uppercase/lowercase headings are a) harder to read, b) less convivial, and c) an anti-rapport factor.

The Harriet Carter catalog is digest-size, unglamorous, and no-nonsense. But in my opinion it does just about everything right. The one I’m looking at has, in big type, “Spring Savings Sale! Reductions of Dozens of Items, Savings of up to 50%.” The picture is a woman’s hand holding a “Barbecue Fork With Built-in Thermometer” over an outdoor grill, including a specific page reference for the item. One negative: The caps/ lowercase malaise. Ahhh, we’re used to it by now.

Emotion on the cover

My wife invariably calls the cover of Pottery Barn Kids to my attention. We don’t have any family members who might qualify for what’s in this catalog; that doesn’t prevent us from appreciating the mood. The catalog edition in my hands shows a child under colorful bedding, howling with happiness.

On the adult level, Athleta has that same kind of power (see pg. 81). Here’s a determined young woman climbing one of those fake mountains. Powerful imagery, although the catalog’s slogan, “Tried, Tested and True” doesn’t seem particularly apt.

Good Catalog Co. shows product on the cover. The merchandise is upscale – sterling silver tableware, shown with taste and flair. And taste and flair generate a positive emotional reaction.

Then there’s California Style, which has Raquel Welch on the cover. Two problems confront us former Welch-lovers: 1.) Raquel Welch doesn’t look like Raquel Welch – whatever she’s had done to herself has resulted in a different, more zaftig persona; and 2.) Every photo of her depicts the same vacuous smile, and she isn’t competitive with many of the less-posed-looking models in this catalog.

On that picky note, let’s agree on one point: The cover is the indicator. As long as it indicates what you want it to indicate…and you’re sure recipients are opening it with the proper interest – you’ve created the right cover for your catalog.

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