Catalog Copy: There Are Bots in Our Belfry

Think way back to prehistoric times. The year 1994 will do. ▪ Many catalogs — and within the business-to-business sphere, some would argue most catalogs — operated outside the high-pressure competitive world retailing endured. A catalog of any substance and reputation enjoyed that most elusive benefit, loyalty, bestowed by customers whose buying attitude resulted from the happy combination of confidence and indolence.

Fast-forward a single decade.

A purchasing agent, who 10 years ago automatically would have issued a purchase order to an established supplier for office products or business gifts or tools or paper for the washrooms, now goes online. Here’s a “bot.” Oh, we need a new DC converter? Well, let’s see: Under “DC Power Supplies” this bot lists 565 suppliers. The world is not competitive, it’s hypercompetitive.

The Web bleed-over effect

Online competition has pushed b-to-b catalogs out of their immune position into the competitive arena consumer catalogs have had to recognize. This is the Web bleed-over effect: The very existence of Web catalogs has affected print catalogs.

From a catalog copywriter’s point of view, this suggests increasing emphasis of two points:

  1. This is why you should buy from us.
  2. This is why you should buy this from us.

So inspirational copy has begun to affect (some say “infect”) descriptive copy. Occasional “President’s Letters” have begun to appear in formerly antiseptic business catalogs. Comparisons have become commonplace. The word “infect” isn’t really out of place, because the very nature of comparisons becomes epidemic: The potential catalog customer, whether business or consumer, becomes more aware that other options are out there…and may decide to explore those options before making a buying decision.

Look out for the competition

A reader of this distinguished publication sent me pages from two catalogs. They might be considered business catalogs or consumer catalogs, depending on who knows what. The beginning of one catalog’s copy:

This stylish card-size 2.0 MP digital camera, now in our exclusive ice blue color, features a 1.5″ TFT color LCD.

The camera is priced at $249.95.

But uh-oh. The second catalog also has a blue camera. There goes that odd claim of exclusivity. The beginning of the second catalog’s description:

Normally you’d have to spend at least $400 to get a big, clunky 2.1 MEGA Pixel camera. Now you’ve got the power of high resolution in the palm of your hand at a fraction of the cost.

The second camera, also “smaller than a credit card,” is $89.95. Assuming that in a second-generation era of 5.0 megapixel or higher cameras you’d settle for 2.0 or 2.1, which would you buy?

Granted, both descriptions are flawed. The first claims to be the only blue camera; the second claims that a 2.0 MP camera normally costs $400. But I’d vote for the second version without even looking twice. (In fact, the more expensive camera takes 30-second video clips and the cheaper camera takes 90-second video clips.)

If you’re asking “What’s the point?” you’re not placing yourself in the position of someone who may have ordered the $249.95 camera and then faced the unpleasant shock of seeing a more effective camera at a little more than a third of the price you paid. What would be the possibility of your ever again ordering anything from that first catalog without looking high and low for a better deal elsewhere?

Why would you want a CD Visor?

Most cars have a CD player. The newest-model cars often have a CD player in the dashboard rather than the trunk, and the constriction of size means it holds just one CD. So marketers have begun to sell CD holders that fit on the visor.

Compare two descriptions and decide which copywriter you’d prefer to hire. From catalog 1:

Leather CD Visor Organizer Keeps Music at Your Fingertips

A quick glance at your visor is all it takes to safely select a CD. The patented pocket system is cut in such a way that you can recognize your music instantly and remove it easily with one hand. Holds twelve CDs in the non-scratching, non-melting, self-cleaning, velvet pockets. It also features two pen loops and a zippered storage pocket on the reverse side. Fits all visors. Black leather. Lifetime warranty.

From catalog 2:

Make it Easy to Retrieve CDs in Your Car.

Slip CD-Visor around your sunvisor (attaches with adjustable hook and loop) and organize your CDs out of the way, and away from prying eyes. 12 cotton pockets protect CDs from destructive scratches. Easily accessible with one hand, without taking your eyes off of the road. Just flip down your visor to replace or retrieve a CD. Flip visor up to put CDs out of sight.

The first description raises an amusing issue: What would possess the U.S. Patent Office to issue a patent on a slide-in pocket system? The competing visor seems to have a parallel system, although it’s by a different manufacturer, made of fabric rather than leather, and costs $10 less.

The second description would benefit from removing “of” from “off of the road.” Both copywriters apparently are at the mercy of a corporate edict for initial caps. I’d opt for the second one, because the “prying eyes” concept is one that strikes home to many who wouldn’t have thought of it.

Score one mini-point for business catalogs over consumer catalogs: In business catalogs, initial caps are fast disappearing. To draw a cosmic conclusion may be premature, but I’d like to think business catalogers are becoming aware that in a competitive world communication has to supercede form.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 27 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles, Marketing Mayhem, and Effective E-Mail Marketing, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.

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