Copy in the 2004 Annual Catalog

Why am I doing this? The catalogs on whose copy I’m commenting all are top of the heap, the 2004 winners of Catalog Age’s Annual Catalog Awards. In fact, I personally handed out some of these Awards, so what am I doing, commenting on the copywriting? ▪ I’m doing this: I’m isolating copy, separating it from photography and layout and merchandising and production. That a catalog is physically gorgeous doesn’t mean the descriptive words are gorgeous. So analysis can be a logical post-Award move. (At least that’s my rationale.)

Catalog of the Year

Black Box, the computer networking provider, was named Catalog of the Year. The company’s 800-page Network Services catalog is impressive in both size and completeness. Now, how about copy? Wellll…

The president’s letter on the inside cover isn’t a world-beater. It begins mildly: “A Business Model Built to Service You.” (Aside from the initial caps, “Service you” might suggest you have obscene desires.) The letter’s opening: “Black Box has a strong tradition of providing our 150,000 clients with the highest level of satisfaction in the industry. This is accomplished through a well managed and well executed business model….” Hmmm. Where is any indication of uniqueness?

Inside the catalog, descriptions are crisp and to the point. Many headings are benefit oriented, such as: “Crimp Tool: Take the strain our of cable crimps. This tool’s designed with your comfort in mind”….or… “Data Connector to RJ-45 Adapter: The low-cost way to run twisted-pair on your Token Ring network.”

Right on. Just get a communicator to write the president’s letter and this extraordinary catalog will be extraordinary throughout.

Gold triple winner Wilderness Travel

Wilderness Travel won the Gold in three categories: Consumer Specialty, Travel, and Wholesale/Dealer. It’s pictorially elegant, with high-definition photographs of scenery and wildlife that alone make it a coffee-table catalog.

But we’re discussing copy. Exquisite choice of adjectives is standard for this superb catalog. Text refers to the mountain gorillas as “gentle giants” and “near-mythical creatures”…Namibia as “a feast for the senses: undulating, luminous dunes stretching as far as the eye can see, shimmering salt pans where elephants dig for water, strange-looking kokerboom trees rising from rocky washes, a lone gemsbock roaming red-orange dunes.”

The only question one poses, reading straight through the text (which probably most recipients, looking for a specific destination, won’t do) is whether the use of superlatives is overdone. The text is loaded with words such as “amazing” and “fantastic” and “fascinating” and “glorious” and “superb” and “breathtaking” and…well, you get the idea. And why doesn’t this catalog number its pages?

Gold Office Supplies winner Office Depot

I have an old-school-tie feel for Office Depot because geographically it’s my neighbor in Florida and also because some years ago I had a minor relationship with the company. It now has become a giant, the main catalog pushing 1,000 pages, and its stores claiming their own clientele.

The catalog is formidable, with an easy-to-find table of contents in the front and an index in the back. Copy descriptions are terse but still cognizant of benefit. For example, a half-page showing and describing four kinds of sealing tape includes not just a salesworthy description of each but also a unique benefit of each. Office Depot’s house brands for parallel products are given equivalent play, subtly suggesting preference without denigrating name-brand competitors. That’s a neat trick.

Gold Gifts Under $75 winner Harry and David

Harry and David is a perennial Award winner, and this year’s winner (the “Easy Entertaining” edition) is in sync with the tradition. Very quickly, inside the cover, the catalog confronts an objection many gift recipients have registered — that the name of the gift giver is buried in a Kafka-like shipping form. This upgrade isn’t well handled, because to escape from bureaucracy to a personalized card costs an extra $3.95…but we’re discussing copy, not marketing philosophy.

Some of the descriptions seem boiler-plate. For example, the first sentence of a Winter Holiday Bouquet: “Appropriate and ready to give: Handsomely wrapped and filled with treats to share.” In general, the first sentences seem to be the weakest — “They’ll be overwhelmed by your generosity”; “Complete your holiday motif with our sumptuous all-cotton tapestry”; “Distinctive shapes and textures set this one apart.” Then, once under way, descriptions sparkle. Strange.

Gold Retail winner L.L. Bean

L.L. Bean’s Christmas catalog doesn’t sully the company’s history by reaching for superlatives. Descriptions are sedate and specific, and that very sedateness and specificity must add considerably to buyer confidence and reduce considerably the number of returns.

Still, the “sell” isn’t abandoned. Here are three full-grain leather belts, side by side. One is “Classically styled”; one is “Rugged, casual”; one is “A versatile belt you can wear with either dressy or casual pants.” Hand-sewn slippers immediately present a reason to buy: “Our new slippers are so comfortable you’ll want to keep a pair right by the door to change into as soon as you get home.”

The definitive word for this catalog is “comfortable.” And with comfort comes confidence. An upstart might have problems with such an unruffled approach. For Bean, it’s a perfect fit with the company’s persona.

And a couple of Silvers

A quick look at three Silver Award winners, in categories that had no Golds….

Galls Law Enforcement Buyers Guide is crammed with products that would strike terror into the hearts of many whose serene lives aren’t within the law enforcement orbit. Here are action photos of cops and robbers as well as the kind of equipment we hear described on late-night newscasts. Early on, Galls adopts the ancient Sears & Roebuck “Good/Better/Best” appellation for body armor. It’s largely no-nonsense though sometimes labored.

Here’s an example: Good: “Galls Body Armor in both Contour and Extended Coverage is the one to buy when you want quality and value. Get the coverage you desire in the threat level you need.” Better: “Galls Gold Body Armor with Spectra-GoldFlex is a lightweight, high performance vest that features Spectra-Gold-Flex — found only at Galls!” Best: “Galls Zylon Body Armor combines the newest fiber technology — Zylon and Gold-Flex 2000.” Then Galls goes beyond Best with Platinum: “The Galls Platinum Ballistic Vest is constructed of Zylon and Gold-Flex 2000 for superior ballistic performance.”

(This company can use some proofreading. “Gold-Flex sometimes has a hyphen and sometimes doesn’t; sometimes it has the registration symbol and sometimes the trademark symbol.)

Hanna Anderson is another Silver winner, in the Children’s Products category. The universal copy thrust of this pleasant catalog is “Families are to be treasured. Children are innocent and cute.” Whoever writes this catalog has mastered the art of writing the way people talk. A sample of the copy:

LET IT SNOW SWEATERS FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY Our newest nordic-inspired crewneck sweaters are tightly knit from 100% combed cotton yarn. This is quality to hand down — you won’t find a single loose thread inside the smoothly finished knit, so there’s no catching on fingers.

If I had my way, I’d replace the all-caps run-in headings with non-caps boldface, and I’d capitalize “Nordic.”

One more — Jackson & Perkins, another perennial winner that claimed a Silver Award in the Gifts Under $75 category as well as a Gold in the Gardening category. This catalog, in its 131st year, is a triumph of both production and copywriting. The Silver winner includes descriptions such as “A whole orchestra of Grand Trumpet blossoms unite in a fanfare presentation of more than 36 velvety crimson flowers.”

Think it’s easy?

Copy is just one component in a catalog whose success has to be measured not only by aesthetics but also by bottom-line performance. A sincere salute to these and the other Award winners (I’m out of space) that set a torrid pace for others to match…in the 2005 Annual Catalog Awards.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and the author of 26 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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