Gotcha Covered!

If you haven’t done it lately, it’s time to take a hard look at your catalog covers. This single most important page in a catalog should not be taken lightly. The difference between effective and boring is the difference between getting opened and being tossed. Enticing more people to look inside your catalog is the first step in improving performance.


How do you introduce yourself? We all know that a firm handshake, eye contact, and a smile tell a lot about a person. In fact, the right combination of elements can make you a lot more receptive to someone. Catalog covers are no different. With just one glance at the cover, the catalog recipient gathers a huge amount of information. It’s up to you to control the delivery of that information.

Try thinking of your catalog cover as your face, as an expression of who you are and what you stand for. We usually work hard to be friendly and interesting so that others will like us and want to know us better. It’s the same with catalog covers. They need to work hard at getting people receptive and interested.

An effective catalog cover is one that builds excitement and expectations. An effective cover motivates the recipient to open your book. If you can get him excited and build his expectations, he’ll dive in with the interest and positive attitude that make him more receptive to shopping — and ultimately buying.

An excited customer is looking for an opportunity. Once he’s opened your catalog he’s searching for a purchase. This is very different from someone who isn’t quite sure why he opened the catalog and is just skimming it to see if anything hits him in the face.

(In fact — at the risk of sounding sexist — most women I know feel tremendously disappointed if they have gotten excited about the possibility of finding something wonderful only to come away empty-handed.)

The strongest catalog covers reflect positioning and desired brand. To accomplish this, the creative team needs to understand how strategic and functional their work must be — that it’s more than just esthetics. And this means that they need to be briefed in a strategic fashion. When I brief creative talent, I tell them the following:

  • Positioning is our promise to the customer

    Creative should reflect what the catalog promises to deliver, and it should be relevant and meaningful to the target audience. It should also be unique and differentiated from that of other catalogs. Examples of great promises include Williams-Sonoma (“become an almost-professional cook!”), Frontgate (“create an atmosphere of luxury in your home!”), and Victoria’s Secret (“look sexy!”).

  • A catalog’s brand is its personality

    Creative elements should work in tandem to create a strong sense of individuality and character. Examples of strongly branded catalogs include J. Jill (a Zen-spirited, relaxed woman), Patagonia (an adventurous spirit), and Lands’ End (a witty and smart shopper).

Since all customers and most prospects will receive many catalogs from you over time, it’s important to look at your covers as a campaign. It can be extremely helpful to step back and plan an annual cover contact strategy that takes into account seasonality, holiday, events, and other outside factors. While merchandise needn’t be selected at that time (although many product ideas do sprout from this exercise), and your plans can always change, this process increases the probability that you’ll be identifying the consistent factors that improve brand while at the same time planning the development of differentiated catalogs.


An effective cover is the result of a thoughtful and strategic combination of multiple factors. It includes the treatment of the logo, type, photography, color, offer, and language. And it involves the strategic application of key concepts: relevance, emotion, drama, and differentiation.

Let’s focus first on the more tangible elements, starting with the logo. It’s imperative that the logo is prominent and easy to read. It needs to be the first thing a recipient sees, and for that reason it should appear at the top of the catalog. Ask yourself, Could we be missing customers because they don’t recognize our company or can’t see our logo at a glance? (Especially in a pile of mail!)

When it comes to logo design, simple is best. Think of J. Crew, Lands’ End, Victoria’s Secret, L.L. Bean. If your logo is hard to read, overdesigned, or weak in any way, maybe it’s time to rethink or modify it. And while all-lowercase lettering may be a favorite of the art department (and was popular during the dot-com boom), it’s usually a feeble and understated treatment for a logo.

While we’re on the subject, doesn’t it seem crazy to change the logo color for each catalog simply because creative wants to make it match a cover image? I’ll take the consistent use of thoughtfully selected color(s) any day as a brand reminder. Look how effective companies such as Tiffany, Godiva, and RedEnvelope have been with the use of color.

Next comes the tagline. One of the trickiest groupings of words to agree upon, taglines are nevertheless a great way to state your positioning — your promise to the customer — in a succinct fashion. One of my favorites is that of Levenger, “Tools for Serious Readers,” since it describes the promise and the customer’s lifestyle and is broad enough to include merchandise categories that are related to literate people. And it communicates all this in just four words.

As to the subject matter of the catalog cover — should the focus be on a product, multiple products, a person, a place, or a promotion? — there are no universally right or wrong answers. It depends on your positioning and brand, the look within your catalog, the purpose of the book, and your points of differentiation. Here are some questions to keep in mind:

  • Should I use models on the cover? If you’re a men’s or women’s fashion catalog and you use models in the catalog, you probably want to be using models on the cover as well. On the other hand, if you don’t use models inside the catalog, you probably don’t want the disconnect of having one on the cover.

    If you are considering a model shot for the cover, you’d better do a stellar job. That means allocating time to the shoot and talent to the casting, hair and makeup, styling, photography, and art direction. While interior shots are smaller, less important, and therefore somewhat forgiving, a bad shot on the front cover can carry a lot of negative communication.

  • When can I use a still life on the cover? By far, most catalogers prefer product-focused covers. That’s certainly fine. But the same rule for allocating time, resources, and talent applies to a still-life cover as to a model-shot cover. Since you don’t have the attitude of the model to reflect brand, it’s even more important that the styling, style of photography, and props support your catalog’s unique positioning and achieve differentiation.

  • Can a product-free cover be effective? If you are considering a no-product cover, such as a landscape (a la Territory Ahead or Coldwater Creek), it should directly support your desired brand, and it should be carried throughout the book in some manner — for instance, similar landscapes could serve as backdrops to product shots within the catalog.

  • Should prospecting covers be different? If you are mailing a prospect version of the catalog, consider putting multiple products on the cover. Experience indicates that prospects respond better when they see a wider breadth of product on a front cover. This can be accomplished with a group shot, a grid, or inset shots.

  • Can I use an all-type cover with no images at all? All-type covers can be very effective on sale catalogs. The type becomes the art, so the more drama (and color), the better.

Most catalog covers veer in the opposite direction of an all-type treatment, to a minimal use of copy. And that, too, can be effective, so long as what copy there is further motivates the recipient to open the catalog. That means ensuring that all the copy is readable — a challenge on complicated covers.

It also requires that you prioritize your messages. For example, make sure “Free Shipping and Handling” gets more prominence than “Look Inside for Great Father’s Day Gifts.”

And design messages to “look like” what they are. Offers such as free shipping and handling should be in dot whacks in a prominent location, such as the upper right-hand corner; that’s where the customer expects to find them. Information such as the number of new products in a catalog could go in bold type in a somewhat prominent location. Supporting information, such as what to find inside, can be in simple black type in a less prominent spot.

And while it’s a sure bet your phone number and Website URL appear in the footer of almost every spread of the catalog (and if not, they should!), you should put this information on the cover as well. It’s an immediate signal that the catalog is asking for an order.

Once a catalog cover has been mocked up, I review it with the four key strategic objectives in mind: relevance, emotion, drama, and differentiation (see “Four Objectives,” left). Typically the more of these objectives it achieves, the stronger the cover.

And the stronger the catalog’s cover, the more likely you are to get the sale!

A catalog consultant specializing in improving performance and branding through creative, New York-based Glenda Shasho Jones is also the author of The Identity Trinity: Brand, Image, and Positioning for Catalogs.

Four Objectives


Is the cover significant to the target audience? Does it resonate with them?


Does the cover generate a smile? Puppies and children are often at the root of an emotional cover, but Lands’ End does a great job with humor on a regular basis, using illustrations and witty subject matter.


Does it have that “wow!” factor? Drama can often be achieved with exciting photography, as Patagonia does book after book.


Does it stand out in the mail stream? A unique presentation is effective only when it reflects or picks up on an aspect of a strongly grounded positioning. TravelSmith, Territory Ahead, and Coldwater Creek are examples of catalogers that have successfully developed differentiated presentations that reflect who they are.

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