Little Creative Details and Big Payoffs

Small catalog companies face challenges that larger mailers don’t encounter, due to the lack of economies of scale. For this reason, smaller catalogers must take advantage of every possible creative trick to sell merchandise. As you gear up for next season, consider the following checklist when designing your catalog. Each little design detail can make a big impact on your overall catalog presentation…and your overall results!

Brand, marketing, and merchandising

Your creative is virtually meaningless if it doesn’t integrate the three cornerstones of successful cataloging: brand, marketing, and merchandising.

Brand: Your brand is your life. It’s what separates you from your competitors. Present it in a consistent look and voice that customers will come to know and recognize at a glance, not just in your catalog but across all channels.

Merchandise: Have you created compelling merchandise stories that allow you to design spreads that engage readers? Understand the key price points that resonate with your customers, then find products within that “comfortable” range that you can exploit in the layout.

Pagination plays a major factor too. You should paginate your catalog according to what has sold in the past, using your merchandise analysis to place best-selling (and most profitable) products and categories in key hot spots (such as on the front and back covers and on the opening and closing spreads). Placing established best-sellers on “hot” pages is not for the 2% of customers who have already purchased the items; it’s for the 98% who have never purchased or even seen them before!

Many catalogers have the urge to present their newest products within the first few spreads. This is fine as long as the new products share several of the attributes of your winning products (the same price or style, for example). If they don’t, give readers a “hint” of your new products by referring to them with copy on the covers, picturing a few items on the opening spread with page references, or mentioning the products in your opening letter.

Marketing: Have you considered how your creative works along with your marketing contact strategy? In order to maximize your advertising dollars, build a plan that allows you to repurpose your creative efforts across multiple drops by changing the covers or an outer signature and printing them at the same time.

What about special tests or messages directed at specific audiences? When creating covers, plan how to present these messages or offers to ensure that they get noticed. Keep the messages simple and clear, directing readers inside if more explanation is needed. A good rule of thumb is to highlight the most important words in an offer and keep the entire message shorter than eight words. If an offer is too complex, chances are customers and prospects won’t take the time to decipher it.


Are your front and back covers working hard enough? Without question, these are the two most important pages of your entire catalog. They must quickly tell who you are, explain your unique merchandise niche, and highlight your brand differentiation. Your front cover images should be strong and grab attention with bright colors or bold photography. Showcase best-selling products or categories with succinct benefit statements, then pull readers into the book with inside page references. Your back cover should accomplish the same goal: getting readers to open the book. The covers may be the only two pages they ever see, so spend the time to make them perfect!

To gauge how well your cover stacks up against the competition, place it on a table along with 10 other catalogs or other pieces of mail. Your cover should stand out in the crowd. If it doesn’t, it’s time to go back to the drawing board — or to the computer, more likely.


As mentioned earlier, it’s critical that the catalog is paginated so that you offer known product winners in the most frequently shopped locations of a catalog. But it’s also important to know how readers use the catalog. For instance, business-to-business customers will likely file a catalog and refer back to it when they have a need. Many consumer shoppers, on the other hand, browse and then throw the catalog away.

So for b-to-b buyers, consider incorporating a table of contents or an index if you have an extensive product selection or a large page count. Do the same for a consumer book if it’s 60 pages or more or if customers typically shop by category. Another technique used in consumer catalogs is to present a “visual” table of contents that represents your best-selling categories along with page references. If your customers shop by product categories or themes, incorporate page headers or headlines.

What about questions that customers or prospects might have? Place the answers in logical locations. When readers have questions about your company or brand, an offer, or where to find a specific category, they’ll typically go to the opening spread. For more-detailed answers that include customer service issues such as returns, shipping, or delivery costs, they will go to the order form. Make sure you conform to those expectations so that they can find the answers they need. And always put your phone number and Web address on at least every spread.


Is every spread in your catalog strategically designed? The upper right-hand corner of a spread is the first place the eye typically “lands,” so you should present best-sellers or other appealing products there. Be sure that the bulk of your spreads include an anchor product that is treated as a hero and given prominent space. That way you’ll avoid the boredom of “democratic” spreads in which every product receives the same amount of space.

Once you’ve completed your first round of spreads, lay them out on a table. Do they appear to come from the same brand? Spreads should flow from one to the other, though they shouldn’t lack variety. Be sure to include a few “breaker” spreads that strategically interrupt the design enough to entice readers out of their complacency.

Do all of the products on a spread tell one cohesive story that will emotionally engage the reader? Use color, headlines, editorial sidebars, and anything else that will present your products in a unique method and help explain and reinforce your unique merchandise concept. But don’t neglect to place the copy and other information in an easy-to-find location. It’s imperative that you create a simple shopping experience, giving customers no reason to delay a buying decision.

Selling off the page

Have you sufficiently presented every product so that customers and prospects can understand the key benefit at a glance? A catalog is a visual medium. Catalog shoppers look at the image first, then the price. Only if they are still interested will they begin to read the copy. Attention-getters such as in-use photographs, captions, and callouts can help explain the benefits and encourage readers to learn more. For these tools to work, the designers must understand why each product is unique and how each fits within your merchandise concept.

Are your products the stars of the page? They should be. Minimize extraneous use of color, props, overly designed type, and any other graphics that might take the eye away from what you are selling.

As for the copy, it is so much more than a collection of product descriptions. Headlines, subheads, and initial sentences should quickly explain the number-one benefit, telling potential buyers what they’ll miss out on if they don’t purchase the product. Make the descriptions easy to read, using short sentences and chunks of copy.

Type treatments, of course, can affect the impact of your copy. Use fonts and sizes that are easy on the eye. Busy, cluttered copy will simply not be read. And look for other opportunities on the spread to further solidify your brand, such as running benefit statements along the bottom of the page.

A final check

By the time you go to press, key product and pricing information should have been proofread and proofread again. Many times, though, simple things fall through the cracks. While a few minor mistakes may find their way into the finished piece, make absolutely certain that the following vital components are accurate:

  • the phone number and Web address on every spread
  • the logo and the tagline on the covers
  • tinted boxes on your mailing panel for your customer and source codes
  • your guarantee within your catalog and on your order form
  • the appropriate offers or messages for each version
  • inserts that do not disrupt spread continuity
  • all page references (the table of contents, cross-references, etc.)

Never underestimate the power of your creative presentation to make or break your business. As a small cataloger you are competing against the big guys and their big budgets. If you do all these “little” things right and do them well, you can make an impact.

Lois Boyle is president/chief creative officer of Shawnee Mission, KS-based catalog consultancy J. Schmid & Associates.

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