Not just the facts, ma’am

Tradition, folklore, custom, habit, standard operating procedure, “We’ve always done it that way”: That explains why business catalogs feel comfort and safety in copy that states, clearly and without sales pressure, what’s available. Is that sedate approach, comfortable as it is, the best competitive posture in the Internet Era? Much of the answer lies in the effect the Web has had on business-to-business buyers, because even as we explore the matter, Web attitudes are bleeding over to print. The days of a b-to-b supplier having customers to itself are dimming into eclipse.

Ease of comparison of identical or seemingly identical items not only makes competition visible, it makes customer loyalty fragile.

Here’s a catalog of computers and ancillaries. The key selling argument, in big display type on page 3: “When it comes to standing out from the competition, today’s small businesses can’t afford to rest.”

Your opinion, please: Would you hire the creative team that wasted this prime space? I wouldn’t. Aside from the execrable cliché opening, “When it comes to,” what competitive chance does this meaningless bunch of words have against a dynamic competitor whose heading, on a similar key page, is: “The Best Prices. Anytime. Anywhere.”? Oh, that’s a cliché, too, but it’s aimed squarely at what today’s purchasing agents and entrepreneurs are looking for.

With customer loyalty in a shambles and brand-name price awareness high, what drives the printed business catalog’s selling effort as we enter the year 2006? Seller image is secondary to product price. The business customer who checks availability for a Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 4350n printer cares less about who is selling it than what it costs.

Yes, that may be different from the same reaction the same buyer had toward a similar product, 10 years ago. Ten years ago, customer loyalty still was a major factor. Today, even loyalty programs can’t hold the customer unless the price is competitive. Why? Because it’s just too easy to check prices, and loyalty is to Hewlett-Packard, not the reseller.

So price-emphatic copy has an automatic edge over “We’re a dependable source” copy. One catalog has the HP 4350n printer under the heading “HP Laserjet 4350n Printer”; subhead is “Network-ready, monochrome printer.” Price is $1,249.99. A competing catalog has this printer under the heading “Laserjet Headquarters!” beneath which is “Laserjet 4350n, hp $50 rebate deals.” Price is $1,649.99. Strangely, bullet copy differs. The first catalog has a bullet stating “Print speed: up to 45 ppm”; the second has a bullet stating “Up to 55 ppm.” The first catalog states, conservatively, “Duty cycle: 200,000 pages per month.” The second: “250,000 pages per month.”

But the first catalog, by immediately stating it’s a monochrome printer, may avoid returned merchandise.

Now, the print-catalog-entropy question: Can either of these catalogs compete with what a printer buyer sees when he/she uses PriceGrabber or another “bot” to compare price? Click: Immediately, here is the HP 4350n printer for $1,227. That’s a little better. But here’s another for $999. That’s a lot better. Click on that and we see the key by which the printed catalog absolutely can compete, if the creative team keeps its wits. The $999 price, it turns out, is for a “refurbished” machine…and although that description may not even be true, although the online seller may have an impeccable reputation, although today’s buyer is price driven, the printed catalog sees a wedge that copy can exploit: “Not used. Not ‘refurbished.’ Brand new.” The very reference, the use of quotation marks as a denigration to “refurbished,” restores patina and position.

Here’s a peripheral comment: Hewlett-Packard’s own print catalog is no world-beater in competitive copywriting. For example, 60-point type on page 2 excretes this hackneyed thought: “HP makes it easy. We bring together the products, services, and support you need.” (In this proprietary catalog, the HP 4350n printer is $1,649. The manufacturer dares not discount its own printer.)

Ultimately, whether a company is marketing printers, office supplies, office furniture, telephones, plastic pipe, or janitorial supplies, today’s business catalog should augment the merchandise it has for sale with a reason to buy. That, in the second half of the first decade of the 21st century, represents not only competitive safety but also comparative progress.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 28 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles, On the Art of Writing Copy, Effective E-Mail Marketing, Marketing Mayhem, and the recently published Asinine Advertising, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.

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