Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Last Chapter

We’re almost done – let’s wrap these rules up today.

In case you missed Part One, Two or Three of my rules, click here:

Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Part 1 (with rules 1 to 6)

Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Part 2 (with rules 7 to 12)

Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Part 3 (with rules 13 to 18)

Rule #19 – Do not change for the sake of change

Constant creative tinkering rarely leads to significant gains in response. Unless your customers are calling or emailing and saying “Hey, I can’t order from this catalog/website”, you will see no meaningful increase in response rate from completely changing the format of your design. In fact, you will probably alter the product density and/or the mix of price points, which will hurt response.

Rule #20 – Don’t be afraid to sell

Over and over I see mailers throw a bunch of similar products on a page, with no thought given to helping the customers determine what is best for them. Don’t assume that your customer has the same love for or knowledge about your products that you have – you have to sell them. You have to rekindle that love for your products with every customer, with every new book.  In creative terms, that means going beyond a simple “hero shot” presentation, and going for the “WOW” presentation. Be bold.

Most B2B catalogs are the worst offenders of this rule. They typically make the assumption that the professional to whom this catalog is aimed (regardless of profession) can immediately tell what every product is for, and which of the 17 versions of the same product shown in the catalog, is ideal for their needs. You do no selling – every product is exactly the same, just thrown on the page. There is no effort to be creative, or sell; you are simply SKU barfing page after page.

Rule #21 – You must have a sense of urgency

Our greatest threat is not the online world, or Amazon. It is our own retreat into “catalog narcissism”. We believe it when printers and other industry leaders tell us that catalogs are not dead, and that our industry is fine. We listen to the co-ops when they tell us they are growing, yet we instinctively see all those orders flowing to Amazon and wonder how it could be that the co-ops are growing when they are missing all those orders.

The internet has been challenging catalogs for the past 20 years, and certainly has been pushing the catalog industry hard for the past 10 years. But most catalogs have no sense of urgency in making any changes. You still debate cover strategies, and timing tests. Your merchants maintain the same level of lousy productivity per catalog that they did 10 years ago – largely because no one has held them accountable for increasing productivity.

And because you are focused on the things that matter little, most of you have not had the inclination, the wherewithal, or the luxury of time to really look at your business from a strategic perspective. Neither Datamann nor I have all the answers. Few consultants do. But all consultants have an advantage – we get to walk in the door and view your business without all the day-to-day junk that you have to deal with. We can advise you on where to start making changes. But YOU HAVE TO HAVE THE SENSE OF URGENCY.  Stop fooling yourself that you are unique (there is no such thing as a unique catalog), and stop fooling yourself that your customers have any loyalty to you or that they see you as a lifestyle brand. And stop wasting your day dealing with things that have no impact on the future of the business.

The way to fix this is not to simply say, “well, we’ve got a website, we’ve got an email program, and we’ve got a mobile site, and we’re on Facebook, so we have all the bases covered”. I’ve seen most of your mobile sites and they do not make you a mobile marketer – they make you a catalog from which I can order with my phone.

The way to fix this problem is to review the list of factors above that truly have an impact on your catalog’s growth and future, and determine which ones have the biggest impact on your business. (Contact me if you want help). Start there. Then ask yourself these questions to tell if you are thinking like a company that can/wants to grow, as opposed to being simply another catalog caught in a downward spiral:

  • Do you have at least twice the number of products available online for purchase than you do in your catalog?
  • Do you have a program in place to reduce your cost of goods by 20% in order to enable you to increase prospecting to more marginal new customer sources?
  • Do you introduce all new products online first, before they even get included in the catalog?
  • Do you ever keep any of your absolute best products out of the catalog, and make them web-only?
  • Are more than 50% of your incrementally new customers being acquired with no help from a catalog?
  • Have you done a hold-out test to determine the percentage of online demand that comes from existing customer if you stopped mailing them a catalog?
  • Do you spend the same amount of time and attention on updating your website and (separately) your mobile site, as you do on paginating and creating your catalog? (I already know the answer on this one is “No”.)
  • Are you creating separate product specific catalogs/mailers targeted at specific portions of your file?
  • Do you have that sense of urgency?

Repeating what I said at the beginning of this long posting, I’m not a creative person. You would not want me to design your catalog. But, I am convinced that 90% of the catalog creative people in this world could create a really great, innovative, response generating design – if only you would let them. Take the restrictions off – let your creative people spread their wings, and show you what they can do. Let them inspire your customers. As long as they don’t monkey around (too much) with product density, what have you got to lose?

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


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Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Part 3

In case you missed Part One and Two of my catalog creative rules, click here:

Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Part 1 (with rules 1 to 6)

Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Part 2 (with rules 7 to 12)

Rule #13 – Branding is what you do to cows

Do not focus on building a catalog brand “creatively”. You build a brand on your merchandise and your customer service. Roy Disney, nephew of Walt Disney, once said that “Branding is what you do when there’s nothing original about your products.”

How many meetings have you sat through at your company where everyone dismissed dismal response rates by saying that at least you are building brand awareness, or that your catalog is becoming a “lifestyle brand” to your customers? That line of thinking is bogus. Customers are not going to buy from your catalog because of your “brand”, especially if that brand is built on a creative house of  cards.

In my opinion, the one thing that motivates your customers to buy is the merchandise. Get that wrong, and it does not matter how well targeted the mailing is, or how many likes you have on your Facebook page, or how strong your perceived brand quality is.   You’ve got to get the product right, and you’ve got to have it priced right – or nothing else matters.

When I hear clients talking about their “brand”, I always think of Roy Disney’s comments, and I ask the client about their products and merchandise. How truly unique is it? What truly sets it apart from others catalogs? What benefit does it truly provide the customer that they can’t get elsewhere? What are the runaway best sellers that are going to drive your business next year which no one else will have?

I rarely get satisfactory answers about the product itself. Instead I hear about their lifestyle branding efforts and their “branded, curated collection”.  There never seems to be any concrete merchandise knowledge and direction. That is what is missing in American retailing and catalogs.  We are focused on how we are selling, not what we are selling, because there is nothing “original about our products”.  Apple’s iPad, iPhone and iPod were all original – that’s what made their company so valuable. That is not because of “brand” alone – it is because of product.

Your catalog merchanside has to be original.  Having a black dress with five buttons instead of the four buttons like everyone else does not make your dress exclusive or original. And you are going to lose in the long run to companies that are bringing products to the market that truly are original and exclusive.

Rule #14 – Let The Product Be the Brand

This is similar to, but different from Rule #13. In my opinion, when you have to use “editorial” content to explain to your customer what you are attempting to do with your catalog, then you’ve already missed the point of what a catalog does. A catalog sells product by making the consumer see the product and say “Wow, I want that.” You should not have to tell them why you think they should want it.

Your creative needs to focus on the product, and make the merchandise sell itself.

I believe that catalog creative needs to be inspired, emotional and aspirational, not just “creative”. The best way to put it is to say “don’t bore us to death”.

Rule #15 – Web drivers

This rule is a big deal to me because I believe that one of the ways catalogs will survive in the future is to learn how to use their catalog to drive customers to their websites. Most of you will have to do this as a matter of survival. But I also believe this will ultimately be a better experience for the customer. Your website can, and should, be better than your catalog. You can show the products in multiple positions/uses, you can have video, you can have multiple ways to find product, and you can even steer customers to products that have the best margins (or even the highest inventory). Most important, you can have more products on the web than you can ever afford to have in the catalog.

You get it – the website just offers more opportunity. And yet, I still hear clients say that if the product is not good enough to go in the catalog, why bother to have it on the website? Or, they simply can’t sell a product unless it is in the catalog. You think that way because you don’t think in terms of the website being better than the catalog.

Clients continually ask me which catalogs do a great job of using their catalogs as web drivers – meaning, using their catalog to drive traffic to the website where the customer can have an even larger offering of products than what is in the catalog. By far, the best catalog at accomplishing this is Cabela’s, at least the books which I receive.  Most pages have a call-out to either watch a video online about one of the products, or a call-out to see more of the assortment online. Moreover, it is not done in a rote manner, similar to the way almost every catalog puts their URL on the bottom of the page. The call-outs subtly reinforce, in appropriate places, that Cabela’s has a bigger product assortment on line.

You may not have time this year to add additional products online, and you may not have time (or the resources) to make your website better. But, if you test anything this year, think about the elements you can introduce to drive customers to your website.  That is a worthwhile effort.

Here is a final word of advice – these web driver call-outs are not a creative element of the book. They belong to the Merchandise Department. Someone in merchandise has to be the champion of making certain these call-outs go in the book, and STAY in the book, on an on-going basis. I’ve seen several catalogs which started out strong with web callouts throughout their pages only to see their use fall off after a few months.  When I have inquired of the mailer to determine if they had tested these and determined they did not work, the answer is universally along the lines of “No, the person that was responsible for that left and we keep forgetting to put them back in.”

Rule #16 – Tell a story

This is a new rule, and not one I would have supported years ago. But that was before Amazon, and before this blog.

I receive the most comments from readers when I “tell a story” in this blog, especially when I mention something about my wife and I living in rural New England, such as owning a backhoe. Although I’m sure it bores some of you, most of your fellow readers seem to enjoy when I relate a catalog lesson/parable to a real life situation. That is one of the things that separates this blog from the ones you read that blabber on about “paradigm shifts”.

I like to think I set a high standard with this blog, at least with regard to content. You may not always agree with what I say, sometimes you might think I’m flat out wrong. But you must admit – you know where I’m coming from. I take a stand. That’s what makes it “unique” and difficult for someone else to emulate.

The same is true with your catalog. Most of you are selling “stuff” that at least two or three other competitors are selling. Plus, most of what you sell is also on Amazon. So how do you differentiate yourself? Tell a story, take a stand, and be unique. It will not appeal to everyone – but you can no longer try to appeal to a broad common denominator.

Rule # 17 – Make it Relevant to your customer – Appeal to their hopes, fears and aspirations

As many of you know, I’m partially deaf. I found a really LOUD kitchen timer online which I love. The copy online stressed how loud it was, and that you would never burn anything again in the oven for not hearing the timer. That is a huge BENEFIT to me, so I bought it.  At about the same time, I saw the same timer in a King Arthur Flour catalog. The first line of copy was “The timer you’ve always wanted”. That is a throw-away line that does nothing for sales. They have since changed it to “This timer wants to be heard! Adjustable volume setting on this timer is ideal for noisy households or for those that need a bigger more vocal reminder that the cookies are done.” That is focusing on a benefit, and making it relevant.  Do it with every product that you can.

Rule #18 – Don’t Be Timid

There is a meeting going on right now somewhere – in some catalog or ecommerce company – where “upper management” is discussing adding a new product category.  You’ve probably suffered through one of these meetings.  Someone may have brought some hard data to support going off into this new merchandise direction, but often it is simply someone saying “I believe, I feel, I think” that this new category is what your customer wants and will buy. Everyone else in attendance accepts these assumptions, because “well, we know we need to grow, and we can’t do that unless we expand the product offering, and these products seem like a logical extension of our brand, so let’s go for it.”

So you add these new products – and in my experience, they hardly ever succeed. The reason is because although everyone thought they were a great and logical extension of the merchandise line, no one supported them to the degree they needed to be support in the catalog.

First, and this is a merchandise issue, most new product categories are not supported with enough products to make it clear to the consumer that you are a champion of this category. You make a half-hearted effort with six or seven products. This is not going to help them move the needle and get strong growth.

Second, and this is a creative issue, you don’t give these new products prominence. You gave them a small amount of space, buried in the back portion of the book. We do this all the time. We are afraid to support new items because we are afraid of detracting from existing products.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


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Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Part 2

In case you missed Part One of my rules (with rules 1 to 6), click here:

Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Part 1

Rule #7 – Your customer is interested in how much you care about them – they don’t care about you

Your customer does not care about you – they are interested in how much you care about them. I had the privilege early in my career of working with George Duncan, a copy writer who taught me the customer does not want you to tell them about your grass seed, they want you to tell them about their lawn. But what do you do, not just with copy, but with design and photography? You tell the customer how great you are, how great your products are, etc. You fail to focus on what is important to the customer – and whatever that “thing” is, is different catalog to catalog.

  • Promise yourself that you will NEVER, EVER include a President’s letter on the opening spread, or anywhere else. There are only two people that read it – the copywriter and the President’s mother, and even she would rather see some new product.

Rule #8 – “Alex, I’ll take ‘Things That Don’t Matter to Survival’ for $400  please.”

Yes, you must test things. But please stop testing foolish things that make no difference to response. Testing ordering information on page two vs. a welcome letter is not going to move the needle.

In my opinion, the things that you think have a huge impact, and are the things that you debate year-in and year-out – and that you test – really have no long-term impact on your business. My list of “no impact factors” includes:

  • Mail dates
  • Trim sizes
  • Paper quality/paper tests
  • Cover tests (these are such a waste of time!)
  • Marketing offers (discounts, $ off)
  • Pagination tests
  • Choice of models/photographers
  • Circulation (As a marketing guy, it pains me to put “circulation” on the list, but unless you have made an egregious mistake, it is pretty tough to screw up your circ plan. Rarely does someone “mail the wrong customer” either in the short or long term).

On the other hand, in my opinion, the things that have the greatest long-term impact on your business are the things which very few of you ever discuss, test or even change. My list of those factors includes:

  • Page counts
  • Product density
  • Addition/elimination of whole product categories
  • Holdout panels
  • Price testing
  • Frequency of mailing
  • Web-only merchandise

Rule #9 – Tell them you hate it, and move on

There is a problem I know exists in many catalogs. It applies to merchandise and marketing, but primarily to creative. When presented with a catalog or website design that they don’t like, no one is ever willing to say “this stinks, it’s going in the wrong direction, stop now and let’s see something else”. Instead, people offer constructive criticism, hoping that the designer will intuitively know, maybe through osmosis or mind reading, what the other person really wants. The designer doesn’t realize that they are being told that their design “doesn’t work” because no one tells them such in so many words. The sugar-coated comments offered simply avoid hurting anyone’s feelings. And then you are stuck.

So, a bad catalog or website design simply gets reworked a little, and usually becomes even worse. Products that should not even be in the book get prominence on a page. Propping that is completely inappropriate to the products and overall design get emphasized. Product density is either too high or too low.

Remember, it’s hard to miss the message in “I hate it.” Yes, it will stop conversation. It may even ruffle some feathers. But you have merchanside to sell. Don’t allow Creative to hijack your products, or your catalog. Don’t allow a bad catalog design to move forward.  In our overly-sensitive, politically correct world, we could avoid a lot of problems, and increase a lot of sales, by simply being direct and blunt with our comments, without being personal, and moving on.

Rule #10 – The Patagonia Rule – Don’t be a copy cat

Datamann is fortunate to work with many new catalogs. I have two simple litmus test questions that I ask when meeting with these catalog start-ups, to determine how realistic they are about their plans and their expectations for success. Their answers are a good indicator of their chances at long term success.

Question #1 – who are your closest competitors to the catalog you have envisioned starting? More than 80% of the time, they respond “oh, we aren’t going to have any competitors – our product line is truly unique.”  That’s a yellow flag. Regardless of what product category they plan to be in, no matter what products they plan to sell, they will have competitors. As I rattle off a list of potential competitors, they often have no clue these other catalogs existed.  It is the rare exception when a new cataloger knows their competitors, has dissected their position in the market, and understands how to position their new catalog to be different.

Question #2 – what catalogs do you most closely want to emulate?  This is where the red flag typically comes out, because more than 60% of the time I have asked that question, the answer is the same: Patagonia.

No one ever responds with “we want to be like any other catalog that managed to be profitable from day one, and that has 15% EBITA after two years.” No, they just want to “look like” Patagonia. That’s what makes Patagonia the most dangerous catalog in the world.

Patagonia is a beautiful catalog, and they have great product. But, the catalog hopefuls that want to emulate Patagonia do so on the basis of the good deeds they have heard about that Patagonia does, as well as the beautiful catalog. Social consciousness gets their attention, but the look of the catalog is what they really want. They want their catalog to have full page spreads of surfers with no product for sale in sight, and cool half-page lifestyle shots of swimmers alongside some shirts.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being a copycat. But here’s the problem – in my opinion, there can only be one Patagonia. It is not so much that they are unique. They simply have a method of selling that works for them. They have built a position in the market that allows them to have full page lifestyle shots that don’t sell anything. It works for them. Most catalogers can’t do that.

And that is why emulating Patagonia – or any catalog – is dangerous for other catalogers, especially start-ups. Every new catalog has to establish its own market position. And it can’t be done based on “creative”.  It has to be based on product. What amazes me is the lack of thought many catalogs spend on the really important questions: how will I get my cost of goods down below 40%? Do my products lend themselves to multiple repurchases over time? How will I affordably acquire customers for this offer in print and on-line? The answers to these questions, and many more, are where success will come from.

Creative directors all think they are creative and innovative. But they are usually attempting to move their catalog into line with someone else’s. You have to have your own selling equation, and your own style. The more unique you can be, in merchandise and creative style, the more memorable you will be.

Rule #11 – Always ask – is it driving response?

We can all be subjective about what we do and don’t like about creative elements  in a catalog, and that is why – in my opinion – the only thing that is truly important is whether those creative elements drive response.  That’s what I look for – are you driving response? I don’t look at things like color palettes, eye flow or branding initiatives. Those are tactical tools of the Creative Department which I take for granted they know how and when to use. What I look for is whether they are using them to drive response.

Remember, you are not selling your dream to your customers – you are selling them their dream. Don’t allow your personal taste to invade the catalog design. Here’s an example: Most upscale hard goods catalogs do their photography in a stark, retro-looking SoHo loft, with unpainted walls. These catalogs are always totally devoid of any sense of warmth, or human touch. The products – usually furniture – are shown in a “neutral” setting, with all the character of a prison cell. Yes, that might appeal to some, but it sure does not appeal to all.  Use some common sense and respond to your own catalog as a consumer would.

Rule #12 – Product density is good

I love a dense catalog – the more products you have, the more you can sell – to a point. You also have to back up and ask yourself if you are too cluttered. There is no magic formula – every catalog is different as to what is the right product density per spread. But in general, when a cataloger asks me to evaluate their catalog because response is soft, almost always the number one reason is that they reduced product density.

To be continued – look for Part 3 next week.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

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Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Part 1

One of the pleasant things about this blog is how some readers will remember articles I wrote two or three years ago, and send me an email asking for advice on that subject, which I barely remember writing.

A few weeks ago, a reader asked for my list of “Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules”, which I had made passing reference to in a post last year.  I had written a post last summer on Bill’s 8 Irrefutable Rules For Catalog Covers, but that wasn’t what she needed.

I had to stop and think of when I actually created that original list, and realized it was for a speech I gave in 2005.  I found the PowerPoint slides, and decided that the list needed updating. Which raises the question – if they needed updating, were they “irrefutable” in the first place?  Rules change with time, especially in the online world.

Over the five plus years of writing this blog, I have referenced some of these rules, but never pulled them all together into one document. Moreover, since many of the readers of this blog are new in 2017, I thought it would be good to restate them in one place.

Let’s be clear on my perspective about catalog design. I’m not a designer. I’m a marketer. When I critique a catalog, I look at it from the perspective of a marketing professional and a consumer. I want every element of a catalog to drive the consumer to making a purchase. The catalog has to generate a response. I’m not interested in building brand, or developing “engagement”, unless those elements help drive response – and I do not believe that they usually do. Let the other guy blow his print budget doing that. You can’t deposit “engagement” in the bank.

Moreover, as I’ve said many times before, no matter how strong the creative is, your merchandise always rules – it is responsible for 60% to 80% of a catalog’s success. That is why I no longer conduct creative critiques of a client’s catalog without doing a merchandise analysis as well.

Some would argue that the term “creative rules” is an oxymoron.  Of course, to a degree, they are correct. As soon as you begin to follow a “rule” for design or catalog creative, you are not being creative, and are starting down the path of having a stale looking catalog.  But, remember that my rules were developed by a marketer, and have nothing to do with color palettes, or whether the catalog should use models or silhouettes of products. These rules are not for the creative staff per se, but are instead for the marketers, merchants, and management needing help understanding the role of creative in a catalog.  My rules are meant to keep everyone thinking about driving response.

Finally, one very important caveat: not all of these rules apply to every catalog. You have to use your judgment.

Rule #1 – Your catalog is not the most important thing in your customer’s life

Most catalogers still think of their catalogs as the most important thing in their customer’s life. It’s not – get over it. Your customer is not “waiting” for your catalog. Your catalog is competing with hundreds of other marketing messages that your customers and prospects receive every day. You need to up the ante on what your catalog does – especially with regards to driving response.

  • Once a customer picks up your catalog, they’ll spend 1.5 to 2 minutes with it. They are not curling up with it on the couch, planning to read it cover to cover.
  • The percent of pages “read” decreases as the reader progresses through the catalog
  • 40% of consumers read from back to front.

Rule #2 – Your catalog has to stand out

Is it compelling? Does it stand out in the mailbox? Really stand out? I’m not talking about having an odd trim size or being perfect bound. I’m asking if the customer is eager to look at your book because it constantly changes. Or are you too complacent, year-to-year, season-to-season, in what you are creating? In my opinion, the problem with most catalogs today is that they are remarkably dull. If you remember only one rule about catalog creative (or websites), remember this – you want your customer to always pick up your catalog or visit your website and say “Wow, I love this book. I want to see what’s new”. That is the essence of a catalog critique that drives response.

But stop right there. Catalogs have an instinct for order and stability. Most catalogers are content with repeating a perceived winning formula. Yet, when does “safe and predictable” creative cross the bridge to “boring and non-responsive”? For many of you, that is a sad, on-going reality of your catalog. The bigger problem is that you don’t see it – you think you are making HUGE, significant creative changes in your catalog with every edition (“we added extra space on the back cover for a second inkjet message!).

Of course, perceived change and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Even if catalogs followed all my irrefutable and non-negotiable rules of catalog design, most of them would still be mostly boring. They’d be well executed, but boring.

Why? Because the tide has turned. Even for baby boomers for whom catalogs still resonate, catalogs are no longer our primary method of commerce. It is online or mobile. We can search, we can watch videos, and we can look at products in different colors, from different angles. The catalog is now secondary and even tertiary. When was the last time you had someone call you, email you, or contact you via some form of social media about a “really cool catalog”?  Be honest here folks.

And yet, you could so easily bring your catalog alive. You could become more daring, especially with new products. You know you are getting the cookies knocked out of you by online competitors, so what have you got to lose? Why not double or triple your rate of new product introductions? Allow your creative team to make changes to give creative equal strength to the new products.

Stop playing it safe. Safe is boring. Until you start shaking up the status quo with your products and your creative, you are always going to look like a black and white TV show.

Rule #3 – It must be readable

At best, you will get a 2% response rate. 98% of the recipients of your catalog throw it away. One of the reasons they throw it away is that you made it impossible to read – they could not figure out what you were selling.

  • Skip the knock-out type – no one can read it.
  • Use serif font (I may be the only person in the world that will give you that advice, but older people – like me – find it easier to read).
  • Make the type/font bigger. When you think it is big enough, take it up two more points.

Rule #4 – Think of your website first, then the catalog

This is a tough one, because it is such a hard habit for all of you to break. I had a client recently tell me that they save all their new products for each new catalog edition, because they had been told years ago by the catalog founder, that their customers wanted the catalog to be special, and they wanted to be surprised with new product when they opened it up. If that scenario was ever true, it probably stopped being the case when The Ed Sullivan Show was still on TV. You have to think in terms of making the website better than your catalog. I never hear clients say that they were three weeks late getting print files to their printer. Maybe a day late, but even that is unusual. Yet, I hear them say all the time that the changes to the website are three weeks, or even three months late. You need to make changes to the website as important, and as time sensitive, as the catalog.

Rule #5 – Priority of Placement

Priority of Locations – are you using the hotspots correctly?  This is so basic, some of you are saying “Oh, come on Bill, is this the best you can do?”  But, so many of you still waste the front and back cover, the inside opening and back spread, and a few other hot spots. These places are your best real estate in the catalog; don’t ignore their importance with branding messages, stupid tests, or worse – on ordering information! (I even saw one catalog this last holiday season where page two was blank!!!). This is where you want to be selling your best products.

  • Order of priority for the best spots in the catalog – front cover, back cover, inside front spread, inside back cover spread, center spread.

Rule # 6 – Tell Them More Than Once – Don’t Be Subtle

Most of you believe that your customers love your catalog as much as you do, and therefore remember every little nuance about your book. That leads you to believe you only have to tell them things once. You expect that you can mention free shipping or 20% off just once on the front cover and that the customer will remember this by the time they get to page 48 of your 96 page catalog. To make matters worse, you can’t bring yourself to destroy the “creative integrity” of the front cover, so the callout for free shipping is tiny. Why not remind customers on EVERY SINGLE SPREAD that you have free shipping, or whatever your promotion is? Most of you are competing in some way against Amazon. The consumer knows what they offer. If you are going to have an offer, you have to grab your customer’s attention and clobber them over the head with it. Don’t be subtle.

To be continued – look for Part 2 next week.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


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You Can Ignore Most of It

This week marks the fifth year anniversary of my starting this blog at Datamann.  I’m going to use the occasion to share a brief personal observation that relates directly to catalogs.

I received several emails last week from readers who agreed with my comments that their catalog could get along just fine with “less perfect” photographs and design. These comments were from the marketing and circulation people who are trying to stretch their budgets, and actually have some money left over to mail the catalog after the creative department has spent a big chunk of the budget on up-front fixed costs like photography and design.

Here was one comment: “Could not agree more that we could get by with ‘good enough’ photography. However, when this is suggested to our creative team, they lose their minds. Any suggestions on how to overcome that?”

Well, let’s try this.  Let’s say you were acquired by new owners, and they mandated that the budget for new photography be cut by 70%? What would you do? Some people would simply throw up their arms and say “You’ll kill the catalog. You don’t understand! We can’t just photograph this new light fixture in any old setting; it has to be done in just the right location, with at least three models, and a dog.” Others, who realize that they have to live within the confines of this new reality, would take some action.

The question becomes, what is important, and what is just noise?

Most of the readers of this blog are unaware of the fact that I am almost deaf.  Most of you have never met me, and if you have, unless you notice my hearing aid, you are probably unaware of the fact that I can’t hear a word you are saying if we are in a crowd.

Ten years ago, I contracted an illness which left me completely deaf in one ear, and with only 40% hearing in the other, which gets increased to 70% with my hearing aid. So, I have about 20% of the normal hearing range that most people have.

What does this have to do with catalogs? Everything.   You see, I have learned to get through the day by ignoring much of what is going on around me, because I can’t hear it anyway. Your customer does the same with your catalog.

In one-on-one situations, I’m OK. Even with three or four people in a room, I can carry on a conversation without too much difficulty. The worst situation is a large crowd – like the coffee break at a crowded conference. You can be standing right next me and practically yell into my good ear, and I can’t tell what you are saying.

I know I’m probably going to get in trouble for saying this, but I’ve learned that 90% of what most people are saying in situations like that can be ignored, and no one can tell that I’m not listening to them. I can tell when someone is asking me a question, because the tone of their voice changes. I can hear a change in frequency and tone, although I don’t know what is being said. So when I detect that someone is asking a question, I lean in and ask them to repeat it. Otherwise, I just stand there and smile and nod. Most people just think I’ve become more agreeable in the past ten years.

Your customer does the same thing with your catalog. They are browsing it. They are flipping through looking at products. They want to see that you have the product knowledge and authority to sell this product. But they are ignoring most of it.

I used this spread (below) from the Cabela’s catalog last fall in a posting on hunting catalogs. They used one lifestyle photo on the spread to show they had “authority” when it came to selling cold weather gear, but the rest of the product photos are all lay-flat studio shots. I know some catalogs where every item would have to be a lifestyle shot. Is that necessary?

The problem is that many catalog creative directors, and merchants, insist on a specific and consistent “look, feel, and theme” to the catalog, to convey a lifestyle, or as Kevin Hillstrom calls it, your “Unique Point of View”.  And there is something to be said for having a “unified” creative look to a catalog.  But everything does not have to be perfect. In my opinion, sometimes when everything looks “too perfect”, your catalog has the same appeal as a mailer from Verizon trying to get me to switch phone plans.

Stop thinking that your customer is curling up in front of the fireplace with a glass of wine to read your catalog – and only your catalog – cover to cover. If that ever did happen, it hasn’t happened in the last 10 years. Your customer has a thousand things going on in their life. Media is on all the time. Some will argue that this exactly the reason that you should, YOU MUST spend a ton of money and time on truly exquisite creative, that will standout and catch the reader’s attention.

But here is where my deafness comes in. “I have learned to get through the day by ignoring much of what is going on around me, because I can’t hear it anyway. Your customer does the same with your catalog.” Your customer is motivated by your merchandise. Your merchandise is your brand. The depth, variety and diversity of your product assortment are what will drive a response. Truly creative people can develop effective and affordable creative, that provides a “unique point of view”, but which puts focus on the merchandise, and how that merchandise meets the customer’s needs.

This is separating the noise from what is important. To answer that reader’s question from last week mentioned at the beginning of this posting, my suggestion is to pose a challenge to the creative folks and the merchants. What can they do to create a truly unique looking catalog, that drives response, and can they do it spending 50% less than what is budgeted? Anyone with some basic talent can spend a fortune on designing a catalog that is “perfectly” photographed, and properly executed. That’s no challenge. That’s just doing their job. Moreover, it is creating a catalog that is similar to thousands of other catalogs that have come before it.

The challenge to everyone – including the marketing and circulation team – is to ALL work together at developing a merchandise and creative direction for the catalog.  Creative, merchandise and marketing cannot work independently of each other. Their over-riding goal – what is important, and not noise – is to develop something that drives response. Unique creative does not have to be expensive and perfect. It has to be unique. That’s why it is called “creative”. Everything else you can ignore, and you’ll still manage to get through the day just fine.

By the way, if you have not visited the Datamann website lately, it was recently redesigned, with a new format for the blog that allows you to search on my last five years of musings. (Click here to visit Bill’s new blog site). Awesome stuff!

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


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The Magnum PI Look Is The Giveaway

Why do you always aim for perfection instead of change?

At last year’s Datamann catalog and ecommerce seminar, which Datamann hosts and sponsors for the VT/NH Marketing Group, the local chamber of commerce in Concord, NH had a pile of the magazine pictured below in the conference center lobby.

Do you notice anything wrong?

Look at the guy’s sweater and his mustache. Look at her hair cut. This photo is from the late 1980s!

Because I worked next door to the Eastern Mountain Sports headquarters in Peterborough, NH for more than 20 years, I recognized the photo immediately as being from an EMS catalog from that time frame, 25+ years ago!

This is not an isolated occurrence or problem. Almost every catalog is guilty of it. I see many of you using the same photos in your catalogs year after year. Usually, you don’t have models that have a “dated” look, but some of you do. (Do most women wear eye shadow and earrings when they go camping?)

If your response is lagging on some products that used to do well, take a count of how many consecutive times that product has had the same photo in your catalog. I’ve seen instances where the same photo appeared more than 100 times consecutively, with no changes! Of course, not only does the photo not change, but the headline and copy block often remain unaltered for years as well.

I’m going to refrain from showing examples of this, as it would become a game of “gotcha”. There would be little value to readers to embarrass those you that fall into this trap. But, you know who you are, and if is response is lagging – change it up a little.

The reason that most of you do not do more photography is that you want perfection. As an industry, we spend a fortune on new photography. Only a few of you do what I call “make do with good enough” photography.  Sure, you can’t rely on your cell phone to take product pictures, but do you really need to bring in an outside photographer, a lighting technician, a stylist, and a model to shoot a sweatshirt? Or a lawn sprinkler?

You still look upon your catalog as being something for which the Library of Congress is waiting. Even though you know that Catalog Age magazine is not around anymore to give you an award for “Catalog of the Year”, just in case someone else is, you don’t want to be marked down for any photography that is less than perfect. And of course, perfection is expensive. So, you stick with the same photo that has been used 100 times (literally) before because you can’t afford to shoot a new one.

But here is what is so puzzling to me. You won’t shoot your own stills for the catalog or website, but you are willing to shoot your own video, of your latest “behind the scenes at our company”, and post it to YouTube, with minimal editing, minimal changes, and certainly, no “professional look”.  You agonize over catalog photography and models, but will throw anything on YouTube.  I actually agree with getting videos on your website and YouTube frequently and cheaply.  I’m puzzled over the continued striving for perfection on static photography.  What’s wrong with “make do with good enough”?

Let’s try a test. Instead of doing yet another useless cover test, let’s do a photography test. Unless you are a high-end fashion catalog with a $500 average order, try having someone in the creative department use their own camera (not a phone) to shoot a few products in the next catalog. See if sales fall off dramatically for those products if you don’t go for “perfection” but instead go for “change”.   Change is good.

Your customer may not have the historical memory that I do, but they recognize when they have seen something repeatedly. That’s when they stop opening your catalog at all.

This year’s seminar – which is now only three weeks away – is not about catalog creative per se. But it is about the need to change, the need to evolve. If you have not already registered for the seminar, click here to visit the VT/NH Marketing Group’s website.

Registration costs for this all day event:

  • $135 for VT/NH Marketing Group members
  • $200 for non-members
  • Registrations are accepted until March 28, 2017

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


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