Catalog Merchants Have Critical Branding Role

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Sales for catalogers have not been robust in the past year. And now we seem to read weekly about a cataloger, direct marketer or supplier laying off staff or closing, such as Foster & Gallagher. As in the past, the softness has caused catalogers to retrench and reduce their circulation, primarily in prospecting. List brokers report the softness extends to list orders for fall 2000. That is four quarters of lower circulation.


These problems have no single cause. That is one of the difficulties when managing in these times. A company controls only part of its destiny. In times like these, more than any other, a company needs a strong brand image among not only its customers but also its prospective customers.


What is a company's brand image? It is the perception a prospective customer has about the company, its products and services. Since packaged-goods companies popularized branding, people too often associate brands with a single product or category, such as Coca-Cola and its spinoffs like Cherry Coke. Sprite, a sister product from the same company, is treated as a separate brand.


Furthermore, these companies, which primarily are manufacturers, do not have a merchandising department as do 90 percent of catalogers, whether consumer or business-to-business. Therefore, the responsibility for building the brand and its image ends up with the marketing departments within the packaged-goods firms.


The vast majority of catalogers, no matter their market, are not manufacturers but rather sellers of other companies' products. For most catalogers, selection of the products to sell is vested with the merchants. They are the ones who select what will be offered and at what price. Therefore, responsibility for brand image and projection in a catalog company does not reside solely within the marketing department but is also a major function for the merchants.


Yet many merchants and others within and without catalog and remote-selling companies do not assign this function to merchandising. They do not appreciate how critical to their brand image and success is the merchandise they offer.


Two competitive catalog/retail companies illustrate this. As I have not checked with the companies, the following opinions are mine regarding their brand image and the job their merchants have done at projecting and protecting their brands. They are Williams-Sonoma and Crate and Barrel.


Williams-Sonoma's tag line is "A Catalog for Cooks." That is the image its merchants try to project. If you are a cook, the more serious the better, they have the tools and aids you need to make and serve the perfect tart or dish. To do this, the merchants, led by Chuck Williams, seek out and present the best of class in every major kitchen and entertaining product category. All products selected support the notion that this is what a serious cook would use to make or serve meals. Naturally, this causes product pricing at Williams-Sonoma to be comparable with department stores, though fair for the quality sold. This positioning of its brand image forced a conservatism in selection of products. Flashy is not Williams-Sonoma's style.


In contrast, though not to say its merchandise is flashy, Crate and Barrel also sells home entertainment products. But its merchants' task is not to service the serious cook but to focus on the entertainment presentation by the host, though I am sure many serious cooks do shop this catalog and the stores. Therefore, a Crate and Barrel catalog/store offers colorful products that are the latest fashion in home entertaining. Some products may even be faddy. However, overall Crate and Barrel is selling the entertaining experience, one that is casual and fun. Because many of its items are not expected to be in fashion long, pricing is moderate compared with Williams-Sonoma.


Though both companies' catalogs and stores have a distinct look, what has built their brand images are their product offerings. One would not visit Crate and Barrel to buy a potato ricer or Williams-Sonoma to buy the latest fashion in serving pieces.


These two companies illustrate that good brand merchants understand and pick every item so it supports the company's image. Too many merchants, especially at many catalogs with multiple product categories, buy what is hot rather than establishing the company's image and ensuring that every product supports and reinforces it.


One still can experiment with products outside the company's image. Had Williams-Sonoma not tried new product categories, it would not have expanded into dining and kitchen furniture. The key is that the outreach for new products must stay within the company's brand image.


This sounds simpler than it is to execute. The first requirement is an understanding of what image the company has or wishes to project. Does it want to be the authority for serious collectors of watches or to be a company that sells fun, contemporary watches? Look at all the recent i-merchants who decided their image would be to offer everything available in a product category. They tend to be the "authority" by offering breadth of assortment, missing the first rule of merchandising to their brand image.


Second, once the image is understood, the merchants have to protect and project it vigorously through their product selection. They cannot add an item they like or think the customers will like. They have to be sure it fits the image and mission the company wishes to project. If not, they will do more to muddy the company's image than anyone.


Third, the merchants must ensure that everyone in creative and marketing understands why they selected the products. If they cannot explain it to creative and marketing, the prospective customer will never understand how this item fits the overall brand image.


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