Choosing Brand Signals

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This is part two of a two-part article. Part one appeared in the May 8 issue.

It's generally accepted that building a strong, differentiated brand is a good thing. Yet so many catalogs have little idea of how to create meaningful brand signals - by this I mean visual imagery in the catalog (and throughout the various selling channels) that builds a desired brand image.

In part one of this article, we discussed the uses and risks of two major strategies to develop these signals: editorial content and lifestyle and/or editorial photography. We resume with a third.

Performance or quality icons. Companies that sell more complicated products are not limited to product shots and copy blocks. Communicating detail in an interesting, digestible manner educates the customer. It improves the perception of product performance, quality and detail. "A picture is worth a thousand words" and the right visual support can make a big difference in performance.

  • Does your product perform?
  • Does it contain hidden features?
  • Is there information or a story that isn't apparent just by looking at the photo?
  • Must the customer work too hard to read the copy to understand what your product does?
  • Are there visual stories (e.g., construction) associated with your product that would help sell it and/or position you as the authority?

Creative direction: Using visual cues to show product attributes, benefits and performance qualities gives you a big chance to position yourself as an authority. Icons can help the shopping process, pacing and interest and can tell your customer that you know your product.

TravelSmith does a wonderful job with icons to call out product performance features. Frontgate now uses icons and call-outs more aggressively with expensive and complicated products throughout its catalog. Lands' End uses call-outs and microscopic shots on everything from boots to parkas.

Cautions: Icons should look like what they are communicating. "No iron" should be an image of an iron with a strike through it. "Rainproof" might be drops of rain repelled by a fabric. The litmus test: If my customers don't understand English, would they still understand what I'm trying to sell them?

Icons also must be treated carefully or they can take on a life of their own! You don't want them to get in the way of good design and eye flow. You want them to be an integrated part of the presentation. Use them thoughtfully, selectively and consistently throughout a catalog.

Marketing techniques. It's always possible to ratchet up the "knowledgeable" part of your brand by helping customers feel that you're going to help them make the selection that's right for them.

  •  Do you sell products that are easily available elsewhere?
  •  Is your product better than something your customer may already have?
  •  Do you carry different (style or price) options of the same type product, where you ask your customer to make a choice?

Creative direction: There are various ways to build your position as an authority and help customers shop. Techniques include:

  • Ours/theirs: Visually compare products, or an attribute of the products, in a side-by-side comparison. TravelSmith does this effectively.
  • Good/better/best: Whether it's warmth, speed, weight or price, if you know that a customer has to choose, point out differences in an easy-to-understand comparison. Lands' End does a great job with this. Creating a chart (as some computer companies do) that compares attributes also works.
  • The best/our choice: A great way to call out product throughout a catalog is by creating a label or stamp that shows your special endorsement. It's like the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."

Cautions: These executions are complex and tend to need fine-tuning. I usually don't see what I like on the first go-around, even when I provide "swipe" showing an example of what I want. Applications should be simple and easy to understand at a glance. Plus, they should be impactful. Plan for a couple go-arounds before you get it right.

Illustrations and character art. Unique visual treatments can create a strong, memorable point of differentiation. Of course, this works best when the illustrative element(s) are consistent with one or more aspects of the desired brand.

  • Is there a whimsical element to your business?
  • Could you use someone/something to deliver messages throughout the catalog?
  • Does the nature of your product call out for something "fun" to break the ice?

Creative direction: Creating a funny character to communicate information and add pacing in a boring environment is just what New Pig did when it created its pig character that appears on front covers and dances through catalog pages. Being "piggy" about soaking up spillage and waste is exactly the message the company wants to communicate.

Likewise, it's impossible to miss J Peterman in the mail. Illustrating merchandise was an old method and deemed a no-no in our modern catalog industry when Peterman used the technique as a foundation of design and a reflection of the romantic lifestyle he created with copy and presentation.

Cautions: Using illustrations or character art carries risks. Most of us would agree that illustrations never sell merchandise as well as photography. The challenge may be choosing an illustration strategy that supports product presentation and creates differentiation and brand strength at the same time. Research might be effective to evaluate alternative considerations.

Other strategic brand-building areas to consider. Many other areas of creative strategy can be used to develop brand signals. They include:

  • Models: The selection, or casting, of models is an art itself. And since most of the in-demand catalog models work for a variety of books, their styling and hair and makeup make all the difference in reflecting a company's brand.
  • Color: Probably one of the least strategically used elements, color can be used in logos and design throughout a catalog (and other channels) to create a brand recognition anchor. Tiffany's does it best, but Godiva and Red Envelope have picked up the value of color in package design and reflection in the catalog.
  • Catalog design: The overall layout of a page, and the type used, can be a reminder and visual brand anchor. A customer easily recognizes the grid presentation of Crate & Barrel, the full-bleed feature shots in Pottery Barn and the recipe-laden design of Williams-Sonoma.
  • Testimonials: The words and pictures of satisfied customers can be a powerful motivator. Gardener's Supply lends confidence to shoppers and interest to its book by using real customers in their gardens!

As you evaluate the best branding signals for your business, step back during the process and look at the selection and development of signals in a strategic manner. Be careful of the tendency to think of yourself as the customer (you are not!) or of making choices for executions that reflect something you are not.

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