Coming Up With Good Creative Is Hard Work
First, those reading it might think that the imitation stops with design elements, but one of the first bastions of imitators is in their merchandising. Another is in the copywriting. I guess it's just too much work to develop an original product line for some people, so they scan their competitor's catalog item by item and try to do it themselves. The problem with rip-off merchandising is that if the rip-offs are cheaper imitations, everyone's image suffers.
A classic example was when The Sharper Image first became successful and was followed up by half a dozen competitors who sold similar gadgetry. Of course, many of these didn't have great service, or the products were cool in concept but lame in execution.
If your merchandising is "me too," you need to give your merchandiser room to explore development of a unique product line or consider going outside for an independent merchandiser -- who after digging into your successes, failures and database information, can help you better define your own original self in your product line.
Then there's the area of copywriting. The irony is that sometimes creative is derivative, and occasionally what is not exactly imitation is certainly a strong reflection. Territory Ahead and (our dearly departed) J. Peterman are both imaginative and literary -- derived from a strong tie to storytelling, adventure and the past -- but slightly different muses. No matter, they have a different voice, derived from a different mission, so they have their own style and sell different products to different markets.
One of the fastest routes to defining a catalog's unique style is to develop a well-defined mission statement and follow it religiously. Yes, it takes thought and work. But what a great investment.
But let's make this very clear: For original creative treatments, it takes two to tango.
On one hand, catalogs need to request and demand original thinking from their creative team. They need to give their team the time and autonomy to come up with a variety of styles and good reasons for those styles. Sometimes, they need to go outside for critique or development if their team is too busy.
Intelligent, original creative takes both imagination and a strong knowledge of your database of customers -- including conversations with customers and customer service people -- to develop a voice and a look that is really your own. Catalogers need to open the doors between the creative team and the customer, provide statistics from the database and allow time to turn that into meaningful creative ideas based on good marketing know-how.
On the other hand, the creative team needs to insist on original and fresh creative. This means requesting opportunities for independent development of new creative looks and ideas. It means finding time somehow, or requesting time, to speak with customers and get their opinions and critique of what you are sending them in the mail. It means interviewing the database experts in your company for things that move the heart of your customer.
And it means to "just say no" when you are shown a layout and told to imitate it. I don't know how many staff members are willing to take that chance. My colleague and friend Otis Maxwell put it well: Great and effective creative "is hard, dirty work." But by doing it, you better ensure that your job will be there for you a year from now.
Carol Worthington Levy
Worthington Levy Creative
San Jose, CA