Creating Catalogs That Count: Tips to Start

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So, you're ready to launch a nationwide catalog campaign. Are you prepared? Do you know your market? Do you have the intestinal fortitude?


Fifteen years ago, we were looking for a new market niche to add sales to our commercial sheet-fed printing business. After some research, we decided to make catalogs that niche. We were in for some surprises.


In the beginning, we worked to build the inhouse capability to handle catalog production from concept to print and to learn the catalog marketing business, which were daunting tasks on their own. But at the same time, our business was booming and technology was changing so rapidly it was hard to stay ahead of the trends. It was a grueling but an exciting period in our business. And looking back, it taught us a number of lessons that we now apply to every catalog project we approach:


Ask the right questions. When approaching a catalog project, there are several questions you must ask yourself before getting started. Although it's easy to get caught up in the logistical details, you cannot think only about the what, when and where. It is much more important to consider the why, who and how.


Why do you want to produce a catalog? Why do you expect customers will be interested in it? Who are your customers? How do you want them to perceive you? By asking and answering these questions, you will be able to create a catalog strategy that will help you better communicate to your customers. Or, you might identify problems with your existing catalog design you might not have otherwise noticed. Most importantly, you may reveal opportunities to attract new customers or find a better approach for reaching existing customers.


Define your brand. The questioning exercise mentioned above should lead to this step, but it's important enough to mention on its own. If you're a new company, you need to have a vision of what you want to be when you grow up. If you're approaching catalog marketing for the first time or just rethinking your strategy, you need to understand who you are. What emotions or reactions do you want to evoke when your customers see your catalog?


What associations would you like them to make with your products or services? Successful catalog marketing requires much more than offering appealing merchandise - to really attract customers and keep them coming back, you need to sell them on a benefit, an idea, a lifestyle. Your catalog must communicate your brand image on every page and should be consistent with your company's overall branding messages.


Understand your audience and be relevant to them. This tip seems obvious but is often misunderstood. It doesn't mean simply knowing whom you want to reach. It means really understanding your audience's needs, their likes and dislikes, and how they prefer to be approached. You use similar criteria to select your merchandise; you should also use them to design your catalogs. Your customers should be able to imagine using the products in your catalog.


Equally important, you must understand what potential customers are seeing from your competitors. Only then will you be able to create a catalog that stands out from the pack.


We once designed and produced a used farm equipment catalog for a Southern auctioneer whose understanding of his audience reaped great benefits. He knew his potential customers' lingo, understood what they were looking for and knew what other competing information he was up against. Based on this knowledge, he was able to inject an element of Southern farming humor into the catalog design and the tone of the copy. It made his catalog stand out, and his customers loved it.


A more straightforward approach can work as well. We often produce catalogs for companies auctioning used industrial equipment. These products don't make the most beautiful photographs, so we often suggest copy and design elements that explicitly describe the features and benefits of the items. What the equipment lacks in aesthetics, we make up for in description.


Design with punch. As printers, we realized some time ago that quality printing wasn't enough. A catalog needs to deliver a targeted message to a specific audience in a way that gets noticed. Effective design appeals to potential customers, expresses your message clearly, delivers on the brand promise and impacts positively on your bottom line.


Humans are extremely visual creatures. Sight has become the most important and most trusted sense. According to some studies, 95 percent of all messages received by the consumer, whether they are mailings, billboards or television commercials, are disregarded. To beat the odds, you must have great catalog design that grabs attention and, just as importantly, gets your message across in a clear, concise way - making it relevant to the consumer. Put a lot of thought into the arrangement of items in your catalog and the eye-grabbers you use - the object is to draw potential customers in, encourage them to flip through and get their eyes on everything you offer.


Provide the best customer service. By this, we don't mean making sure you have helpful customer service representatives on your toll-free line, although that certainly is important. We mean making your catalog customer friendly - easy to navigate, intuitively designed and informative. Your customers will appreciate your effort, and yours will be less likely to be among the 95 percent of messages that are disregarded.


Build a strong relationship with your vendor. We can't emphasize this enough. By getting to know your vendor, its processes and the technology it uses, you enable your vendor to better serve you, help you take advantage of the latest technological innovations and save you time and money.


We'll also provide customers - with whom we've established strong relationships - assurances that we won't reuse design elements used in other clients' catalogs, ensuring them an original look.


Know the latest technology - and stay a step ahead. When we first got into the catalog business, the old method of production - designing on the table, stripping, etc. - was the convention. It worked great at the time, but because we were willing to embrace new technology, we were able to stay a step ahead of our competitors. We adopted desktop publishing early on and even served as a beta test site for a major software developer. While it requires both a monetary and a time commitment to adopt new technologies, it almost always has paid off for us in saved time, better service for our customers and higher-quality catalogs.


While these tips may seem elementary, we've found that you can follow and examine all the trends in the catalog world, but the basics still apply.

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