Merchandising's Role in the Creative Process

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Did you ever wonder whether your merchandising department was making the best possible contribution to your catalog's creative development? Do you think the department's input could be more valuable with the right direction?


Most multichannel companies consider merchandising the most important ingredient to success. Yet this department's role in creative often is ill-defined, leading to too much influence, or sometimes not enough.


Merchants should have input in the presentation of the merchandise in a catalog. They know the product best and should know how to present it. They should have an understanding of who will use the product and how. All of that input is important. However, for various reasons - whether it be lack of time, resources or even personality clashes - merchandising input is often missed, minimized or misinterpreted.


What can go wrong. Most catalogers experience some kind of difficulty between creative and merchandising at one time or another. Different issues have different consequences, and all prevent an optimal situation. All of these problems have solutions, though commitment is involved. Examples:


* Merchants have too much control. Because of the talent and power many merchants have regarding product, they sometimes receive the role of complete arbiter. Usually, this "power" is bestowed upon them, and to fulfill it they wind up dictating how everything should be designed, shot and written. It's a situation that often doesn't start out being their fault.


Solution: Participation and joint meetings. It's important to have key members from marketing, creative and merchandising in a meeting. Discussion should be encouraged, and past performance experience should be part of the conversation (If there's no seasoned person on staff, think about bringing in an experienced consultant to share insights during key meetings.). Sometimes, people have to "see" it to understand other recommendations. The creative department should create alternative presentations of spreads, shots or copy for consideration. A qualified person should be the decision maker if no consensus is reached.


* Merchants play art director. Too often, merchants (or marketers) provide literal direction as solutions. "Move this here," "Make that bigger" or "I don't like that color" are regularly heard from meeting participants. Though these people are seeing something they don't like, they don't know how to express it and think they need to provide the creative answer.


Solution: Identify the problem and let creative solve it. When anyone besides creative starts "art directing," you want to say, "Tell me the problem you're having." If someone says, "Move this here," the response should be: "Tell me the problem you're having." The answer might be that the spread seems too disorganized and hard to understand. If so, it's certainly better to let creative solve the problem.


* Merchants provide insufficient or late input. A common complaint is that insufficient or late information prevents creative from doing their best design, copy or photography. It happens when merchandising turns over product, but little more. Product information, pricing, feature identification, photography direction, end user and spread themes may be lacking. Sometimes information comes in drips, drabs or a slow flow. It's impossible to do a good job when information comes this way.


Solution: Provide a written product profile. A document (some call it a fact sheet) outlining all the information needed for each product should be created and list all the information helpful for creative to develop a compelling presentation. The biggest mistake I've seen is that merchants often have their vendor fill out a fact sheet and pass it on to creative. The vendor does not know why the catalog merchant bought the product and how it should be positioned to the catalog client. Though different product categories have different information on their fact sheets, they should be filled out by the merchant and not only contain attributes (e.g., size, features and fabric) but also describe how someone would use it and why someone would buy it. Products should be reviewed one by one, on a spread-by-spread basis. The discussion should not be rushed; it is not unusual for a turnover meeting to take most of a day.


* Trashing schedules. Our business is run by schedules. Missing meetings or changing dates so that people don't have time to do their jobs often results in poor creative. You do not get the same creative product when you cut four days out of an eight-day layout schedule or when you cram 100 location shots into four days or when cover information is given the day before the photo shoot.


Solution: Adhere to written schedules. Publish them ahead of time, circulate them, get agreement. Let people send qualified substitutes if they need to miss a meeting or arrange for them to receive pages long-distance and participate in conference calls.


Create the opportunity for communication. After sitting through hundreds of turnover, layout and mechanical meetings, I know that process varies from company to company. And so does the amount of information communicated among departments! Typically, the less time and information allocated to the communication of information, the more disappointing the creative presentation.


It would be nice if merchants and creative had an ongoing exchange of information. Of course, that doesn't always happen. To ensure a proper amount, which inevitably leads to better catalogs, you should plan for three to four contact points during each catalog cycle:


* Strategic information and trends exchange (quarterly or biannually). This is a meeting where everyone has a role: Merchants provide trend information and insights into what is coming; marketing provides results from catalogs in the mail, customer profile updates, competitive information, etc.; and creative presents creative ideas and concepts.


* Turnover meeting - product information and pagination. This meeting is all about the provision of information, all with the goal of preparing a more thoughtful creative presentation: Identify all products by spread; knowledgeable discussion about each product; submit completed fact sheets (with benefits, features, prices, SKUs, etc.); samples to be available; show all new products; shoot digital or Polaroid merchandise as a reference; identify feature(s) and sub-feature(s); identify when vendor photography is available; identify exclusive merchandise, best sellers and/or "trial" product; identify opportunities for headlines and price call-outs; identify opportunities for editorial Web reference; discuss photography direction and important shots; identify front and back cover candidates; identify mail-order blank content; if needed, have additional information for pickup product (for editing); identify all catalog versions and content differences; and identify offers and tests (for cover messages, etc.)


* Layout meeting - review of layouts and photography input. This is a presentation by creative and should generate much discussion. It is the best, lowest-cost time to make changes. This meeting belongs to creative, and it should be their responsibility to present completed layouts and lead the review. Give special attention to the following: review all space allocation, including key items, features, sub-features; review placement of headlines and Web references; discuss photography plan (special requests, productivity, studio, etc.); review all models, propping, locations, final talent selections; review any "swipe" photography the art director has pulled; have all new products available for shoot; approve covers and photography required; confirm pagination (affects pacing and photography plans); identify requested vendor-supplied art and illustrations; see any products not shown at turnover meeting; all should be ready for photography now; first round of copy may be presented at this time, on the layouts or in galley form.


* Mechanical meeting - review of final deck and photography. At this meeting, creative is presenting the final deck to merchandising and marketing: review all film; confirm all "selects"; review final placement of all art and copy (headlines, body & editorial); confirm all call-outs, icons, logos or words to appear by products or in art; second and final round of copy may be presented at this time on the mechanicals.


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