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Beginning a Perfect Catalog Campaign

Whether you’re a veteran cataloger or new to the business, there’s something magical about starting a new campaign. However, there’s no magic involved. Most successful catalogers have a system they follow religiously in launching a campaign.

Understanding the process is critical for everyone on the creative team responsible for producing the catalog. With the amount of information, actual pages to produce, photography and copy, putting a catalog together can be overwhelming. Without a clear process, even a seasoned cataloger can waste a great deal of time and money.

The catalog creative process contains five phases. Phase one (thought by many to be most important) is the strategic planning meeting, where past results are reviewed and the catalog’s macro plan developed. Phase two includes the pagination, merchandise handoff, discussion of branding, offers and timing. Phase three builds the blueprint (catalog layout, photography and copy). Phase four is the page production process in which computer development of actual pages is accomplished. Phase five is prepress and preparation for the printer.

This article focuses on the first two phases: strategic planning and defining the creative concept.

Strategic planning. Many catalog companies skip this critical step. The strategic planning meeting builds the macro plan for the catalog campaign and reviews results from the previous year or season.

If held early enough in the catalog cycle, this meeting also gives the merchandise team item, price point and product category results from which to build their new product assortment. In this phase the cataloger is building or confirming the conceptual blueprint that all other steps will adhere to.

Before the meeting, homework is necessary. First, there must be an agenda and a designated meeting facilitator, who may be the catalog owner or an outside catalog consultant who understands catalog creative. Second, all parties must know what is expected of them at the meeting. There should be an attitude of openness in which brainstorming rules apply.

Who should be involved in the meeting? Many new catalogers don’t have the luxury of multiple managers, just one or two individuals who wear many hats. Obviously, the owner and other key decision makers need to be involved. Others are:

· A catalog consultant or creative agency representative. This person understands the process and many of the pitfalls that new catalogs face.

· Marketing or circulation person. This individual knows the marketing and mail strategy and provides critical reports on which tests are working and which are not. This person can give information on who the target audience(s) is.

· Merchandise team leader. This person or team continually sources new catalog products and communicates why the items were chosen. This person also presents product sales history reports.

· Creative or art director. This person designs the catalog. The kickoff meeting is where information is collected in preparation for pagination and layout.

· Production manager: This person works with the printer, the schedule and is the one who “executes” the mailing.

· Anyone else who may have insight into your catalog’s niche and positioning.

One goal of the planning meeting is to develop and/or confirm the macro plan and “creative platform.” A creative platform is a simple document containing three to five statements that concisely describe the catalog’s mission, ambiance and persona. Where the niche describes the uniqueness of the catalog brand, the creative platform describes the brand image.

Plow & Hearth is an example of how a catalog embraced its creative platform and mission statement. The company printed the words that describe its catalog on a small card, laminated it and gave it to everyone involved in the catalog process. When merchants select new products, they use the card to stay focused. When artists lay out the catalog, they refer to this handy creative platform card.

Every decision made by the creative team should support the creative platform. What typeface should be used? What color accents? How dense is the catalog? The creative platform has the answers.

What information is needed to develop the creative platform?

· The catalog’s unique positioning, niche and brand must be confirmed, understood and embraced by all. This includes an understanding of the competition. In preparation for the meeting, bring competitors’ catalogs.

· Describe and understand the target audience. Is there a secondary target audience? A tertiary audience?

Is there a tertiary audience?

· Review any available results and research provided by the marketing person.

· Product sales reports help define your customers’ likes and dislikes.

Integrating marketing and merchandise with creative. Key information is discussed at this meeting. The marketing team shares the following information:

· Results from previous promotions, summarized by customer and prospect segments. Any test results (i.e., offers) are presented.

· A synopsis of the results and what they mean for future catalog efforts.

· A proposed circulation plan by house and prospect segments that includes drop dates, offers and any tests.

· An outline of marketing objectives/goals.

· Any updated information about the customer and target audience (i.e., modeling information, research, etc.)

The merchandising team brings a complete product history, including square-inch analysis of the previous season’s results. Depending upon the analysis needed, a “squinch” report might be presented by product, by page, by category and by price point.

At the completion of the strategic meeting, confirm schedules and create a to-do task list. Someone should recap the meeting.

Catalog pagination. One of the most tedious tasks after the strategic meeting is to paginate the catalog (organizing product placement). With accurate marketing and merchandising information previously described, these format decisions can be made or confirmed:

· Catalog size. Do you use the standard size (a variation of 8 1/2-by-11 inches)? Decide with these questions in mind: What size best reflects your creative platform? What size does your competition have? Should you look different? If choosing an odd size, can my printer produce it cost effectively? What size fits the press best to minimize paper waste? What are the postal implications of the catalog size you choose? Will a slightly different size have better postal efficiencies?

Catalog size can affect the bottom line. If a company were printing a business-to-business catalog, it certainly wouldn’t print an oversized catalog that won’t fit on a bookshelf or into a file. Other size options include:

Digest: 5 1/2 by 8 1/2 inches, roughly half the size of the standard, full-sized format.

Slim Jim: 6 1/2 by up to 11 inches, a long, slim format.

Square: a unique format that sticks out in the mail but is not always price efficient.

Tabloid: similar to tabloid-size newspapers folded in half to be mailed. This format also stands out, but it is tougher to organize.

Oversized: 9 by 12 inches or larger, this size is often seen with home decorative catalogs.

· Number of pages. This is usually determined by how dense the pages will be. The more upscale the niche, the less dense the catalog. If your niche emphasizes price and value, the denser your catalog can be.

· Number of colors. Should you print in full color, or will one or two colors work? What is best for your creative platform? If color is critical as in apparel, full color is imperative. Not all catalogs need full color.

The next decision in paginating your catalog is organization. The most important rule of organization is to make your catalog easy to use and easy to order from. Ask yourself how the catalog will be used. Does it need to be organized by product category, or will customers prefer to read every page? Is the catalog a reference tool to be kept in a file or on the shelf? The larger the book, the more the need for organizing tools like an index or table of contents.

Some options for organizing your pages: by product category (i.e., housewares, soft goods, kitchenware – most business catalogs are organized this way); by product information or application; alphabetically (especially for medical catalogs); by price point; by color or presentation; free form or mixing of products (used for gift catalogs to encourage readers to peruse every page).

The final step is deciding what product goes where. Based on previous catalog sales information, most profitable products generally will be placed in key hot spots in the promotion. Most profitable products are typically your best sellers or products with the highest margins. For years, retail stores have researched store traffic and where products sell the best. Catalogs also have best-selling spots and should be used to best advantage.

When paginating the catalog, here are a few other things to remember: Don’t forget to allow space for important customer service information. If you plan to use editorial copy in your catalog (i.e., a welcome letter), allow the appropriate amount of space. Use graphics to help organize the catalog. An example is where business catalogs print “tabs” or color bars on the outside edge of pages to help customers quickly locate product categories.

Decide early on whether the catalog will include a table of contents or index. Customers are trained to look for a table of contents at the start of a book and an index at the end. Make it easy to use. A rule of thumb is that you don’t need a table of contents if your catalog is 48 pages or fewer. An index is needed when the catalog has a large number of pages or is of a more technical nature. Many business catalogs have both.

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