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The Cover: Equal Parts Strategy, Art and Story

On any day in October I go to the mailbox to find it stuffed with catalogs, typical of the high season of October to December when most of us receive huge volumes of catalogs.

Most of these catalogs don’t survive beyond a quick sort while standing beside the kitchen recycling bin. I suspect that this process is familiar for many people.

As a designer, I acknowledge that part of my reason for saving certain catalogs involves the cover: its design, the image and color.

Does it engage me in some visual dialogue? Does it stand out from all of the visually flat covers? Or is there something more elusive?

A catalog with a well-conceived cover communication has a greater chance at a second glance.

A common element of the catalogs that landed in my waste bin was their overall sameness. I can only guess that, for these direct marketers, it is safer to look like someone else rather than to try something original.

This brought to mind an article I read recently by Steven Heller. Heller says, “Most mass market product packages are graphically designed to conform to specific codes or ‘trade dress’ established by leading companies and then copied by all others within the genre until the next big thing emerges. All cereal boxes look like cereal boxes; all pain relievers look like pain relievers …”

How prevalent are the visual elements of the J. Jill catalog throughout the apparel segment? Has Williams-Sonoma cornered the market on the most successful visual code for kitchen gadget catalogs?

With only a half-dozen visual elements on a typical catalog cover – logo, color palette, cover imagery (photographic or illustrative), a layout and the cover lines – the challenge to create a distinctive cover strategy is significant.

A legible logo, a beautiful photograph and a balance of color and copy. It sounds simple enough. But only a few books have created an ownable visual language and voice.

One reason may be that the effort put into interior pages is far greater than the creative effort used in creating the cover.

The best DMers leverage each design element to maximize the brand’s emotional resonance with their consumers. They are clear about their brand’s promise and its emotional drivers. They understand that the best covers promise an experience that is not always literal or linear. They also know their competitive landscape and where the opportunities to differentiate exist. More than a few of them even plan a full season of covers to create a continuity of story from book to book.

Linking the creative strategy at every level – management, merchants and designers – makes for a more certain link among the brand’s aesthetic, its position and audience.

The quirky sophistication of illustration and hand-drawn type on the Land of Nod’s covers as well as the clean layouts, consistent type and distinctive red flap used as a foil to the cover image of the Red Envelope book both make for well-branded, memorable presentations.

For years, Garnet Hill was one of a few catalogers to incorporate a photographic subject matter and style that was more about storytelling than product documentation. Patagonia’s covers reflect a lifestyle of adventure where the scale of the outdoors always feels larger than life when balanced against the carefully scaled-down Patagonia logo.

Even UK apparel marketer Boden, with its more straightforward on-location formula, captures a unique look through photo styling and locations that are quintessentially British.

The ability of these catalogers to tell a story over a series of covers, whereby developing a brand’s visual equity, is especially important given that they have few, if any, retail shops. For catalogers with a brick-and-mortar retail network, the store provides a stage to tell a deeper story and to create a more dimensional consumer experience that is often leveraged in their print catalogs. For the pure catalog merchant, creating a unique personality becomes an even greater hurdle.

This is a long-term investment, achieved not by one or two “branded” covers but with a focused strategy that influences the covers over several years of constant attention, tweaks to the design formula and various measures to evaluate success.

Catalogers like Red Envelope, Land of Nod, Garnet Hill and Boden have learned how to integrate the inspiration with the physical. Product features can co-exist with lifestyle. These companies know that, for the consumer, the shopping process is partially a logical feature and benefit comparison, but that if you do not also entertain, you risk being ignored.

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