Try a Little Experiential Marketing

We are taught that we should communicate features and benefits in the context of direct marketing. Though this is sound advice, it is incomplete. Consumers do not approach shopping from a purely logical basis, seeking functional value. Customers seek meaning beyond the base-level selling proposition offered in most catalog and direct marketing product presentations today.

It goes back to Maslow’s theory from the Hierarchy of Human Needs: Once the basic necessities of life such as food and shelter are met, people spend an increasing proportion of their time and income satisfying their inner needs. These needs and desires, such as solitude or achievement, can be satisfied only by experiences.

Catalog marketers might want to rethink their approach by emphasizing the more experiential, subjective and emotional benefits consumers want and perceive they will get from their products. Certainly, every catalog aims to engage the prospect and sell the merchandise. But to reap the rewards of experiential marketing, it becomes necessary to look beyond the traditional catalog formula of box shot, headline and copy block.

Consider the competitive threat of 3,000 ad messages daily assaulting the senses of our prospects. Our catalog marketing efforts must work harder to break through.

Look at your products long and hard. Then ask: What am I really selling? What subjective, emotional, fantasy or inner need does this product promise and, ideally, deliver? What rich, vivid experience will the consumer get from using or having it?

Put the product in the hands of your prospect or in the home or other appropriate environment where it will be used. Help your customer visualize, in terms of copy and imagery, how the product will benefit her life. Seek to collapse barriers between retail and direct channels by conveying “touch and feel” on the page.

Employing photography and other illustration techniques, show application, use and product benefits in an aspirational manner appropriate for your customer profile.

Consumers base buying decisions more on emotion than logic. Studies show that even for high-ticket considered purchases such as cars, consumers are driven more by desires and the emotional quotient than rational arguments concerning product features.

In experiential marketing, the copywriter must be even more in tune, more empathetic with the consumer’s inner needs and fantasy life. Consider this copy description of a woman’s mesh shirt from the Patagonia catalog: “While it was designed especially for the tropics, it will also keep you cool on the tennis courts, or while bicycle riding and touring wineries in hot Napa Valley.” The copywriter instinctively follows a cardinal rule of copywriting and asks, “What will this product do for me?” She pushes this basic rule of good copywriting a step further and imagines that she is already using the product in an emotional, enjoyable context – cycling in the hot Napa Valley.

Smith & Hawken, a California-based garden catalog, creatively captures the sensory experience of gardening: the smell of the earth; the sun on your shoulders; the personal, even private experience of planting, cultivating and harvesting.

It achieves this sensory quality through “in situ” photography mostly, but also by using themes such as “Creating the Rooms of Summer” in its late spring 2003 catalog. The rooms of summer reference appears as a sidebar on the inside front cover and is essentially a way to merchandise tightly coordinated assortments of products, feature items and present some new solution-based decorating ideas for the customer.

All of the “rooms” Smith & Hawken presents are outside in the garden or, in one case, on the beach. On page 12 the copper fire pit is a centerpiece in the sand, surrounded by a grouping of Adirondack armchairs and flanked by a copper tub full of beer and wine on ice. The shot is styled with a trail of copper oil cone candles receding into the background, down toward the water. Not only does this “room” treatment promote add-on purchases, it suggests an afternoon get-together with friends, laughter and the promise of relaxation in style.

Target’s Lullaby Club Baby Gift Registry catalog masterfully presents unique gifts as well as commodity products in an integrated, creative and informative treatment. Product presentations are juxtaposed with educational blurbs and suggest that Target cares about the welfare of you and your baby. Handwritten notes imaginatively penned by your baby-in-the-womb appear throughout the catalog. Here’s one: “I’m happy but a bit cramped. A new room will suit me fine. P.S. There’s lots of good things for my room at See you soon, Baby.”

Experiential marketing is not a formula but, rather, an approach, a way to expand the traditional box shot/copy blurb catalog formula.

Start with your latest catalog, consider it objectively and ask: What am I really selling? What experiences, emotions and feelings will these products give or inspire? Put the question to a group of co-workers and brainstorm freely. Are you selling a barbecue grill or the conviviality and relaxation of a sunny day spent with good friends outside?

Don’t go overboard. Show the product clearly and attractively, describe it fully. Use the strategies that you know work for your business, then try to push beyond the benefit to the experience.

Layouts may become graphically cleaner, more photographic and more three-dimensional, with strong full-bleed photographs showing product in use. Or, layouts may grow more involving, including more elements, more people, more insets and more captions. It might mean loosening up the product density on a spread in order to convey some experiential elements. A little experience can go a long way.

Apply some of these experiential marketing techniques to your catalog, and a funny thing might happen. A definite personality or voice may emerge. We call it the soul of a catalog, that intangible quality the best catalogs have, the quality that makes your catalog stand out in a crowd.

This new voice will know its customers and their inner needs and fantasies, and speak to them. Instead of a presentation of products on a page, followed by dry listings of product features, your catalog will have found its true voice and its audience.

In a rapidly changing marketplace, the smart cataloger will realize these days he’s selling not only products, but the promise of rich life experiences from using the products. Marketing the experience of using or having the product is critical in making the sale.

The more human, empathetic and emotionally connected those experiences and your catalog’s voice, the more customers you’ll attract, and the more successful your catalog will be.

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