Susan J. McIntyre, Founder
PATIENT: "I'm confused. Is it better to make our catalog look and feel more like our competitors? Or is it a bad idea? Our marketing department is split."
CATALOG DOCTOR: "There are certainly things you can learn from your competitors, so do study them, as well as studying catalogs outside your field. But if you want to maximize sales it's best to steer clear of copying."
Example: "Look, our competitor is showing an illustration of their gift box. That's a great idea. Our gift box is prettier — let's take an actual photo of ours — and let's include our nice our hand-written gift cards in the photo."
Example: "Look at all the sans-serif reverse type our competitor is using. Boy is that hard to read —I didn't realize until now how hard. Let's switch our catalog to a serif font, and avoid all reverses. That will make us stand out from this competitor and make our customers' reading experience faster and easier too."
What does it mean to look "market-appropriate"? Simply this: if you're selling medical supplies but your catalog has a design that looks like it's targeting snowboarders — you'll probably lose credibility with your target audience. Often most catalogs in a category share a sort of "category look", that distinguishes that category from another (catalogs for educators look very different from catalogs for fishermen). Yet, within a category, it's still possible to have a surprisingly wide range of looks work for similar target audiences. Look at how different two long-time catalogs look — Zingermans and La Tienda (pictured below) — though both successfully sell specialty foods to upscale audiences.
If you want brand loyalty, you need to make your brand recognizably different from the competition. Sound obvious? It's not. A long-time home goods cataloger had 4 direct competitors. Over many years their and the 4 competitors' catalogs had drifted into looking surprisingly similar. The 5 companies even sold many of the same products, and used the same manufacturers' photos. Oddly, even their catalogs' names were similar. This cataloger's research revealed that many customers bought from them and their competitors. Why?
After a second round of research, they found that their and the competitors' catalogs looked and sounded so much alike that many customers had never realized those were 5 catalog brands instead of just 1...until the researchers laid out all 5 catalogs in a row in front of the customers!
As a result, that cataloger did a brand review, then developed a new story, motto, look and voice unique to them. In a head-to-head test, breaking out of the pack beat their old control roundly, gaining sales, market share, and brand loyalty.
If you're the market leader, your competitors are studying your catalog. Some will hope they can steal some market share by replicating your look. How can you stay a jump ahead? Focus on your customer.
What do you deliver that's a bigger benefit to your customers than what your competition delivers? Quality? Breadth of products? Price? Shipping? Service? Expertise? Exclusive products? Trend-setter? More fun to shop with? Other? Any combination unique to you?
Ultimately, customer benefits are what it's all about. What makes your brand best for your customers needs to be woven throughout all your editorial, product copy, page heads, design and photography. First, define what makes you the best at XYZ. Second, define how to make it clear to your customer. It's not just about design differences. If you can make a true case for how you're different and why that's good for your customers — that's what no competitor can copy.
First published on RetailOnlineIntegration.com blog January 2013 © 2013 Susan J. McIntyre