Test Your Way to a Winning Cover

By Susan J. McIntyre

Susan J. McIntyre, Founder

Do you test your front covers? You should. Testing front covers is one of the easiest – and most important – tests catalogers can do.

Front covers are the doorway into your catalog. Your cover needs entice your customers to open the door and step through into the wonderful world of what's inside. Testing will help you learn what it takes so your customers open that door more often.

“Copy destroys the graphic integrity of my cover design”

Magazine designers love lots of copy on the front cover, but for some reason catalog designers hate it. Maurice, the catalog designer, insisted "I've been designing catalogs for years. Trust me, I know what sells. All those words are distracting from the cover's impact. Clutter doesn't sell." Maurice was very convincing. Yet, since the copy had been created specifically to motivate readers to open the book, we decided to test.

The copy on the cover increased response by 40%! Whoa, even Maurice was convinced. Does cover copy always work? You need to test.

But here's a tip: try copy on your cover when you have important messages designed to perk up customers' interest. Don't use copy gratuitously...it's not about having copy on the cover, it's about communicating information that's important to your customers.

"Boring 'ol products" or "great art"?

An old-line cataloger had commissioned charming paintings for their catalog covers in the past, but had drifted away in recent years in favor of traditional "show the product" covers. Many people in the company were nostalgic for those old covers, and the agency was enchanted by the idea too. After all, isn't a catalog cover all about evoking pleasant, compelling emotions in the reader?

So, new paintings were commissioned and old-time staff was agog at returning to their roots. But level-headed marketing insisted on testing first. The product cover won. "Something must have gone wrong, maybe it wasn't quite the right painting, or the wrong time of year." They tested again. The product cover won. "There has to be a way to make these paintings work, they're just so wonderful." Tested again. Product cover won. Disappointed to the point of tears, the old-timers and the new agency finally caved, and paintings were relegated to the dustbin of history.

Are paintings always a mistake? If you think paintings may be right for your catalog, then test. Is your brand name instantly recognizable? Is your product line tied to a lifestyle or other emotional connection? Does the painting show your products? Can prospects understand clearly what you sell without having to open the catalog? Then a painting on the cover may work well for you.

But none of these factors was true for our old-line cataloger. Their name was not widely recognized, their products were functional, not emotional, and their front cover paintings neither showed their products nor activities associated with using their products. So even though focus groups always loved the paintings, when shopping time came around there was nothing in the paintings that motivated customers to open that cover and buy. Can't afford to test? Then better stay away from cover paintings for now.

Food – an exception to the “models sell” rule

How often have you heard "if you show a model using the product, that product will sell better." Many studies have seemed to confirm that rule for products from dresses to steam shovels. I think every food cataloger I've ever worked with has said at one time or another "hey, let's use a model – it works for everyone else, it should work for us." And when calm reasoning doesn't prevail, we test. "Let's show a cute kid reaching for a cookie" (it lost the test). "A daughter handing the gift box to Mom on mother's day" (it lost). "A couple enjoying their dinner at home" (lost).

I'm not saying a model can never win in a food catalog test. I'm just saying I've never seen it happen. Why? I don't know. But here's my theory. Photos of food already evoke strong emotions "it makes my mouth water," "now I'm really hungry for an orange," "Remember Walnettos? I used to LOVE Walnettos!" Normally people don't have those kinds of responses to, say, a steam shovel. So put a model in a steam shovel, and the reader will see himself sitting in the seat of that steam shovel, working the controls, moving the earth. But a model in a photo with food? It distracts from the original strong emotion...waters it down. And watered-down emotion is like watered-down food. It turns boring and the reader moves on.

So go ahead and test models with your catalog's food. You might be a rule-breaker, and sales will soar. But please test with caution.

More occasions to avoid models

1. Very small products.
(When the model dwarfs the product, the photo just doesn't work.)

2. Your audience is too broad of an age or demographic range.
Visualize your reader's unconscious mind: "I'm much older than that model so that blouse is wrong for me." "I'm much younger than that model, so that blouse is wrong for me." "That's not the stereo system for me because it's for young, hip guys like that guy in the photo who listens to rock, whereas I'm old and listen to classical." The unconscious mind isn't necessarily logical, but it's pretty powerful. So avoid models if "not right for me" is likely to be what a significant portion of your audience thinks, unconsciously.

“We know what won the test...or do we?” a true story.

"Here are the two covers we tested" explained Caroline, the catalog's marketing manager.

I looked at them closely. "What, exactly, were you testing?"

Caroline: "We were testing a 'lifestyle' versus 'product' cover and the 'product' cover won. We thought a more artistic, 'lifestyle' cover would lift sales, but we were wrong I guess."

Me: "The lifestyle cover is much more attractive all right. I would have expected your audience to go for it. But why didn't you put the same special offer on it? The 'product' cover has a huge FREE SHIPPING offer and you only have to order $30 to qualify."

Caroline: "The art department thought the offer was too commercial to go with such a beautiful cover."

Me: "But how do you know if the products – or that great free offer – were what made the 'product' cover win?"

Caroline: "Good point, I guess we don't know."

Me: "With your audience, I'll bet the lifestyle cover would have won if it had the FREE SHIPPING offer on it. Why not retest?"

Caroline: "We can't. Management has already bought off on the idea that 'lifestyle' covers don't work for us. They won't test it anymore."

Lesson learned: when you set up your cover tests, be sure you don't mix too many elements into the different covers in your test. Decide what you really want to test, change that element only on your test cover –- then leave all the other cover elements the same as each other.

Is there a golden rule for the perfect catalog cover? Sorry, no. If there were, we wouldn't need to test. But I hope the principles above will help guide you to find the cover formula that's perfect for your catalog.