Customer Publishing: Catalogues are the order of the day

Bang & Olufsen: see case study
Bang & Olufsen: see case study

Far from dying out, catalogues are booming. As well as listing products, they have become essential branding vehicles in their own right.

Despite record receipts for online shopping and continued concern about green issues, catalogues are enjoying a renaissance.

Research reveals consumers still appreciate the reassurance that comes from holding a printed catalogue, even when they are intending to buy online. The Royal Mail's latest Home Shopping Tracker study, conducted in April and May 2009, showed that 45% consult a print catalogue before making an online purchase  - an increase of 8% year on year.

Catalogues are increasingly being used as branding vehicles, as well as sales tools. This is reflected in the growing emphasis on editorial content, rather than just product listings, leading to the birth of what marketers are calling 'magalogues' or 'catazines'.

Clothing brand White Stuff's catalogue is a prime example of this shift. The brand produces four seasonal catalogues a year, each based on an irreverent theme, which is carried through to all other marketing communications.

Last autumn, for example, the theme was 'gnomes' with hundreds of the mythical creatures featuring in its photo shoots. White Stuff creative director Lee Cooper believes the catalogue gives the brand a unique positioning, as well as boosting sales.

'We do more than just try to flog products,' says Cooper. 'By having editorial and strong branding, it increases the dwell time of the "magalogue" on the coffee table and that, in turn, increases sales. We know people keep and collect our catalogue, and we also know there is a spike in sales after the catalogue goes out.'

Physical presence

In a wired environment where almost everything can be virtual, catalogues can provide a valuable physical manifestation of a brand. They also create talking points.

Steve Phillips, chief executive of Spring Research, says: 'Catalogues are good because people can sit down around the table over breakfast or dinner and discuss what to buy. This is particularly important for big-ticket items and when people are watching their money.'

The conversation-starter element of a catalogue is one of the reasons that baby brand Jo Jo Maman Bebe's catalogue is so central to its business strategy.

Managing director Laura Tenison says she has come under pressure from colleagues and consultants to drop the catalogue as it is expensive to produce, but insists she will never do so. 'I've seen brands do that and shrivel up and disappear,' she adds.

'Catalogues are very powerful tools to push people online. They are also portable. I see groups of mums poring over the catalogue in Starbucks, which is why we have offers like multi-buys. I believe we'll see a resurgence in catalogues.'

Fashion label New Look's brand communications manager, Kelly Nairne, believes that to get the most out of catalogues, brands must recognise that different consumers use a catalogue for different reasons. Naturally, some just want the product details and prices, but there is also a growing number of consumers who want to be inspired before they buy.

'Some are looking for guidance and direction on shopping decisions for the season and, in the case of our catalogue Most Wanted, there are also people who read it for the editorial content,' she says.
Most Wanted launched as a bi-annual catalogue in spring 2008, but has proved so successful that an additional Christmas gift guide was added last year.

Customer publishing experts predict the shift to more editorialised content in catalogues is set to continue. Mark Lonergan, managing director of August Media, which produces catalogues for IKEA and Butlins, says magalogues 'engage people much deeper and for longer'

'Consumers now demand a bit more sophistication than the typical Freeman's brochure of old. Brands need to explain more about why what they're offering will work for their customers,' he says. For Butlins, for instance, rather than producing a brochure listing accommodation and facilities information, August created a magalogue featuring stories of actual customers to sell various holiday options.

'Following a typical family through a day is the best way to challenge perceptions,' adds Lonergan. Not surprisingly, as editorial content becomes a more important part of catalogues, customer publishing agencies argue that brands are far better off outsourcing the work to a specialist.

'Some brands have done it themselves and the results are absolutely dreadful. Usually, there are still just a load of product listings with some inane advice next to them, like "you should have white wine with fish" for a wine catalogue,' says Lonergan.

'They've got the idea, but haven't bothered to execute it in any useful way. Agencies like ours, however, have invested in experienced editorial talent to produce a captivating mix of product information and genuine content of interest to buyers.'

Paul Keers, editorial director of Axon Publishing agrees, arguing there is a 'terrible danger' that brands lose objectivity if they produce their own catalogue. 'They also lose the ability to bring in people who have experience on other, similar magazines or catalogues. Often these creative types just don't want to work in-house at a brand,' he adds.

He also says that it is crucial to create web content that develops the catalogue and provides more exact, up-to-date product details. For its client M&S Home, Axon is putting more information online. 'Increasingly, we're using video. Consumers can look around a room set and see it from different angles. They can also look into the construction of an item,' explains Keers.

Now, when photo shoots are carried out, Axon also takes pictures that can be used online for a different purpose. The idea is that the catalogue is the first point of contact for customers, offering inspiration for their purchase. The website is used for placing the order

In its work for IKEA, August uses the brand's website as a place for catalogue readers to interact with the brand. Customers are encouraged to upload their pictures and stories of the retailer's products. Journalists then contact those behind the best examples to conduct a full interview and photo shoot based on their 'IKEA lifestyle'.

Jo Jo Maman Bebe is also using its website for interaction and is directing catalogue customers online by flagging up sale items available there. 'The disadvantage of a catalogue is that it's a static environment. Online can move much more quickly, so we have an interactive catalogue on our website,' says Tenison.

Although websites are becoming more important to a brand's strategy, industry experts do not expect concerns over paper use to herald a drop in the volume of printed catalogues. They believe that using recycled paper and paper from sustainable sources will be enough to allay consumer concerns.

In fact, many commentators are predicting that brands will start producing more catalogues and 'mini-books' (small versions of a catalogue), which can be distributed more widely and easily via, for example, Sunday newspapers. White Stuff added two extra 60-page mini-books to its portfolio this year, one for high summer and another earmarked for Christmas.

'We know we get sales spikes when the catalogue launches and we wanted to even out the peaks and increase sales. We expect to produce even more catalogues next year, as these two have been very successful financially,' says Cooper.

Complementary channels

Similarly, in September, Mothercare introduced five booklets, produced by Sunday Publishing, targeting mothers of children up to 18 months old, to complement its catalogue. Sunday's managing director, Toby Smeeton, believes the ever-more wired environment means brands need to use more, not fewer, channels to reach customers.

'Websites are very transactional, whereas catalogues can deliver the brand personality and be transactional, but the volume has been turned up on the branding side,' he says. 'If you don't have a physical presence, you're missing out on a whole chunk of potential engagement.

'Far from being sidelined as old-fashioned, static purveyors of product listings, printed catalogues featuring relevant and entertaining content are moving back up the marketing agenda.

Case study: Bang & Olufsen

Bang & Olufsen positions itself as the ultimate in good design and cutting-edge production values, so when Forward Publishing took on the brief to produce the electronics brand's catalogue, it faced the challenge of reflecting these qualities.

As well as looking comfortable sitting on a high net-worth executive's coffee table, it also had to work hard as a branding tool and a marketing vehicle for dealers. To satisfy these multiple objectives, Forward decided to make it half catalogue (B&O Collection) and half editorial (B&O Magazine).

The global catalogue is produced bi-annually in 21 language variants and targets up to 1m existing and potential customers and dealers. Most content is created by the creative team at Forward, following interviews with key designers, technicians and product experts.

The strategy is working: research shows that readers spend an average of 37 minutes reading the catalogue and, comparing readers with non-readers, 29% more readers strongly agree that B&O stands for 'timeless design' and 12.5% more believe it stands for craftsmanship.

Case study: M&S Home

Axon Publishing won the M&S Home catalogue account in 2004 with a brief to bring the publication back down to earth.

Paul Keers, editorial director, claims the publication had become niche and minimalist under its previous publisher, which, he believes, was not appropriate for a well-known high street brand name.

The 320-page catalogue, published twice a year, along with accompanying mini-books and leaflets, are key to the operation of M&S Home, as not all retail stores can display the full Home range.

Consequently, the catalogue is responsible for delivering the lion's share of sales. In the last financial year, M&S' overall UK revenue fell by 1.7%, but revenue in its Home division increased by 1.1%. Sadia Usman, catalogue manager at M&S, says the catalogue works because it 'strikes the right balance between inspiration and functionality' and that customers use it 'for inspiration and as a way to view the entire furniture range at their leisure'. She adds that, in future, 'the emphasis will become more focused on catalogues as a source of ideas and inspiration'.

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