Catalog and Direct Selling: Sell a Concept
Selling items to customers is a craft most direct marketers understand. It’s about selling key benefits with an alluring presentation that resonates with a target audience. But anyone can sell a product. Great direct marketers understand that selling an item, as a part of an overarching merchandise concept, is a critical tool used to engage a customer and eventually create brand loyalty.
What Is a Merchandise Concept?
Simply stated, it’s a collection of products and price points that own a unique brand personality and represent a highly defined need that resonates with a core, target audience. Notice the word “brand.” Your merchandise concept and your brand are two distinct components, but they work hand-in-hand. Owning a unique merchandise concept allows you to create brand differentiation, even when you share competitive space.
For example, catalogers TravelSmith and Territory Ahead share the niche of “clothes fit for travel,” but that’s where the similarity ends. Each of these catalogs understands its unique merchandise concept and how to wrap it in a story geared to a specific—and distinctly different—type of customer. TravelSmith’s concept is all about function—clothes designed for travel comfort that pack small, drip dry and don’t wrinkle. TravelSmith sells this concept by proving it in the creative presentation, “telling” you about these benefits in copy and “showing” you with photo insets, call-outs and captions.
Territory Ahead, on the other hand, sells the concept of travel aspiration. Most likely, many of Territory Ahead’s customers don’t purchase its apparel only for travel, but also for everyday wear. It cleverly presents its merchandise concept by emotionally engaging the reader with stories and pictures of traveling abroad.
While their concepts differ, it’s interesting to note that both catalogs share an interesting presentation style, with each showing its apparel “off-model.” Even with this visual similarity, they convey completely different brand personalities.
How Do You Define Your Merchandise Concept?
Typically it begins with an understanding of the primary benefit your products offer. It may be your distinct merchandise or exclusivity; a unique affinity your target audience has for that merchandise; or, it might be genuine expertise that helps your customers solve a specific problem. Price can be a component of your merchandise concept, but should never be the sole component. A competitor eventually will come along to challenge or beat a price-driven concept. It is more effective if you compete on value rather than a low price.
Defining your merchandise concept is only the beginning. Everyone in your company must understand the concept and how you plan to communicate it. It’s the first step in creating brand loyalty and, eventually, brand insistence.
How Do You Promote a Merchandise Concept?
Whether you’re selling a few products or hundreds of SKUs, you have multiple opportunities to present and sell your concept, including:
• A cover or envelope that quickly explains what you’re all about. It’s critical that potential customers understand what you are selling and its ultimate benefit.
• Compelling copy that consistently ties products together. Beyond just product copy, this includes headlines and subheads, editorial copy, captions and footlines.
• Photography that supports the concept. In the case of Territory Ahead, customers are inspired by breathtaking photography shot in exotic locations, engaging the customer with aspirational travel.
• Thematic spreads work for catalogs, provided they engage customers and enhance your merchandise concept. Thematic spreads that tie products together with a story always will outpull spreads that sell a group of unrelated items.
• Every point of customer contact. Don’t stop with your mail campaigns. Reinforce your merchandise concept online, in e-mails, through your call center and even in your box shipment. RedEnvelope is a good example of how to reinforce a merchandise concept when a package arrives in the mail. It takes the gift experience concept to a new level with its red box packaging and in-the-box product descriptions.
How Do You Sell an Item as a Part of a Concept?
Always refer back to your merchandise concept. For example, New Life Systems, a B-to-B provider of spa products, uses the tagline, “Spa and Salon Essentials to Grow Your Business.” Throughout its catalog, each product is positioned to prove that concept through copy, photography and editorial sidebars.
Another example is the Plow & Hearth catalog. Many of its spreads showcase a hero product, such as “all-weather eucalyptus outdoor furniture,” with engaging photography to present an “experience” customers can see themselves living in. While the primary product is given hero status with spread headlines and more space, it sells other products that complement the furniture, like a wine bucket and a jute rug. Suddenly, these products fit into a thematic spread that promotes Plow & Hearth’s concept of a lifestyle experience.
It doesn’t matter what you sell—any item can become a part of a merchandise concept as long as your creative team understands your concept and is able to craft each product or service into a unique component of an engaging experience. Selling an item will capture behavior, but selling a concept will capture a customer’s heart.
Lois Boyle is president and chief creative officer of J. Schmid & Associates, Mission, Kan. You can reach her by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.