BRANDING VERSUS SELLING:
HOW TO FIND THE RIGHT BALANCE FOR YOUR CATALOG
First published in ACMA Advisor at catalogmailers.org January 2014
© 2014 Susan J. McIntyre
How to best balance the amount of branding versus selling is a difficult challenge for many catalogers.
Neither all-branding/no-selling nor no-branding/all-selling (yes, both exist) generate the sales that catalogers need. Between those two extremes, is a wide range of possible brand-to-sell balance.
What is a "Brand", and Does a Catalog Really Need One?
Marketing guru Seth Godin defines a brand as "...the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer's decision to choose one product or service over another."
An older, more traditional definition of brand is simply: the logo, the design, or the company. But that isn’t a very useful definition. Godin's definition is much more useful because it clarifies the elements it takes to convince a customer to buy.
And the main benefit of communicating your brand is that it convinces many customers to buy from your catalog instead of from someone else's, and to keep buying from you over time. That's achieved by:
- Communicating your USP (Unique Selling Proposition).
- Building rememberability via the catalog's look and feel.
- Showing in what ways you stand out from the competition.
- Communicating "we're the right source for you".
Defining your Brand to Increase Sales
A good method for defining your brand is to think about it from the standpoint of the customer's needs first. Then products, logistics and infrastructure can follow. Start with a thought experiment focused on the customer base you already know (or, if a new catalog, on a theoretical customer base that you believe may exist in the marketplace).
Ask yourself customer-centric questions:
What does your brand provide these customers that they aren't already getting in the marketplace?
- Higher-quality products?
- Cheaper products?
- Faster delivery?
- Better service?
- More, helpful expertise?
- Any type of customization not currently available?
- Unique products that solve a problem not now being solved?
- A look that's more "cool" than they can get elsewhere?
- Any combination of the above that's better or different than they can get elsewhere?
- And so on.
The key is to try to define the elements that actually make your company better for your particular customers.
How to Communicate the Brand
Once you've defined your brand, there are basically two ways to communicate your brand: Subliminal and Concrete. You can use either separately, or both together.
Subliminal includes things like photography style, design style and copy voice. It's surprising how much that subliminal elements can communicate. Subliminal elements can immediately show if a brand is upscale or downscale, targeted to young or old, urban or rural, cutting edge or traditional.
Concrete includes specific statements, such as editorials, a president's letter, a motto, a customer bill of rights, helpful hints, a green efforts list, and so forth.
When Subliminal Branding Alone Can Work Well
If your catalog is a well-known brand, you can often do most of your branding via having established a look, and having the look match your definition of the brand (nostalgic; funky; manly; artistic, etc.). If your brand is well-enough known, you needn't spend much time explaining about yourself.
The MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, New York) catalog is a good example of a brand that can pretty much skip concrete branding. They need a simple statement that yes, they're that museum (just to avoid confusion) but it's really not necessary to have a section about, say, their history, or about their collections (except for the raising-money section).
Instead they can focus most of their page space on selling their products. But they do need stunning photography (which they do have) to support their art-based brand. And they need beautiful, exciting, contemporary layouts (which they also do have) to be consistent with the brand's core, which is the museum itself.
When Concrete and Subliminal Work Well Together
Catalogs selling into a crowded market category often work best when they combine a distinctive look (Subliminal branding), with a specific explanation of what makes their catalog the customer's best source (Concrete branding). The concrete branding helps prospects to better understand the catalog's offerings, and builds the confidence needed to proceed to a purchase. The subliminal branding creates rememberability so the customer will recognize and welcome the catalog in their mailbox next time.
Vermont Country Store is a good example of a catalog that blends Subliminal with Concrete marketing. They sell into the crowded handy-gadgets-and-other-life-solutions market, offering home products, apparel and some food. They've built a name as an excellent source of nostalgic, unique items and forgotten brands. At the same time, they also sell a lot of products easily found in many other catalogs.
Despite the many easily-available products in their line, they've built a distinctive and rememberable brand. Their special design, fonts, photos and copy voice combine to evoke a friendly, old-fashioned, country general-store feeling (that's the Subliminal part, very well done). On the Concrete-marketing side, is a "Customer Bill of Rights", a very clear communication that they're family owned and operated, with stories about family, and interesting looks into their history. Their entire branding package is warm, friendly, highly compelling, highly rememberable...and successful.
When Mostly Concrete Branding Can Be Used
A catalog that offers mostly unique products is an excellent candidate for relying on mostly concrete branding, and bypassing expensive types of photography and design. (Because subliminal branding is needed mainly to make your brand stand out from extensive competition. But truly unique products mean little or no competition, so much less need of Subliminal branding techniques.)
Lehman's, in Ohio, is a good example. What began as a source for the Amish to continue buying their old-fashioned equipment and supplies has grown into a catalog offering more unique (or really-hard-to-find) products than I've ever seen together in one catalog—much Amish-made. A big selection of water pumps (yes, hand-pumping from a well), non-electric heating stoves and cooking ranges, lanterns and more lanterns, as well as kitchen, food, toys, furniture and farming supplies. You can even buy a case of Nehi Grape Soda.
The design and photography is workman-like and unpretentious—very in keeping with the brand.
On the Concrete branding side, they explain their beginnings, their beliefs, their family owner/operators, their store, and their bond with the Amish. And the copy is complete and informative (actually, a Concrete branding technique).
If your catalog can maintain an extensive line of unique products, and if you can keep that line continually refreshed, your catalog is a good candidate for mostly Concrete marketing with very few Subliminal marketing needs.
Are There Catalogs That Don't Have a Brand?
Yes, there exist what might loosely be termed "brand-free" catalogs. They tend to look very much like their competitors. They tend to carry many of the same products as their competitors, and offer nearly-identical service and guarantees too. They tend to use many photos taken by the manufacturers—as do their competitors.
Some of these catalogs have sputtered along for a number of years.
If they've been around for years, does that mean branding of any kind doesn't really matter and can be dispensed with? I don't recommend it. None of that type of catalog that I know of has ever experienced significant growth or presence in the marketplace. Their sales tend to be regional (in the area it's fastest and cheapest to ship to). They are constantly losing and gaining customers from their competitors—mainly because customers get their catalog mixed up with the catalogs of their competitors.
Looking, sounding, and offering the same products as your competitors is not a strategy for long-term growth and profits.
Rather, defining your brand—what differentiates your catalog from the competition—and then communicating it well, will increase sales in the short term, and loyalty in the long term, providing a path to future growth and profits.