I had more comments from readers last week than I’ve had in a long time regarding an observation I made at the very end of last week’s posting, which was not even related to the main subject last week. I remarked that “If you are still including a President’s Letter in your catalog, you should know there are only two people that read it – the copy writer that wrote it, and the President’s mother. And even she just skims it now.”
Evidently, many of you are still trying to convince someone in upper management or your creative team to ditch the President’s Letter.
How do we get stuck in ruts like this? The common answer is that “we’ve always done it that way”. In many instances, that is the only reason necessary to justify doing ineffective things over and over. Or actually, to ignore something that you know is wrong, and are willing to overlook.
But, I often see another reason we fall into a rut with our catalogs – the willing suspension of disbelief. This was a concept first developed by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817 who postulated that if a writer could inject a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.
A non-catalog example would be Star Trek. How come there is no zero-gravity? Why doesn’t Captain Kirk float around the space ship? Or in the Die Hard movies, how does Bruce Willis get shot 10 times and only need a band-aid at the end of the movie? We suspend our disbelief because it fits with the narrative.
The same thing happens with our catalogs. We believe it when the Creative Director or an outside consultant tells us that we need to “connect with our customer” and build brand awareness. We give them the first spread, sometimes the second spread, and sadly, sometimes even the third opening spread, to build synergy, set the tone, build the brand, etc. Those spreads are full of great inspirational shots, or letters from the founder/owner (often with their photo). And, there is absolutely NO selling because that would detract from the efforts at customer engagement.
What a bunch of crap! We know deep down that the people telling us this stuff haven’t got a clue about what they are talking about. But we suspend our disbelief because we think “Well, maybe there’s a chance it will work for us. Maybe we will be that one in 32,000 catalogs for which not featuring products on the opening three spreads will work better for than actually trying to sell something on those three spreads.”
We believe it when merchants tell us that a new product is going to do well, even though we have a gut feeling that the merchant is living in a fantasy world. Or when the merchant tells us that the item can sell for $80, when everyone in the room says they would only pay $28, at most, for the item. The merchant gives us an impassioned rationale on why they thing it will sell, and why it will sell at $80, and slowly we start to suspend our collective disbelief. What we need is for someone to say “Are you smoking crack?”
Let me give you some real world examples. Every year, during the first week of April, I get an LL Bean Home catalog. Every year for as long as I can remember, it has featured an Adirondack chair on the cover. This years’ cover is on the left, last year on the right.
LL Bean must sell a ton of these chairs (although since they are the most uncomfortable chair in the world, they should sell them as something you let guests sit in that you hope won’t stay long). But as a consumer, I look at this cover and say “same old chairs, nothing new here”, and often don’t even bother to look further.
The folks at LL Bean are smart people. I’m sure they have data that proves that response is best to this catalog when they feature the same chair, year after year. But I have to believe that what is happening is “collective willing suspension of disbelief”. No one is asking whether the long term impact is that they are boring their customer to death.
The Adirondack chair on the front cover could be a subjective issue – but this next example is certainly not. Every year, during the first week of February I receive a kids catalog from both LL Bean and Lands’ End. When our son was the age that matched the products in those two catalogs, my wife bought a lot of our son’s clothes from each.
Our son turned 14 this week. He is almost 6 feet tall, and wears a men’s small. We haven’t purchased from either catalog in about 6 years. Moreover, we purchase much of his clothes (men’s small) from each company’s respective main books. You’d think that someone would have noticed that over a course of 14 years, our purchases from these catalogs had peaked and then stopped, followed by a corresponding move by someone in the household to buying men’s small products from the core catalog (which sure isn’t me). Maybe someone at each company could do a simple “customer age progression”.
Instead what I suspect is happening is that in each company, our family’s RFM score looks fantastic, since we are active buyers from each. Thus, someone in the modeling/circulation department is practicing “willing suspension of disbelief” and figuring that maybe we’ll come back to buying from the kid’s catalog again.
We all do things in our organizations that make no sense because we believe in our heart that they are true, even though we know in our head that there is no possible way it could happen. We believe because someone who seems like they should know what they are talking about told us so. This has always been our catalog growth strategy.
However, listen to your first instinct. Listen to that little voice that is saying “no way is that going to happen”. Stop doing stupid things because you think everyone is going to jump down your throat for suggesting change, or at least, suggesting a catalog strategy that differs from the accepted norm. Change is good, and change is never ending. But common sense still trumps all.
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by Bill LaPierre
VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics
Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235