Two weeks ago, I wrote about a number of new – and not so new – men’s apparel catalogs. My general question was whether there was room for all these catalogs, especially since most of them were aimed at a very high-end male consumer, and were doing so in a very similar manner.
I heard from two readers the following day, both of whom took the time to question my general line of thinking, and I want to share their comments.
The first reader that commented is a “senior” consultant that has been around long enough to have seen a lot. I have always valued his input. He wrote “This wasn’t one of your better blogs. 9 out of 10 times you are spot on but this time you’re doing the worse thing possible for a merchant—thinking you are the customer rather than acknowledging there are many customers and you have to decide on your target and go for it.”
He was absolutely right – I had interjected my personal product preferences at the beginning of the posting (I think spending $150 for a flannel shirt or $200 for a pair of jeans is simply crazy). In hindsight, I did not need to include my personal product preferences to make my point about these catalogs.
That point was not that these catalogs are trying to appeal to a customer to whom I simply can’t relate, but rather, they are wasting far too much effort on trying to create a “lifestyle” brand. As I said in my posting, my biggest concern about these catalogs is that they are light on products, and long on branding. As the reader who sent me the email stated, “It is a delicate balance of how you distinguish yourself from the crowd. It’s the branding issue balancing with having to make money”.
Ah, yes, making money. Creating and mailing lifestyle catalogs would be so much fun if we didn’t have to make money at the end of the day.
And that brings me to the second email I received that day – this one from the CEO of a very upscale apparel catalog that is also a Datamann client. He wrote (and I’m going to paraphrase a little), “I want to turn your question on its head. Instead of asking your question, which is ‘What are these premium brands doing with catalogs in their marketing mix? Don’t they understand the rules of catalog marketing?’, let me pose my question, which is ‘What is the catalog industry doing to make sure catalogs are in the marketing mix of premium fashion brands? Can catalogs resonate with a premium fashion customer?’ We hear so much about the demise of catalogs. But there is a vast apparel industry out there which never uses catalogs – it is called the Fashion Industry. In their stores you will see that some brands put only two sizes on the racks, most have no more than two colors available for each style. Is it possible to break all the catalog rules while appealing to a fashion customer?”
In essence, his question boiled down to this: could catalogs be used to build a real “premium” brand. He even commented that he was writing to me while wearing his $200 hipster jeans. But he believes that just “as denim was rescued 10 years ago from a race to the bottom ($30 on Amazon) and the same is now happening in active wear, could this be the time for the ‘premiumisation’ of other catalogs?”
I found it interesting that this CEO thinks there are very few premium brands to begin with. And perhaps he is correct. I consider Neiman Marcus and Horchow as luxury brands, not necessarily “premium”. Premium is selling high-end products that are still, to a degree, indispensable. Luxury is purely discretionary products. I imagine that like most things, “premium” is in the eye of the beholder – for example I consider the Kenetrek Catalog to be premium as it sells $600 hiking boots that are to dream of (if you value a good pair of hiking boots).
My answer to his specific question is this: it could be done. The consumer is certainly ready for it. And there have been attempts at this in the past. But here is why it is difficult to accomplish real success trying to use a catalog to create a premium brand.
There is a certain science to creating a catalog, just like building a house. Ignore all the rules, and it does not usually turn out so well. Yes, just about any carpenter can build a house, but can they build a mansion? Sometimes it works OK. Sometimes you get something that is completely new and novel. But any time a new product (such as a “premium lifestyle catalog) is billed as the best of all possible worlds, it usually ends up being the worst of all possible worlds instead. A certain type of tablet computer might be advertised as a perfect substitute for both a laptop and a smartphone, for example. But it could turn out to be worse than a laptop at laptop things and worse than a smartphone at smartphone things, leaving pretty much no one satisfied.
Here is what I see happen when the premium catalog brand, especially in fashion, has been attempted in the past. Instead of focusing on the product, the “creative types” behind this venture focus on lifestyle. This is still ok, except, they invariably take their license to “create” and go waaaaay over the top. The “science” of the catalog is gone. The flip side to this is that anyone that has any catalog experience will want to “play by the rules” in order to create something they “know” will be successful – and then they look like everyone else.
In order to make the premium catalog concept work, you need someone that knows how a catalog works, but who can also truly take off the blinders to create – with merchandise – a premium catalog. They have to have response and profit as their ultimate goal, and constantly on their mind with everything they do. Many have tried doing this with magalogs. But the problem with magalogs is that the editorial content is always second rate. They might get some leading author to make a contribution, but it is never his/her best effort. Whether with a magalog or a traditional catalog that has “premiumized”, the hardest part is always carrying this idea into the second and third editions, or even years two and three. The novelty of being a novelty begins to wear off and then in order to drive response again, and satisfy investors, you begin to implement traditional catalog tactics. Within 3 years you look like Lands’ End.
I think the biggest problem is the investors. They want to see results. Initially they will all agree to give management full freedom to experiment, and put one product per spread in one color, with lots of editorial content. But then those investors will hear from their barber or their brother-in-law accountant that they should be seeing immediate/better results. So they put pressure on the catalog’s management to speed up response, and that’s when the “premium” ideas go out and the traditional rules come back.
I read somewhere that Steve Jobs told the Wall Street Journal that he would never advertise in their newspaper because no matter how upscale the reader might be, the paper itself was low-end. It was newsprint. That’s part of the reason the WSJ introduced their monthly glossy magazine. It’s like a copy of Vogue. I almost think that is the route a premium catalog has to go. Advertise in a spot like that, because another problem in this whole equation is that the co-ops just don’t have the ability to target really high-end consumers. They can find loads of JCPenney shoppers. But try to find the CEO in the $200 hipster jeans – they are not so good at that. (Yes, I know, more “co-op bashing” – get over it).
As the CEO who wrote to me concluded “a premium catalog has to be something that moves the soul”. I’m not quite that poetic – I just look for response rates to show that a catalog and business has a pulse. But he is correct that most high-end catalogs today don’t move the soul. When you can accomplish that, you’ll have a strong catalog.
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by Bill LaPierre
VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics
Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235