Of Puppies and Catalog Copy

Think of holiday catalogs as a kennel worth of puppies yapping and bouncing and nipping for attention. They’re all so cute, how do you decide which one to take home with you?

In any kennel or litter, a few pups will stand out. One or two may grab your attention for the wrong reasons: too aggressive, or too passive. But usually another few will catch your eye not because they’re the most adorable but because they’re the most engaging. These are the ones that take an interest in the visitors in their midst, sniffing their shoes perhaps, or looking up and cocking their head in an invitation to play. These puppies are inevitably the first to find themselves new homes.

It’s the same with the dozens of catalogs that crowd our mailboxes this time of year. The gorgeous covers will no doubt entice you to open them up, but without copy that engages you, chances are good that they’ll be relegated to the “look through them later” pile—and by the time later comes, you may well have already completed your holiday shopping.

The Cath Kidston Christmas Gift Guide 2011 is one such catalog. Cath Kidston is a British purveyor of what some might consider quintessentially British fabrics, accessories, bags, and the like. During the past few years the company has expanded to the States, mailing a catalog with U.S. pricing, setting up a U.S. website, and establishing a Stateside call center. But the catalog lacks an engaging personality to complement its cute merchandise. And let’s face it, there’s no shortage of cute merchandise this time (or any other time) of year.

It’s bad enough that the product copy is sparse: “Tea rose white key fob (imported)” is a typical description. Where is it imported from: the U.K., China, Timbuktu? What’s it made of? How large is it? Yes, a picture’s worth a thousand words, but when the photo is a small silhouette of a product providing no sense of scale or hint as to its construction, those aren’t the right thousand words.

More damning is that the catalog assumes the reader knows what Cath Kidston stands for. There are plenty of Anglophiles among American consumers. Photos playing up the brand’s unique heritage and aesthetic, showing the floral-patterned mugs and canisters on the shelves of an English country kitchen, say, or a family wearing the brightly colored Wellingtons while carting a tree through a quintessentially English countryside could easily have replaced the full-page hero shots of various products placed under a Christmas tree while telling a story more compelling than “these make nice gifts.”

And if ever a catalog cried out for a founder’s letter and a few paragraphs explaining what makes the brand unique, it’s this one. The inside front cover does have an introduction, but it’s tentative and singularly lacking in personality: “You’ll find this guide packed with all our favourite products just perfect for giving. We’re known for our reworking of British country house style, so if you’re looking for gifts with a playful twist on vintage prints, we’ve got everything from stationery to nightwear.” 

That’s pretty much it. Bear in mind that Cath Kidston's prints, at first glance, look like the sort of dainty flowers and colorful dots to be found on myriad other products. How do the Cath Kidston patterns differ from the others? Are the items handcrafted? That red umbrella with the white dots on page 26 that costs $46—is there something particularly British or otherwise special about it, or should I just pick up a similar one from Amazon.com for less?

I understand the realities of keeping page counts down to improve margins, but surely the spreads dedicated to the oilcloth duffels and totes could have included a clever sentence or two about how oilcloth is a practical go-to material for bags in the U.K. because of the changeable weather. This would highlight the unique benefits of one of the bags’ distinguishing features as well as reinforce their British heritage. Likewise, the spread of pajamas and slippers could have called out how especially cozy they are, so important in drafty British country homes that often lack central heating.

There are plenty of stories to tell about these products, stories that could be told succinctly via words and lifestyle photos. But in its catalog, Cath Kidston hangs back, like a shy puppy relying solely on its good looks to get adopted. That might work if there were no other puppies in the kennel or catalogs in the mailbox, but such isn’t the case.

Let’s compare to another catalog I received the same time that the Cath Kidston book landed in my mailbox: the Vosges Haut Chocolat Holiday 2011 edition. This catalog has a lengthy founder’s letter that takes up most of page 4. I’d have made this the inside front cover and edited it a bit to bump up the type font, but let’s not quibble. This letter explains, in loving detail, what distinguishes Vosges from the numerous other chocolate catalogers vying for my money: “Chocolate and curry?! The doubting begins. After just a single bite, one is beckoned to the present moment and in place of doubtful questioning or even thoughts of disgust, the face changes from awe to pleasure. It is in this place that one becomes open to experiencing new ideas through chocolate…” The letter goes on to detail the unexpected inspirations of the collections within the catalog: Italian seasonings, Rastafarians, the African American influence on American music, aboriginal Australians. Right there I’m intrigued enough to want to read through the catalog to discover what sort of chocolates could possibly have resulted from the founder’s musings on African music.

Opposite this letter is a collage of photos showing the candy being made. The photography is gorgeous, but just as important, it tells a story, aided by captions describing the creative process.    

The product copy throughout emphasizes just what makes these candies so unusual, often with an impressive economy of words. A description of the Budapest truffle, for example, could have simply read “Dark chocolate with paprika”—factual but not all that alluring. “Bright and sweet Hungarian paprika warms dark chocolate,” however, piques the curiosity while setting the salivary glands working.

My daughter doesn’t really like chocolate, but even she was enticed by the Vosges catalog and pored over the photos and the descriptions. By the same token, my husband’s brother is not a dog lover. But when he met our dog several years ago, he was so taken by his mellow nature and overall sweetness that he soon found himself not only petting the dog but even allowed Augie to sit in his lap. 

Granted, Augie is pretty darn adorable (see below). But it was his personality that won over my brother-in-law—just as the Vosges catalog’s creative won over my daughter, and me. 

Happy Birthday, Harpo

In addition to the pantheon of holidays my family observes—Thanksgiving, Passover, three New Years’ (Western, Chinese, and Jewish)—I celebrate two more. April 1 is Ronnie Lane’s Birthday, which involves listening to as many of his CDs as I can during the course of the day. And on Nov. 23 I’m celebrating Harpo Marx’s Birthday.

I’m a latecomer to the delights of the Marx Brothers. For years my husband did his best to convert me, but the kvetching tones of Groucho put me off. This past year, though, while trying once again to interest me in Duck Soup, he mentioned that Harpo had been a member of the Algonquin Round Table. The obvious disconnect between the fast-talking, faster-quipping literary wits and the goggle-eyed, fright-wigged mime led me on a search for Harpo Speaks!, Harpo’s autobiography.

After just a few chapters, I was in love. I’ve always been a sucker for the poetry of plainspoken prose (which is why The Basketball Diaries and Bloodbrothers are among my favorite books). And Harpo Speaks! is a plain-talking autobiography, not an overly composed memoir. Yet Harpo's depictions of turn-of-the-century New York and the lowest levels of vaudeville (depictions aided and abetted by his cowriter, Rowland Barber) were easily as evocative as those of more “literary” books I’ve read. He didn’t romanticize what it felt like to be hungry, to be beaten up for being Jewish, scrawny, or poor. At the same time, his glass was always half-full, even when it contained little more than a drop.

Then I began watching the movies, and fell in love some more.

Well, I fell in love some more with the Harpo of the first five Marx Brothers films (The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup). My ardor abated a wee bit with A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, then a bit more with each subsequent movie, until I refused to even watch a few of their final flicks.

The first five movies are chaotic, if not anarchic. Yes, each has a plot, but it serves simply as a set of monkey bars on which the persona of each brother was allowed to scamper, climb, swing, and cavort. And freed from the necessity to speak, and thereby explain—or at least rationalize—his actions and his logic, Harpo cavorted even more freely than Groucho and Chico.

But for all of Harpo’s childlike and childish hijinks in those first five films, there’s a darkness to his character too. Take the scene in Monkey Business where, as the passengers are in line presenting their passports so that they can disembark, Harpo begins throwing the officials’ files and papers in the air and across the table, stamping and crumbling those that haven’t been tossed aside. It’s not merely a gleeful abandon that abounds; there’s a touch of the old “screw you” in there as well. 

There’s also a lack of cause for his effects. Why does he brush glue to the seat of Ambassador Trentino’s trousers in Duck Soup? Why does fire a rifle at the statues in Animal Crackers? There’s absolutely no reason, and those films feel no need to provide us with one.

But in the movies that followed, the producers felt the need to explain, to make the world of the Marxes a more logical one. Many argue that A Night at the Opera and even A Day at the Races are better movies than the earlier ones because of that. But it’s tough to deny that forcing Harpo to belong to a logical world lessened his, well, Harpo-ness.

Oh, he was still funny. But he was no longer indescribable. He was now a mute, put-upon, none-too-bright dresser to an opera star, or a mute, put-upon, none-too-bright jockey. In the later films he was as much an object of pathos as he was a source of mayhem. But in the first five movies he was neither put-upon nor none-too-bright. In fact, you weren’t even sure if he was mute or simply preferred honking his horn to talking. He just was.

All of which is to explain why my celebration of Harpo Marx’s Birthday will entail watching my favorite clips from the first five films to the exclusion of the subsequent movies (well, except for the “Mama Yo Quiero” number from The Big Store. So I’m inconsistent—sue me). When I’m awake at three in the morning with another bout of insomnia or ready to scream in response to one more impossible deadline, I don’t want pathos. Watching another poor sap get beaten down isn’t going to relax me or cheer me up. But watching a nimble little scrapper, equal parts angelic and devilish, offer his leg to shake in lieu of a hand, for no discernable reason whatsoever, will.

So thank you for that, Harpo. And let the celebration begin.

Yays and Nays of the Week

* By the time I get to Manhattan’s Grand Central Station on Monday mornings, I’ve already been up since 5 a.m. and suffered through a 12-minute car ride, a 20-minute bus ride, and an 85-minute train ride—and I still have two subway rides to go before I arrive at my office. So it takes a lot to bring a smile to my face as I trudge through the station to get to the platform for the 42nd Street Shuttle. But smile I did last Monday, because part of the platform was gussied up like a winter wonderland, complete with pillars wrapped to resemble candy canes and a sleigh for Santa.

It was part of a tie-in for the Aardman film Arthur Christmas, and it certainly attracted attention not only from me but from many other harried commuters. Later in the day—well after rush hour, thankfully!—Santa himself was scheduled to visit for photo ops with kids and take their wish-list request.

The choice of that particular subway stop for the promotion was no doubt necessitated in part because of the physical layout: On most other platforms it  would be difficult if not impossible to create that sort of pop-up without impeding the flow of traffic. But as a bonus, the 42nd Street Shuttle, according to what little info I could glean, has the highest proportion of tourists among the straphangers, giving the promotion exposure beyond New York commuters.

Best of all, in a corridor just outside the entry turnstiles, Arthur Christmas had another area festooned with banners. This one was set up to accept contributions for Toys for Tots, a nonprofit organization that aims to provide Christmas gifts for needy youngsters. 

While researching a recent article about cause marketing, I spoke with Mike Swenson, president, PR/cause group of Kansas City, MO-based Barkley. He emphasized how important it was, when selecting a charitable group or cause to work with, to “really take time to recognize the right cause and not just jump in to what would be the most obvious.” Sometimes, though, the obvious choice really is the one that best reflects the company's values, he added.  

Toys for Tots is a wonderful cause that happens to tie in perfectly with the plot of Arthur Christmas. It’s a feel-good promotion for a feel-good film and for an organization that works to make every youngster feel good during the holidays. 

* On the front cover of its holiday catalog, eco-friendly merchant VivaTerra promoted a spend-now, save-later deal: Spend $100 before Dec. 23 and you’ll receive a gift card good for $25; spend $250, and you’ll receive $100.

My first thought wasn’t “Wow, what a great deal! I’d better get shopping.” It was “Wow, they must mark up their merchandise pretty high if they can afford to give that much away. I might as well wait and see what sort of discounts they’ll be offering in January before I make any purchases now.”

Perhaps most other shoppers aren’t as cynical as I am. But today’s consumers are much more sophisticated than those of a decade or two ago. Just think of the way companies promote “Black Friday sales.” When I worked  in retail in the 1980s, hardly anyone outside of the industry knew what the term meant.

So I’d wager I’m not the only shopper who equates overly steep discounts with overly steep markups. Nor am I the only shopper who, when suspecting that a company is reaping a steep markup, begins Googling for the same or similar items available at a much lower price, or who waits for the original company to eventually lower the price before buying.

* When buying a dollhouse family for your child, you can generally choose from white-skinned dolls and brown-skinned dolls; sometimes you can find dolls meant to represent East Asian families too. But if you’re seeking a mixed-race family to reflect your own, you’re almost always out of luck. Granted, this isn’t something most Americans tend to think about, but if yours is a mixed-race family (as mine is), it can be a bit tiresome.

So I really liked how in its catalog Nova Natural calls out that you don’t have to buy its Dressable Dollhouse Family as a set. You can “pick from our most popular sets in Blonde Hair, Brown Hair, Medium Skin or Dark Skin or mix and match dolls.” And the full page of photos promoting the dolls and their houses shows a fair-haired, fair-skinned girl playing with dolls of varied skin tones and hair colors, which is an extra-nice touch.

 * A lump of coal for the holiday tagline of apparel and shoe retailer Kenneth Cole: “It’s not the thought that counts…” Way to get into the holiday spirit. Ugh. Just ugh.

No Christmas Cheer Just Yet?

When to start pushing out the Christmas messaging has become a fraught issue for American marketers. Gone are the days when you’d shut your store the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, spend the evening frantically festooning the shelves with tinsel, and open the doors Black Friday morning with a big decorated Christmas tree in the front windo, one similar to the tree that featured prominently in the advertising insert you’d placed in the Thanksgiving edition of the newspaper.

Now, of course, if you wait until Black Friday to begin your Christmas season selling, you’re already behind. Yet when Nordstrom announced that, in keeping with its own tradition, it would not decorate its stores for Christmas until Black Friday, it received a sleigh-full of media coverage and plenty of kudos from consumers.

Granted I don’t visit too many bricks-and-mortar stores. But having strolled in and out among a number of online stores, I don’t think marketers are going overboard on the holiday messaging yet.

Here’s the Walmart home page on Nov. 13:

Yes, there are some cute red-and-green illustrations, as well as a link to its Black Friday newspaper insert. But it’s a pretty subtle approach. And when you consider that Walmart is one of the few retailers offering Christmas layaway, it makes perfect sense for the retailer to begin promoting holiday shopping early, as anyone who will be using a layaway plan has to get a jump-start now.

A much smaller, online-only merchant, Shana Logic, had only a small banner declaring “Browse Our Holiday Gift Guide” on its home page:

Instead the main image was of a cartoon kitten with angel wings beside the headline “Every time you support independent artists & designers a kitten gets its wings*” and below that, referring to the asterisk: “*a pretend kitty gets pretend pegagus [sic] wings… but still—it’s cute, & you’re supporting artists, so win win right? :-)” If you don’t find that adorable, well, you’re clearly not Shana Logic’s target audience. (I loathe It’s a Wonderful Life with the intensity of a thousand suns, and even I was charmed.)

Children’s clothing brands Carter’s and OshKosh B’gosh did have home pages decked out for Christmas—red-and-green borders, ornament-shape icons promoting free shipping and buy-one-get-one-free—but because the overall effect was quiet and tasteful, it wasn’t aggressive in the least. 

Opting for understated seems to be key when initiating Christmas shopping messaging before Thanksgiving week. Even the grumpiest Grinch can’t get too annoyed if you err on the side of subtle: Introduce the holiday colors, maybe throw in a seasonal icon or two, but steer clear of anything big, bold, overtly punning, or flashy. 

What's more, plenty of other retailers—Bon-Ton, Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma, Restoration Hardware, White House/Black Market, J. Crew, to name some of the majors—had no Christmas messaging on their home pages. As of 10 days before Thanksgiving, it seemed that etailers promoting Christmas are the exception rather than the rule.

In fact, try as I did, I was unable to find a site with an egregious holiday hard sell. The closest I came was The Source for Everything Jewish, whose home page declared “Welcome to your Chanukkah Superstore”—and the most irksome thing about that was its spelling of Hanukkah/Chanukah. (Using the double k with the Ch isn’t a variant; it’s just wrong.)

Although I celebrate Hanukkah (or Chanukah, but never Chanukkah), I adore the Christmas season. So I was somewhat disappointed by my findings. Where’s the virtual tinsel, the flying reindeer, the gingerbread houses, the Santa with the belly shaking like a bowlful of jelly? I know, give it time.

In the meanwhile, I’m off to YouTube to play some Christmas videos. “Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You,” anyone? 

The top photo is of the sad little artificial tabletop Christmas tree that was, aside from the Christmas cards we'd hang on the walls, the lone holiday decoration of the office where I worked in England. My daughter made the streamers that are strewn across its branches. I wonder if they still drag out the tree in December.

Yays and Nays of the Week

Having spent much of the past week in one of my favorite cities, Reykjavik, I didn’t consume as much marketing media as usual. Oh sure, I was exposed to just as much of it. But Icelandic isn’t one of the languages in which I’m conversant (those would be American English and British English), so most of the messaging was lost on me.

That said, I did see and hear enough to compile what I’m hoping will be a regular feature of this blog: the marketing zeniths and nadirs of the week.

·         * Outerwear brand 66° North is a ubiquitous presence in Iceland, where it's headquartered. And it’s also ubiquitous on Icelandair planes: 66° North apparently sponsored the flaps of cloth than hang over the seat headrests, so its name and logo are in front of you throughout the entire flight. Because it’s a low-key logo, though, and absent any obnoxious hard sell, the advertisement didn’t bother me. And the headrest covers are a great way of establishing a quiet, almost subconscious brand awareness—a brand awareness that I’m sure pays off when first-time visitors arrive at Keflavik Airport only to realize they should have packed an extra sweater or a winter jacket after all, but lo and behold! there’s a 66° North shop right there.

·        * “Oops! George Kovacs lighting, giftable ceramic & tabletop, and designer & personalized holiday cards” read the subject line from Joss & Main, a flash-sales decor site (and, full disclosure, a competitor of a company I work for). That “Oops!” certainly grabbed my attention, much more than anything else within the subject line. But when I opened the email, there was absolutely no reference to any sort of goof. Could “Oops!” have been included simply to boost the open rate? Last year a rash of companies sent out “sorry we goofed” emails apologizing for slow site load times, deliverability snafus, and the like. No doubt some of these apologies were valid, making amends for genuine mistakes. But it’s just as likely that some were bogus, written solely because subject lines referring to mistakes—and often offering discounts or other goodies as an apology—often lead to a lift in response.

         * Another subject line, from UK furniture retailer Cargo: “7 Weeks to go… Are you ready?” Obviously this was meant to create a sense of urgency regarding Christmas shopping. But I think “seven weeks” would encourage procrastination instead. “What, I still have seven more weeks till Christmas? That’s plenty of time. Let's head to the pub.”

·         * And another home furnishings retailer, Pier 1 Imports, has unveiled its holiday marketing with the tagline “Cheer 1 Imports. This is where the holidays begin.” It’s simple, it’s sweet—I love it. I also love the cheery Santa dancing atop its home page.

The top photo is of Reykjavik taken from the bell tower of Hallgrímskirkja church. This photo captures everything I love about the city.