The Importance of Print Catalogs in a Digital-First World

Catalogs are as important and effective now as ever. Although this is the case, the costly nature of catalog marketing makes effective measurement a must.

Marketing hot take: Catalogs are as important and effective now as they have ever been. That being said, the entire value of the catalog doesn’t solely lie within its pages. Its real value is how it plays into a brand’s marketing mix. Catalogs used to be, and for some consumer groups still are, primary drivers in motivating purchases, seasonal or otherwise. The old Sears catalog used to feel like a print index of the complete store, of every item on every shelf and rack, offering a convenient alternative to wandering the aisles during the holiday season.

Catalogs comprise just one of dozens of touch points throughout the buyer’s journey, but they provide a unique value: a tactile experience that connects them to the brand. It’s an experience often lost in today’s hyper-efficient consumer environment which allows for single-click checkouts and even completely voice-automated purchases, compliments of devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home. Rather than accelerating a sale or a conversion like the majority of digital marketing tactics, catalogs invite consumers to slow down and engage in a medium not powered by a backlit screen. The recent resurgence in and preference for printed books as opposed to downloads for e-readers is a similar trend.

Catalogs comprise just one of dozens of touch points throughout the buyer’s journey, but they provide a unique value: a tactile experience that connects them to the brand.

Take for example the 2015 Ikea (Singapore) Catalogue, jokingly advertised as “not a digital book or an e-book… a bookbook.™” Ikea’s Chief Design Guru, Jorgen Eghammer, outlines key features such as eternal battery life, with “navigation that is based on tactile touch technology that you can actually feel.” While produced in jest, the promotional video speaks to the aforementioned desire to engage with the brand differently.

Today, the most effective catalogs are produced by brands who understand they are part of an experience, not just a printed product index. Catalogs have become curated pieces of content enabling brands to make deeper connections with their potential consumers. Catalogs fill an aspirational space younger, more jaded buyers are searching for — a sincere brand connection, one by which they identify themselves through effective storytelling. On the other end of the spectrum, older consumers who’ve grown tired of online advertising clutter and intrusiveness reach for catalogs because they are safe and familiar.

The Importance of the Catalog

In addition to the brand equity-building value of catalogs, they also offer other tangible benefits not to be overlooked or underrated. As audiences become more ad-averse in the digital space, catalogs continue to be a welcomed form of in-home advertising and engagement. According to research performed by the U.S. Postal Service, 84% of individuals polled enjoy receiving catalogs from brands from whom they’ve made purchases. More compelling however, are the 57% who are receptive to receiving catalogs from brands they’ve never even heard of! These insights are in stark contrast to the overwhelmingly negative consumer sentiment around digital ad invasiveness and overreach. Without restrictive regulations like the CAN-SPAM Act for email marketing for example, brands who leverage catalogs have more freedom and flexibility to engage with consumers through their physical mailboxes.  

Not only are consumers willing to receive catalogs, but they report a deep level of engagement with the format as well. On average, those who receive catalogs spend 15.5 minutes reviewing them. And moreover, they keep those catalogs for 20.3 days. In this digital age, Facebook video effectiveness is based on a three-second view, while only 9% of online banner ads are seen for more than one second. At the same time, 54% of polled consumers say they distrust the banner ads they’re served. When compared to popular forms of digital advertising, the staying power of catalogs cannot be overstated.

Catalogs for Storytelling and Place Setting

To recap, catalogs are a means of contact consumers welcome openly. They receive more than 15 minutes of engagement on average, and the impressionable shelf life is the better portion of a month. Consider for a moment the opportunity this presents, content-wise. Catalogs in this sense are not sales flyers, nor are they an index of an entire product library –– at least they shouldn’t be. The true value lies in creating strong content that resonates with recipients and embodies a brand.

When it comes to e-commerce, it’s not uncommon to visit a product page and find 10 product photos on a white background, punctuated by a single lifestyle shot or aspirational photo. It’s product first, story second. Conversions over interactions. Transactions over experiences. This is the same model catalogs once followed (and ineffective ones still do). Meanwhile, companies like Patagonia and Anthropologie have reframed the model, leading with content aiming to inspire, sacrificing lengthy product detail pages for rich photography and essays lending to more photojournalistic lifestyle documentaries versus antiquated product features and benefits only sales tools.  

While catalogs shouldn’t be the first contact consumers have with brands, they’re an effective vehicle for building deeper, longer-lasting rapport with buyers who can be nurtured to view and select products as lifestyle choices rather than commodity-based transactions. Success is measured in the value of lifelong relationships versus year-over-year purchase cycles. This is where the real value for brands is attained. Patagonia’s Executive Director and VP of Ecommerce describes their feature catalogs as “a way we’re speaking to our closest friends and people who know the brand really well.” Susan Korb, chief marketing officer of Anthropologie reiterates this notion, explaining why the company doesn’t call them catalogs, and instead refers to them as journals. She continues, “Of course we’re trying to sell clothes and accessories, but it’s more to inspire and engage.”

Obvious Opportunities

In an age where digital content marketing is in vogue, pixels provide increasingly in-depth consumer interaction insights and inboxes bulge with a glut of email correspondences, catalogs, in conjunction with these other methods, can be an effective and welcoming way to build brand affinity. As marketing tactics evolve, marketers are often tempted to opt out of more traditional methods of creating engagement in favor of the shiniest new hyper-targeting tactic. If a brand has a story to tell (and they all do), catalogs offer the opportunity to do just that.

To tell a brand’s story through technically tactile tactics, it takes more than a keen eye and clever tongue. Contact us to tell your story on success with catalogs.