In the age of e-commerce, rather than succumbing to extinction or being shouldered into a murky corner of the marketing world, catalogs have thrived. Here’s how the marketing medium has kept its mojo, evolving from shopping utility to lifestyle inspiration.
In the post-Depression-era United States, Sears Roebuck & Co.’s famed “big book”—which sold everything from sewing machines to sporting goods—was a fixture of middle-class consumption. In the 1980s, kids dog-eared the pages of Toys “R” Us and FAO Schwartz catalogs when filling out their Christmas lists, while their parents did the same with catalogs from The Sharper Image and Neiman Marcus.
Fast-forward to the dawn of the digital age, when websites began attracting shoppers in the mood to peruse, serving up product information alongside impulse-buy-ready purchase technology. That competition could have ensured that catalogs would be relegated to doorstop status. Instead, they’ve been re-strategized and reinvented, and for some brands, they even play an enhanced role in the marketing arsenal.
Some retailers evolved their catalogs beyond simple product shots and SKUs years ago. Now many other companies are following suit, leveraging the content marketing power of catalogs to offer customers ideas and inspiration extending well beyond a brand’s product portfolio. Catalogs now aren’t just direct mailers. They’re magazines, often personalized to the recipients’ purchasing habits, their pages filled with artistically styled photography and expertly penned information.
“If you get a catalog in the mail that’s so beautiful, you’re going to save it and put it on your coffee table. That’s a big brand win,” says Tereasa Surratt, creative director at the Chicago office of New York-based ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, freelance stylist, and co-founder of Camp Wandawega, an Elkhorn, Wis.-based retreat that often stages catalog shoots for Land of Nod, Land’s End and Trek Bikes, among many other brands.
As printed content gives way to digital publishing, and as direct mailers work hard to keep their promotional vehicles out of the recycling bin, catalogs are alive and well.