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The Hidden Value of Catalogues

Catalogues are an incredibly valuable marketing tool and have been around (reputedly) for some 500 years or so. It’s difficult to put an exact timeline on them, but they were recorded being used by a Venetian glass maker in the 15th century.

Today, catalogues are largely seen as adjunct to web based marketing and primarily seen as a conduit for web ordering. Very few companies, except for the enlightened, see them as a standalone statement, with an intrinsic value.

I am old enough to remember the really golden days of the catalogue, when they were collected and prized for their own worth; from Biba in the 70s through to Next Directory in the late 80s. They were publications to be enjoyed in their own right and beautifully produced. The Next Directory was particularly exclusive and was even hard case bound. You had to apply for it and I even remember there being a charge.

Moving on several decades and the cult of instant information demands that all sales information is instantly available. Whatever you want to know, ‘just Google It’. It’s amazing how this adjective has slipped into our language; ‘I’m Googling!’ ‘I’ve just Googled it!’. Having shopping at your fingers tips is a natural progression. The rise of smartphones has totally revolutionised the way we access information. They are far more that communication devices – they are indispensible modern multi-tools. The Swiss Army knives of 21st century life.

The most recent figures show that online shopping in the UK is predicted to increase by 16%. The UK is now, by some margin, the biggest online spender with sales set to punch through £60bn mark*.

* RetailMeNot and the Centre for Retail Research.

It’s seductive to think that all this activity and revenue can be generated by the internet alone, but the internet is a pretty unwelcoming place. Yes it can track you, it can log your activity it can overlay information in a thousand different ways – but in the end we are still anonymous. Its data can only predict activity from what it has learned – and as you know, if you always do what you always do, you will always get what you always get!

It’s not particularly good at ‘off the wall’ suggestions, but its getting better. Social media can play a part here and raise the level of engagement. It’s still fairly reactive and it still has difficulty reaching customers who have no prior knowledge of what you do or sell. It’s far too easy (as we all have experienced) for emails to be deleted, particularly on smartphones, if the header is an unfamiliar message or not from a known contact.

On the other hand, catalogues are very good at reaching people with products or services they didn’t know existed, from companies they have never heard of. The pool of existing transactional data is phenomenal and using your own customer activity, as a benchmark, you can readily obtain similar data to mail. And against all received wisdom, people still like to receive direct mail and in particular catalogues. Catalogues and direct mail also have a very high pass through rate with 23% being shared. They are also retained, displayed and present multiple opportunities to be viewed *.

*Royal Mail Market Reach

In a very short while, mobile devices will have totally usurped laptops and desktops for web browsing. It’s nearly there, but no matter how sophisticated smartphones become, product-viewing experience is still limited by the size of the screen. Yep, we’ll get total-immersion technology soon – but it will still be an experience devoid of any tactility.

Catalogues have a way of communicating beyond simply visual – they are very tactile and engage the senses of touch, sight and smell. Even hearing and taste, I’ve never actually eaten a catalogue, but I can tell the paper quality by listening to the crispness. They do tell a story themselves, as soon as you pick them up – the weight, the paper texture and quality, the varnish on the cover, the smell of the ink – it all adds up to a much richer experience.

And for all the naysayers with regards to sustainability, catalogues are no eco-devils incarnate. Paper is a crop, its trees, grown like cabbages. It sustains an industry that is incredibly environmentally aware. There are now allegedly more trees in the US than when Columbus landed!

Once a catalogue has done its job, we must take note that vast majority of waste paper is recycled. If it does end up landfill, it degrades very quickly; approximately 6 weeks, compared to an orange peel that takes 6 months! The biggest culprit of landfill is the food industry – it buries thousands of tonnes of food each year, along with associated packaging. The direct mail industry accounts for something like 1% of all waste or recycled paper – its tiny!

With regards to energy, let’s just remind ourselves that the worldwide web uses massive amounts of energy. The Climate Group, which consists of 40 corporations and numerous local and national governments focused on CO2, not energy and suggests that, by 2020, the internet’s footprint will have tripled to 1.43bn tonnes of carbon emitted per year.

As an ultimate irony perhaps we should grow more trees, to soak up the CO2 output of the web, and print more catalogues. It’s a thought – and one that would ultimately redress the balance. But it’s a awful lot of catalogues – bring it on!

So to summarise – catalogues have a value that is very different to that of online communications. They are tactile, they are a vehicle not a channel and can get to prospective customers in a very unique way. They do not damage the environment and in fact can offset the internet’s carbon footprint in several ways.

To view a catalogue simply as way to drive web traffic is appreciating only a fraction of its value. They have strengths and abilities not immediately apparent and they have an extremely valuable place in the marketing mix.