Why Digital Brands are Adding Print Catalogs

The tides have changed for print catalogs.  Savvy digital brands and businesses are now using catalogs to form relationships with consumers, ground the digital experience in the physical realm, and generate sales.

Print catalogs are often an inspirational source for customers (think Pottery Barn) and can help brands connect with customers on a deeper level.  Catalogs are a form of tactile storytelling, a new way to experience a brand in a digitally-saturated environment.

Lately, many digital brands have discovered that print catalogs can be successfully used for customer acquisition purposes. This will become even more important in 2019 because finding new customers at an acceptable cost is a growing challenge.

Consider the following catalog statistics (Source: Xerox):

  • In a multi-channel world, 57% of consumers prefer printed catalogs over digital/electronic catalogs

  • 69% of consumers consult a printed catalog before an online purchase

  • Studies show that recipients view catalogs for an average of 30 minutes

  • Catalogs influence an average of 2.5 purchases

  • More than 77% of recipients visit a retail store due to a catalog promotion

But this doesn’t mean that print catalog itself hasn’t had to evolve — or borrow a couple of tricks from its new-found partner-in-sales, digital marketing.

For example, customized offers and personalization have helped print catalog campaigns become extremely effective, targeting consumers most primed to buy.

In a test by European cataloger bonprix, personalized catalog pages (based on customer profiles and past purchases) were sent to customers. A control group received the traditional catalog which featured the regular assortment and was not customized based on prior transactions. The results saw a 500% higher response rate from current customers targeted and 400% higher response rates from those who were previously considered “inactive”. (Source: Xerox)

But is there a way to get highly targeted and convey the value and experience of a brand?  Traditional retailers alongside their digital-only, e-commerce-based brands are realizing the answer to that question is the print catalog.

1) Redefining the Catalog “Experience”

While e-commerce certainly has novel tools to aid a customer in their shopping experience, the ultimate goal is to coax a customer towards filling that shopping cart (customized product suggestions via email) and to get them to actually checkout and purchase (think, abandoned cart emails).

There’s a clear stress on transactions over experiences.

But print catalogs, in tandem, help tell the brand story, creating an emotional connection that is at the very heart of consumer psychology. It’s why people buy anything they’re tempted by.

The print catalog today aims to use content to inspire, educate and guide. Product placements are woven into a situational story and are accompanied by stylistic photography and explanatory mini-essays.

JCrew catalog

Source: J.Crew

Essentially, the catalog experience is rather like a hand-picked, curated selection of items, unraveling more as a story or a documentary than a product detail page.

Digital brands are choosing to add print catalogs because of the way in which buyers can be presented with options, viewing select products as lifestyle choices rather than transactions over a product.

2) Using Print to Align Brand and Communication

Part of a brand’s strategy is its visual design, which includes its fonts, graphics, logos, visual elements, color palettes, typographic placement and even copy.

Now that we’ve established that a print catalog creates an undeniable emotional connection with a buyer towards a brand, we can also see that the print catalog is the “how” of the brand’s “who”.

To hit home this identity and communicate the brand’s values, retailers and e-commerce sites can use print catalogs to subtly but effectively tell the consumer about who they are, how they are to be viewed and who, in turn, the consumer is, by mere association and preference.

An example of this strategy in play has been IKEA. Its focus is always on showing, not telling.

IKEA catalog


Are you interested in a life that is not just “clutter-free” but beautifully organized? Then you, as a consumer, clearly resound with and share IKEA’s values and viewpoint on life.

Not only do its beautiful catalogs demonstrate their mainstay message — fantastically creative and functional home furnishings — but also set a precedent in place for the brand: Their wordless manuals.

IKEA technical

Source: IKEA

This value of “functionality” and the “clearing of useless clutter” is what customers have come to expect, not only from their technical manuals but from their catalogs as well.

And they’re never disappointed.

3) Print Cuts Through Digital Clutter

Print is becoming a novelty.

That “tactile experience” printed catalogs offer helps differentiate a brand in a market that is already over-saturated by offers, clever campaigns, and highly strategic sales funnels.

It’s not only that the weight, feel, and touch of a printed book in a consumer’s hand has far more impact, over time, in building a connection with a brand. It is also that so few retailers want to go through the perceived “trouble” or “cost” of doing printed catalogs, that they’re, ironically, leaving money on the table.

The truth is that printed books will never die because we are both visual and kinaesthetic creatures. Precisely because of the throwaway ease of digital marketing collateral, the printed catalog has become a novelty. It’s a clear way for a brand to say, “Hey, you mattered enough to us to send you a very curated experience: Our catalog.”

In fact, that perceived “cost” is just that: “perceived”, but not actual.  In the long run, it costs more for a brand to keep its print marketing efforts underdeveloped than it is to respond to the opportunity to seamlessly link digital/online and print/offline efforts.

4) Using Online Search Terms to Drive Editorial Decisions

Customers who receive catalogs tend to be more direct in their approach, using the catalog as a guide. They’ve identified what they want and go online to view the product in more detail.  Once online, they usually discover additional items that were not featured in the catalog.  In contrast, consumers who use organic search usually have more difficulty navigating the site because their search wasn’t as knowledgeable or targeted. To make matters worse, a search for tops might lead to 1,896 results with little ability to filter based on neckline, sleeve length, or fit.

Use online search and digital user interactions to guide the editorial design, layout, and even product choices of the print catalog and drive more traffic to your site.  The goal is to provide an organized, streamlined shopping experience rather than a frustrating search mission.

5) Print Generates Incremental Sales

Catalogs can be a great tool for customer reactivation and customer acquisition strategies.  But did you realize that catalogs can also be a source of incremental sales among active customers?

It’s true – the majority of customers will spend more if you mail them a catalog.

But…you have to run tests to determine the % incremental spend.  Is it a 17% increase or a 32% increase? Does the increase in revenue vary based on your customer segment (i.e. 1x or multi buyer)?  Is the incremental spend higher than the cost to mail a catalog?

The key here is to apply the test outcomes to your catalog frequency and RFM selection and make sure you can generate profitable, incremental sales.

Optimize your catalog strategy and budget.  A highly strategic catalog circulation plan can be a powerful and efficient part of your overall marketing plan.

So what story does your print catalog tell?