Print catalogs: Taboo?

Are they “obsolete” and “old-fashioned”? Or “a unique opportunity to engage at new levels while enhancing your online activities”?

During the holidays we had friends and family over to play games, including “Taboo.”  It’s a game where you have to guess a word based on your partner’s description of the word.  But your partner is forbidden from using the word itself or a list of related words. 

Taboo (Source: Wikipedia)My partner was a Gen Y’er (the boyfriend of one of my daughters). He started out describing the secret word as “an old-fashioned, obsolete way people once used to purchase products.” 

Can you guess the secret word?  It was “Catalog.”*

I’ve gotten over people thinking things are obsolete or old-fashioned when I think there’s still plenty of life left in them.  But it did strike me as interesting that these attributes would immediately come to a Millennial’s mind when describing catalogs.  (It doesn’t seem too long ago that I blogged about my wife’s teen-age cousins gushing about the advantages of print catalogs.) 

In fact, there was a vigorous point-counterpoint in DM News just last month on this very topic.  Nancy Sloane, principal at marketing agency Zoom IQ2, came down firmly in the “anti-print” camp for cost, performance, and environmental reasons.  While conceding the value of “small quantities of printed brochures and catalogs with a specific and purposeful distribution,” in general, “print catalogs are antiquated and should be eliminated.” 

On the other hand, “any online marketing effort, especially in the retail space, is made more effective by having an ancillary print component,” according to Rob Reif, president of space broker Media Networks Inc. That was also the conclusion reached concerning the B-to-B space by Jonathan Bein and Jim Tenzillo of Real Results Marketing in a study conducted for Modern Distribution Management magazine:

Catalogs and e-commerce are critical individual components in distributors’ marketing arsenals. Distributors that have taken advantage of clear synergies between the two are reaping huge benefits, including cost savings in product information management and marketing. What’s more and, perhaps most important, they are making buying easier for their customers by allowing them to purchase when and how they want.

In another study for MDM magazine, these same authors asked rhetorically, “Is print dead? Do distributors need to stop producing paper catalogs?”  Their research revealed that “over 65 percent of distributors who produce a catalog for their customers find that catalogs are an effective channel.” They cited flexibility and branding effectiveness as being among the advantages of print.  In fact,

We believe that for many companies, print catalogs are in fact underutilized. They can provide competitive advantage in many sectors if properly utilized. Coordination with e-commerce programs can provide even greater return on catalog efforts. 

On that note, Lois Brayfield, president of catalog consultancy J. Schmid & Associates, spells out strategies for leveraging print catalogs as a multichannel vehicle in a Multichannel Merchant magazine article.  By changing the way you think of your catalog as a marketing tool, Brayfield suggests, “your print catalog has a unique opportunity to engage at new levels while enhancing your online activities.”

The role of the print catalog continues to evolve in the omnichannel marketing environment.  It isn’t dead yet, and it certainly isn’t taboo.  Retail and B-to-B marketers would do well to “infuse new thinking as you evolve your own catalog program,” as Ms. Brayfield puts it.

(*The full list of “taboo” words for describing “Catalog”: Shop, Order, Merchandise, Buy, Mail.)

2 Responses to Print catalogs: Taboo?

  1. Paul Soltysiak says:

    Good stuff – but you failed to address the “environmental reasons” comment… See link: (it’s not a reason at all!)

    • FMJohnson says:

      Hi, Paul — Thanks for your comment and the WSJ link. I was trying to focus more on the issue of the viability and relevance of print catalogs as a marketiing medium rather than specifically refuting the “green” claims of anti-paper advocates. Here are a couple of other links relevant to the “print is good for trees” position:

      “Print Grows Trees” (Printing & Graphics Association MidAtlantic)

      Print in the Mix: Fast Facts on Green/Sustainability

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