Rethinking Signature's style

With its assortment of upscale, unique bathtubs and sinks, plus a wide array of hardware from doorknobs to hinges to switch plates, Signature Hardware is a home renovator's dream. But when it comes to catalog creative, does Signature Hardware have the right stuff, or is it all wet? Critiquers Lori McFadden, a Laguna Beach, CA-based catalog consultant specializing in branding and design, and Glenda Shasho Jones, principal of New York-based catalog consulting firm Shasho Jones Direct, reviewed the 2006 edition of Erlanger, KY-based Signature Hardware. Read on to see how the catalog stacked up.

Lori McFadden

This perfect-bound book printed on quality stock seems to have the staying power to see me through a lengthy home-remodeling project with a considerable amount of expertise. The cover look is clean and organized with a large and legible script logo and the tagline "Designer Bathtubs by Clawfoot Supply." The year and the URL are clearly stated.

As a consumer, I might want to be transported to the fourth century in the $31,000 Byzantine Royal Bath, shown on the top left of the front cover. Or my fantasy may be to sit on a throne in medieval France, which can be realized with the $12,183 Dagobert Toilet Throne, complete with candle sconce and ashtray and also depicted on the cover. The final item featured on the cover is a 19th-century-looking basin and faucet, which is nearly impossible to find in the selling pages. All three products may be best-sellers and are certainly high-ticket items, but I'd recommend a single shot of a beautifully appointed bathroom, showcasing the desired result, to appeal to a broader customer base.

A welcome letter on page 2 is devoted to explaining a name change and describing the expansion of Signature Hardware's business, listing additions to its assortment such as door and cabinet hardware and a lighting collection. But does it overpromise in stating, "Between these pages you'll find virtually everything you need for your bath or kitchen project"? The product focuses overwhelmingly on the bath with just a small selection of faucets, sinks, and strainers specific to the kitchen. I'd suggest consolidating the table of contents into broader categories and incorporating some small iconic photos to quickly communicate the breadth of assortment: a special tub, an interesting sink, a fabulous doorknob.

Page 3 and the back cover are devoted to promoting the company's new showroom and warehouse in Erlanger, including a map and a large shot of the building exterior. These obviously represent a huge investment for Signature Hardware, but devoting so much key space to the story is a missed opportunity. Customers will be more impressed with photos of items they covet for their own space; one small shot of the showroom interior would suffice. The catalog lists several Ohio and Kentucky cities as a convenient drive, but I wonder how much foot traffic they'll get from Chicago, "only 4 1/2 hours" away.

Inside, the catalog does a great job selling each individual item. The photos are clear, with appropriate propping that's not distracting. "Heroes" are sprinkled throughout. The copy is informative, and the typography is tasteful. Space is devoted to informative editorial such as the benefits of bronze and a page of "Tub Tips." Occasional vendor logos and a star icon with the message "new item" are designed so that they do not detract. The pages are flooded with a controlled palette of sophisticated colors that give the book a rich, calm feeling that makes you want to spend some time with it.

So what's missing? Not much, until I get to page 61 where I find a full page devoted to a trio of small children peeping out of a footed tub. Aha - people! Emotion is the missing element. I'd be interested to know whether this particular footed tub sold better than the others. Signature Hardware can easily cash in on the "take me away" bubble-bath fantasy that has become part of the vernacular. One direction for creative development would be to humanize the presentation.

Introducing a few more of these lifestyle shots would also help pace the book. All the tightly controlled studio photography can get monotonous in 154 pages. Perhaps this was the motivation behind propping a full-page shot with toys, a towel, and a can of shaving cream on one page. If using models is not desirable, consider shooting customers' new bathrooms on location. (Frontgate does a great job of this.) Another way to break things up could be to highlight the editorial content, unifying it with a consistent format such as FAQs to emphasize expertise or customer testimonials to highlight service.

Everyone wants to know the "top 10 tips" that will drive catalog response, but often the answer is not in more cover messaging or making the prices red but in getting into the head of your customer. Creative is a link between product and consumer. Signature Hardware does a pretty good job communicating its expertise and quality. It quite clearly knows its product; to take the next step it must consider its audience. That's where the money is!

Glenda Shasho Jones

Signature Hardware is in the same boat many retailers find themselves when they try to use a catalog to address multiple, disparate objectives. In this case, it appears that the company has created an annual catalog that is meant to do triple duty: sell off the page, drive traffic to the store, and act as a reference guide. The problem is that it asks the catalog to do too much, especially as the design architecture and creative signals we assign with each objective are different.

Selling right out of the catalog would dictate providing all product information needed to make a purchase decision. Driving traffic to the retail location is more about lower density and higher visual drama. Creating a catalog that is expected to work all year long suggests that the book is a directory with more sections and navigation signals. Three purposes...three looks.

That said, I've evaluated the catalog as a direct marketing tool, so comments are relevant to best practices and achieving more success in performance in that role.

Starting with the front cover, Signature Hardware would get a lot more visibility when it arrives in the mail (that is, it would pop out from the other catalogs and magazines that might cover it) by placing the logo and masthead at the top of the page.

It's great that the cover carries an assortment of category photographs, letting the recipient know that there's a wide variety of product within. It's a good technique that is often used in prospecting catalogs to instantly show variety. An 800-number on the cover (near the Web address) would be a quick indicator that this catalog is meant as a direct ordering vehicle.

Direct marketers recognize that the back cover is the best-selling or nearly best-selling page of a catalog. Showing product on the back cover signals, again, that a catalog is asking for a direct sale. By placing the retail location and a map on the back cover, Signature Hardware screams "retailer." This space could easily feature product, and if the showroom is important to call out, it can be done effectively in half of the space.

A sea of copy is the road to boredom. Signature Hardware makes some common mistakes on its opening spread:

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There's a lot of copy, but it's not necessarily motivating or exciting to the reader.

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Copy is written with a fair amount of fluff and extraneous words.

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Copy is not "managed" for easier reading. The use of headlines, subheads, bullets, and bolded or underlined words could help the reader get through the amount of copy presented.

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The opening does not contain a section devoted to direct marketing messages and signals. Direct mail buyers expect to see "easy to order," a guarantee statement, and delivery and installation information.

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The table of contents reads more like an index; it's too long and uninviting.

Overall organization on the interior pages is good; products and copy are managed in columns to make shopping easier. But pacing, or interest in going through the catalog, could be improved. Many spreads reflect all the products in the same size. Creating feature and subfeature shots would stimulate the interest that often keeps the reader paging though the catalog.

The catalog has some navigation help in the form of category titles on the top right-hand pages. But Signature Hardware has missed the boat, since the categories don't sync up with the wording in the table of contents. An additional opportunity would be making the color-coding used in the catalog evident on the table of contents.

All catalogers should strive to improve the reader's immediate level of comprehension. Any delay or confusion in getting the message may lead to lack of interest, frustration, and ultimately, fewer sales. There are a variety of best practices that Signature Hardware should consider; here are a few:

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Avoid dark backgrounds. Lighter tinted backgrounds are much easier to read off than darker ones, and of course, white is the easiest.

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Reverse type is much harder to read than black type. It should be avoided whenever possible.

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Caption type - or words in small type under photographs - are a great way to tell the customer exactly what they're looking at.

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While Signature has made a good selection with readable sans-serif type, it's important to keep in mind that sans-serif is generally harder to read than serif.

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Web drivers should be at the bottom of pages and should have a "Webby" look. Plopping these messages in the middle of a page (as was done on page 51) disrupts the merchandise presentation as well as diminishes their strength as a Web driver.

Every business should try to establish itself as an authority, as customers will buy from a company that demonstrates authority more quickly than from one that does not. Here are some ways that Signature Hardware can demonstrate authority:

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Show quality and construction. It's not enough to show a product photo. If quality and construction are integral to a brand or to various products within an offering, it's important that the reader gets that message without having to read the copy. Visuals like call-outs, magnified shots, and diagrams are good ways to demonstrate quality and construction at a glance.

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Help the customer choose. When you show a variety of products in one category, you need to to help the potential buyer quickly evaluate and choose. One technique is the "good, better, best" presentation, in which product is called out in a hierarchy of categories that reflect price, performance, and attributes. Another option is using bullets that call out and compare various attributes, side by side. This would work well in comparing items such as toilets, where there might be more to the product than the look.

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Use editorial to communicate relevant information. This catalog already has helpful information in place. Page 5, in fact, is dedicated to the care of bronze bathtubs. But the text will stand out more if it actually looks informative, rather than like selling copy. This might mean the use of a different font, color, illustrative art, or other techniques. Also, it should be digestible - use management techniques such headlines, subheads, or Q&A treatment.

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Showcase luxury or "fantasy" products. Nothing says that you are an authority more than showcasing the ultimate product. Signature Hardware already has the product, with its Dagobert Toilet Throne at $12,183. But the item is treated the same as other merchandise in terms of space allocation and overall presentation. It's too easy to miss this unique item!



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