Of Puppies and Catalog Copy

Think of holiday catalogs as a kennel worth of puppies yapping and bouncing and nipping for attention. They’re all so cute, how do you decide which one to take home with you?

In any kennel or litter, a few pups will stand out. One or two may grab your attention for the wrong reasons: too aggressive, or too passive. But usually another few will catch your eye not because they’re the most adorable but because they’re the most engaging. These are the ones that take an interest in the visitors in their midst, sniffing their shoes perhaps, or looking up and cocking their head in an invitation to play. These puppies are inevitably the first to find themselves new homes.

It’s the same with the dozens of catalogs that crowd our mailboxes this time of year. The gorgeous covers will no doubt entice you to open them up, but without copy that engages you, chances are good that they’ll be relegated to the “look through them later” pile—and by the time later comes, you may well have already completed your holiday shopping.

The Cath Kidston Christmas Gift Guide 2011 is one such catalog. Cath Kidston is a British purveyor of what some might consider quintessentially British fabrics, accessories, bags, and the like. During the past few years the company has expanded to the States, mailing a catalog with U.S. pricing, setting up a U.S. website, and establishing a Stateside call center. But the catalog lacks an engaging personality to complement its cute merchandise. And let’s face it, there’s no shortage of cute merchandise this time (or any other time) of year.

It’s bad enough that the product copy is sparse: “Tea rose white key fob (imported)” is a typical description. Where is it imported from: the U.K., China, Timbuktu? What’s it made of? How large is it? Yes, a picture’s worth a thousand words, but when the photo is a small silhouette of a product providing no sense of scale or hint as to its construction, those aren’t the right thousand words.

More damning is that the catalog assumes the reader knows what Cath Kidston stands for. There are plenty of Anglophiles among American consumers. Photos playing up the brand’s unique heritage and aesthetic, showing the floral-patterned mugs and canisters on the shelves of an English country kitchen, say, or a family wearing the brightly colored Wellingtons while carting a tree through a quintessentially English countryside could easily have replaced the full-page hero shots of various products placed under a Christmas tree while telling a story more compelling than “these make nice gifts.”

And if ever a catalog cried out for a founder’s letter and a few paragraphs explaining what makes the brand unique, it’s this one. The inside front cover does have an introduction, but it’s tentative and singularly lacking in personality: “You’ll find this guide packed with all our favourite products just perfect for giving. We’re known for our reworking of British country house style, so if you’re looking for gifts with a playful twist on vintage prints, we’ve got everything from stationery to nightwear.” 

That’s pretty much it. Bear in mind that Cath Kidston's prints, at first glance, look like the sort of dainty flowers and colorful dots to be found on myriad other products. How do the Cath Kidston patterns differ from the others? Are the items handcrafted? That red umbrella with the white dots on page 26 that costs $46—is there something particularly British or otherwise special about it, or should I just pick up a similar one from Amazon.com for less?

I understand the realities of keeping page counts down to improve margins, but surely the spreads dedicated to the oilcloth duffels and totes could have included a clever sentence or two about how oilcloth is a practical go-to material for bags in the U.K. because of the changeable weather. This would highlight the unique benefits of one of the bags’ distinguishing features as well as reinforce their British heritage. Likewise, the spread of pajamas and slippers could have called out how especially cozy they are, so important in drafty British country homes that often lack central heating.

There are plenty of stories to tell about these products, stories that could be told succinctly via words and lifestyle photos. But in its catalog, Cath Kidston hangs back, like a shy puppy relying solely on its good looks to get adopted. That might work if there were no other puppies in the kennel or catalogs in the mailbox, but such isn’t the case.

Let’s compare to another catalog I received the same time that the Cath Kidston book landed in my mailbox: the Vosges Haut Chocolat Holiday 2011 edition. This catalog has a lengthy founder’s letter that takes up most of page 4. I’d have made this the inside front cover and edited it a bit to bump up the type font, but let’s not quibble. This letter explains, in loving detail, what distinguishes Vosges from the numerous other chocolate catalogers vying for my money: “Chocolate and curry?! The doubting begins. After just a single bite, one is beckoned to the present moment and in place of doubtful questioning or even thoughts of disgust, the face changes from awe to pleasure. It is in this place that one becomes open to experiencing new ideas through chocolate…” The letter goes on to detail the unexpected inspirations of the collections within the catalog: Italian seasonings, Rastafarians, the African American influence on American music, aboriginal Australians. Right there I’m intrigued enough to want to read through the catalog to discover what sort of chocolates could possibly have resulted from the founder’s musings on African music.

Opposite this letter is a collage of photos showing the candy being made. The photography is gorgeous, but just as important, it tells a story, aided by captions describing the creative process.    

The product copy throughout emphasizes just what makes these candies so unusual, often with an impressive economy of words. A description of the Budapest truffle, for example, could have simply read “Dark chocolate with paprika”—factual but not all that alluring. “Bright and sweet Hungarian paprika warms dark chocolate,” however, piques the curiosity while setting the salivary glands working.

My daughter doesn’t really like chocolate, but even she was enticed by the Vosges catalog and pored over the photos and the descriptions. By the same token, my husband’s brother is not a dog lover. But when he met our dog several years ago, he was so taken by his mellow nature and overall sweetness that he soon found himself not only petting the dog but even allowed Augie to sit in his lap. 

Granted, Augie is pretty darn adorable (see below). But it was his personality that won over my brother-in-law—just as the Vosges catalog’s creative won over my daughter, and me. 


  1. I am not familiar with Cath Kidston, but, from your description, that's just the way they like it. If you're not "in the know" about our products, we don't need you as a customer. We're above you.

    ...and I'm still not a dog lover.

  2. But can any mass-market retailer today afford to take that sort of snobbish stance? I don't think so, especially when branching out into a huge, new, untapped market.

    As for your still not being a dog lover, that's because you've never met my dog.