The 500-year Appeal of Big, Physical Marketing

1498. Apparently, that’s the year of the first recorded catalog in existence, according to Nicola Brown in Skyword. It was a list of books for purchase, printed a mere 58 years after Gutenberg changed everything. Marketing evolved to adapt then, just as it does now more than 500 years later.

Do we really believe that a marketing format that’s survived this long will disappear? Not likely. Although, as Brown notes, catalogs have adapted to the new role in the retail landscape, and now fill a human need for the physicality that we don’t find online.

“The thrill I get receiving my IKEA catalog in the mail today is the same thrill I felt as a kid flipping through those colorful holiday tomes,” Brown writes. “Digital content is so ubiquitous that there’s something uniquely pleasurable about the change of format.”

She mentions the 2015  IKEA catalog, one of the brands that certainly stands out when we think about how to leverage catalogs today.

The brand took a satirical approach,” Brown writes, “equating print to a wondrous new advancement and inviting customers to ‘experience the power of the book.’ The campaign earned over nine million views on YouTube and was celebrated by audiences and marketers alike for showcasing print catalogs as ‘unique by nature—a sleek, tactile object in a distracting digital world.’”

IKEA hit it out of the park with that one, and other brands are following in their footsteps creating catalogs that spark the imagination, bring us to another place, or somehow stir the heart and soul.

While the first catalog ever may have been a product listing, today’s catalogs are far removed from that. They are brand storytelling at its finest, with carefully curated products aligned with well-crafted text that inspires us to dream a little bit. While some may ask why catalogs in the age of the Amazon wish list, the answer is quite clear, to Brown and many of us.

“When it comes to content strategy and creation, use print as a way to help consumers envision your brand as part of their lives,” Brown writes. “Make them feel at home in the pages of your catalog, and give them the breath of fresh air they’re looking for as an escape from digital content consumption.”

If you can take your audience back to the days of poring over the Sears Roebuck catalog, earmarking all the things you wish for, you’ve given them a gift they’ll long remember.

I guess we haven’t changed all that much in 500 years.