1912 Central Scientific Catalog - Wikimedia Commons

This is the season for mailboxes to be stuffed with catalogs.  Most of us have grown up with them and we tend to assume they have always been around, but as Tom Robbins points out in Another Roadside Attraction, “There were no mail-order catalogues in 1492. Back then Marco Polo’s journal was the wish book of Renaissance Europe.”

Call them wish books or junk mail, catalogs have been around for a while.  Benjamin Franklin is believed to have been the first cataloguer in the U.S.  In 1744, he formulated the basic mail order concept when he produced the first catalog, which sold scientific and academic books. He is even credited with offering the first mail order guarantee: “Those persons who live remote, by sending their orders and money to B. Franklin may depend on the same justice as if present”.

In today’s experience-based economy, catalogs are still a powerful tool used to entice others to engage with your business.  Their power was brought home a few years ago when I asked a group to describe a business based only on what they observed from the cover of a mail order catalog.  The group consisted of middle-aged men who displayed all the signs of being mall-aphobic.  Yet, with very little prompting, they described what they believed the retail store would look like right down to the floor covering, window displays, employee appearance (dress code, age, & body types), color-scheme, and smell as you walked in the front door.  All from the impressions gained from the cover of a catalog!  And, this business had NO brick and mortar store to visit.

Catalogs play a huge role setting expectations still today.  They pave the way for others to decide if they want to do business with you and to form impressions about what it will be like to work with you … long before they meet you.

Not all of us have catalogs, but we do all have some version of them.  It may be your website, your business card, your local newspaper ad, or mailer.  All of these set powerful expectations, but are they the right expectations?  Are we meeting those expectations?  As Jim Gilmore, co-author of The Experience Economy, says, “Just once, I would like to stay in the room I saw in the hotel advertisement!”

  • What expectations are you setting in your “catalog”?
  • Are they the right expectations?
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