Introducing Steve Parke; The Product Catalog

It is a great privilege for me to introduce the first of our newest contributors, Steve Parke. Steve’s somebody who is not only a friend, but is also somebody I have a great amount of respect for. I worked indirectly with Steve for several years when he was the Director of Sales & Marketing at Ritchey Logic, then I had the brief pleasure of working for Steve when we were both at ASI (Fuji/ Kestrel/ Breezer/ SE Racing/ Terry) and he was my “boss”. He’s more than a little smart and insightful, plus he’s funny as hell, has a great turn of phrase, and still remembers the main reason most of us got into cycling- bikes are fun to ride.

In his own words;

Started as a mechanic in the late 70’s when I was lucky enough to race on Clement – Campione del Mundos.
Worked my way into the shop management gig with 2 separate stints as GM of The Bike Gallery in Portland.
Ten years in the NW as a sales rep and later regional manager – fantastic experience in the Trek machine, fully enjoyed the Bridgestone anti-machine.
Fifteen years in management on the Brand side – Scott, Ritchey, Advanced Sports – great exposure to the global bike biz.
In this world preoccupied with virtuality, I love that we make things. (Emphasis provided by me, not Steve… but I’m sure he meant to do that anyway.)

That bio reads as humbly as the man himself. I’m honored to have Steve join us here at the Krew, and I’m really looking forward to reading his posts (and those of the other contributors).

 

Steve’s first post is an ode to the printed catalog. Having produced more than a few of them myself, there is a lot that I can relate to. Painfully so. Now that we’re all mostly out of catalog production time right now, this allows an opportunity to review the process, the product, and maybe shed a tear for the hours and hours spent hoping that you didn’t screw anything up. How we all hated getting that call or email pointing out the mistake/s that we missed during “final” review… ugh…

 

Without further delay, I’ll let Steve do the talking now…

 

 

***

 

 

In this digital age, the printed product catalog is fighting to stay relevant, under pressure to gracefully step aside and yield the annual spotlight to its more current brethren – the online product catalog.  I believe the printed version still has merit and serves a key goal in generating brand equity, specifically because of its physical nature.

To address the subject today, one has to look back a bit at the history of the printed catalog in the bike biz; retrospect to the late 80’s, early 90’s will serve just fine.  For most of the 80’s, printed catalogs were largely the domain of the bicycle makers and generally filled with studio shots of the latest models, accompanied by specs, geometry and color options.  They traditionally opened with a page or two of company philosophy, but were otherwise a bit boring unless you were a bike geek and liked digesting the thing cover to cover over a few weeks of time as it sat idly on your coffee table or commode magazine rack. The 90’s saw us become more “sophisticated” in our catalog brand marketing, with accessory companies joining the fray, driven by a heightened competitive environment and a desire by marketers to separate themselves and their brands from the pack with bolder images, more racing shots, technical evolutions, glossy covers and heavy paper stock with sexy varnish masks.  It was the golden age of catalog based, brand-storytelling and many a marketing career was redirected up or down by virtue of the final product. In the same period, we saw the rise of the printed direct mail piece which had a long run of success at driving consumers into stores with the notion of deals to be had twinkling in their eyes, followed up lastly by the highly effective, but frowned upon by purists – mail order catalog.  Print was king and getting all those thousands of details correct before printing was the Holy Grail of execution.

Inevitably, the task of accurately coordinating all those moving pieces to complete the annual catalog and hoping the printer would hold up their end of the bargain when the presses were done, frustrated everyone who touched the process.  With few other options, marketers soldiered on and did their best to elevate the game and outdo their competitors.  The product rhetoric became more hyperbolic, and each year’s product suite was “crushingly” better than the last year, every brand attempting to outdo themselves and each other along the way.  A disingenuousness slipped in to the scene.

At the time I was a field sales rep for Bridgestone and a staunch voice in my company barking loudly for us to embrace this one-upmanship trend and give me the tools my dealers needed to be heard above the noise of all the emerging brands.  Grant Petersen was in charge of directing this effort at Bridgestone at the time (along with the product) and took a different view of the whole premise.  In 1992 Grant arguably invented the first “anti-catalog” in the bike biz.  He jettisoned many imbedded notions about what moves the brand needle on the consumer opinion dial.  I was so pissed at him the first year this concept was revealed and remember moaning to all that would listen that we had become marketing dinosaurs in one year while others where planning the next wing of the space station.  When fashioning the catalog, Grant dumped: the traditional size and paper, sponsored racer shots, sharp color bike images and meaningless, me-too brand prose only to replace it with 100% post-consumer waste paper (costly at the time), soy ink (after learning this part I felt justified in making him eat one), Daniel Reboor renderings (he did the technical product renderings for Campy for a bazillion years), and even introduced model segments done in a trading card format.  The prose was painstakingly written to explain the brand, the rationale for the models and made an appeal to sensibility as a driver in the buying decision process.  And with the benefit of hindsight, it could be argued was one of the most masterful printed catalogs done in the bike biz.  Grant used this format for three years before the sad news Bridgestone Japan had had enough of currency fluctuations and uppity Americans telling them how to do things, and pulled the plug, exiting the market for good in 1994.

I tossed those Bridgestone catalogs in a drawer and gave them little thought for years as my career evolved and I took on marketing roles that left me free to pursue my own perspectives on catalogs.  I learned a valuable lesson from that time – a catalog must make an emotional connection with the reader in order to be judged successful at creating top of mind awareness for the rider when the time comes to plunk down the money and head home with the product.  On the plus side: a printed catalog is visceral, physical, visual, dimensional, and transportable – engaging multiple senses.  On the not-so-plus side: they are heavy, costly to print-ship-distribute, wasteful of resources, and far too many end up in the recycle bin at year’s end, never having been opened.

There is an active changing of the guard of marketing folks from baby boomers to gen x’rs and y’rs in the industry today.  Since many of the new marketers grew up in the digital age, they are completely comfortable with presenting the best face of the brand via a website and an online product catalog, with more recent evolutions into the social media realm.  After all, that is how they and their peers are influenced to develop brand appreciation.  Aside from inspiring imbedded video assets, the online format is largely one dimensional and requires the viewer to fill in a lot of the multi-sensory gaps left in the online environment in order to arrive at what I call “lust to own”.

It’s widely accepted that no matter how a consumer begins their product affiliation process, at some point, they must cross over from cerebral to emotional before the purchase occurs.  Can online effectively marshal that journey for the buyer exclusive of the traditional printed format?  I would argue, No Way!  Even for those who report they never use printed catalogs to make buying decisions, they still engage in seeking out the “trusted influencer” in order to make the jump from intellectual consideration to emotional purchase – proving the point, as brand builders, we must help the buyer across the chasm of understanding what fits them best.  If we could run around the market place and make sure the 3 million influencer folks (recognized core user population) were accurate champions for our brand stories, then yes, maybe we can dispense with the hassle and expense of the annual printed catalog.  It turns out those folks are quite busy with their lives and even if self-motivated, will only remember a few key brand messages, and I will bet brands have a much broader message to share than the rule of three retained product attributes leading to brand opinion.

If you haven’t done so in a while, go seek out a printed catalog and look through it carefully.  Some group labored mightily to put it out so you could read it.  Does it inspire you and engage you at a deeper level than a cursory click-scroll of the company site?  I am betting the smell of ink on your fingers will make you a convert.

Steve Parke

12 comments

  1. Tim Jackson

    Leaving a comment, like a proper reader…

    When I was with Masi, I made small, humble attempts to recreate the work Grant did with Bridgestone- both in the ethos of the product and the catalog. I never got to do what I really wanted; page counts were always kept down to keep costs down, or I simply didn’t have the capacity to produce the same level of content. Grant really did, for me at least, create the best catalogs the industry has seen- or read. Hopefully, one of these days, I’ll be able to finish that dream and write my own ode to Grant’s work at Bridgestone. He’s keeping that flame burning with Rivendell and I hope it burns a long time.

    The printed catalog may seem like a dinosaur in many ways with all of the shiny new electric toys we have now, but the world has not yet “turned the page” on the printed catalog, I hope. As much of a nightmare as they are to produce; the scramble to get samples, the layout fights with Creative, getting the “right” photos, the push/pull of creating just the right amount of copy (hopefully copy that doesn’t make you barf after it’s been printed), making sure each line of product spec or geometry angles are correct… but there truly is something “special” about having your hands on those pages, especially when it all comes together to make that emotional pull that much stronger.

    • Tim Jackson

      I’m very excited to have Steve as a member of the team too. It’s a pleasure to get to work with him again.

  2. Tim Jackson

    Sorry for the odd formatting issue that appears after Steve’s introduction and beginning of his post. WordPress is somehow deleting spacing and creating the problem…

  3. Tim Jackson

    Thanks for all the patience as I monkeyed around trying to fix the weird formatting. Looks better now, but I apologize if you tried to read it before and it vanished or wasn’t available.

  4. Pingback: Introducing Jeff Lockwood; Branding Through Twitter. « Shut Up and Drink the Kool-Aid!
  5. Gene Oberpriller

    Hey you guys. It’s me, Gene o. Funny how this has been around and I just find out about it today.
    Ahhhhh…, I feel some much better after reading this. I think we all have grown and learned much from the last 20 years. Having gleaned much insight from you all. Yes, it’s true you all did influence me weather you knew it or not.

    I was only in 1 or 2 company meetings concerning the direction that BUSA (both Bridgestone and Bianchi ironically) was going, and it was always partisan about the catalog and its message. For me (and you guys I think), it was being on the street or trail with the reps, shops, customers and you guys that shaped us. The catalog was there.
    In a van driving to some event, catalog. On an airplane, catalog. Sitting at a bar, catalog. The catalog was always there, getting passed around. Lots of other uses for that catalog too! If you could not ride the bike, the catalog was the closest thing.
    Now that I have come full circle as retailer, we still need the catalog. Surly to the best of my knowledge is still keeping the match burning.
    Oh, this is going to be fun.

    • Tim Jackson

      GENE! We’re super happy to have you stumble along and find us. Better late than never!

      As a purveyor/ creator of catalogs over the years, there are some that I look back on with fondness and others with “well, glad it’s done”. However, all of them that I had anything to do with fell short of the Bridgestone catalogs- always wanted to go that route, but in the day of page count means money, I never got to pursue what I really wanted.

      And the tactile and emotional connection of a printed catalog can never be replaced by even the sleekest of polished websites. Staring at a printed photo of a sexy bike is still- for me- best done manually.

  6. Steve Parke

    The period I wrote about had a delay in information passing that contributed to an inherent innocence (or naivete) in the marketplace. If you had a desire to know more about a brand, you had to accomplish the rough equivalent of driving down to the general store to get a cup of coffee and help toss logs on the fire in the wood stove – the whole process built “fraternity.” But, as we all know, fraternities are not meant to last; they are special and endearing precisely because they mark a period for us (like songs that indelibly burn in your brain from the time when you………). I love the fraternities of circumstance I have participated in over the years. Take a moment and cultivate the ones you have now for they will surely move and become historical. “These are the good ol days.”

  7. David Feldman

    Just stumbled on this trying to find Steve’s contact info, but love the essay! Steve, maybe it’s our generation; raised in books, papers, and magazines, but the idea of taking something home from the place where you’re shopping for………….almost anything that you can hold in your hands and look at your desired object? And the merchant gives this away? You had a hand in one of the best paper catalogs ever with Bridgestone, but they’re all fun and they all are capable of planting the right bug in the customer’s brain.

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