Live From the Catalog Conference: The Williams-Sonoma Brands Have “Friends”

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

Williams-Sonoma Inc.’s Patrick Connolly told attendees of the Catalog Conference in Chicago not to think of themselves as a catalog, but rather as a brand.

“Your brand is what people think of when they think of you,” said Connolly, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of the San Francisco-based company during a keynote address on Tuesday.

As an example of premier branding, he cited BMW, which never talks about price but rather focuses on experience. Nike positions itself as catering to athletes, not spectators, while singer/actress Madonna has carefully shepherded her own personal brand from sex toy to children’s book author over the last 20 years. And perhaps most impressively — or disturbingly, depending on your point of view – more Americans shop at Wal-Mart than regularly attend church.

For many catalogs, their brand awareness outstrips the size of their company. “It’s the nature of the business,” explained Connolly. “We are able to create an impression with every catalog we mail.”

Those impressions led writers of NBC’s “Friends” to feature an apothecary table from Williams-Sonoma’s Pottery Barn catalog in an episode during the 2000 season. The catalog’s name is mentioned repeatedly, as Rachel furnishes her apartment with numerous Pottery Barn items, telling her roommate Phoebe the goods came from a really cool flea market instead of a mass market retailer.

The episode, which is shown numerous times annually in syndication, is “the gift that keeps on giving. The phones light up with catalog requests every time it airs.”

Pottery Barn only had 79 stores when the show was originally written, he noted. But, because the catalog was so well known, the writers of Friends felt the brand’s reputation was strong enough to work as a plot point.

Other television appearances, such as a spot on “Oprah” featuring a chocolate cake from Williams-Sonoma and an Al Roker interview on the “Today” show with founder Chuck Williams in a New York Williams-Sonoma store, also provided the kind of publicity “you just can’t buy,” said Connolly.

More recently, during an interview on ABC’s “Nightline” Secretary of State Colin Powell corrected a gaffe he made when referring to the Pottery Barn having a policy of “You break it, you buy it” in an aside about the war in Iraq. The Pottery Barn is a fine catalog, he told host Ted Koppel, and if you break something accidentally in their store, you won’t be asked to pay.

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