What the J.Peterman catalog can teach you about hyper-creative product descriptions
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“This innocent-looking shirt has something which isn’t innocent at all: touchability. Heavy, silky Italian cotton. A fine, almost terry cloth-like feeling. Five-button placket, relaxed fit. Innocence and mayhem at once.”
If you’re a Seinfeld fan, you may recognize that product description: it’s how Elaine describes her shirt to a fictionalized version of J. Peterman, the entrepreneur behind the J. Peterman Company.
“J. Peterman doesn’t really talk to you about the features of the product,” says Zontee Hou, president of Media Volery. “They talk to you about the story of what it might be to live in that product. They focus on one idea: How would you want to feel wearing this thing?”
It’s true––we ultimately just want to feel good in our clothes. Conventional product descriptions help potential buyers assess whether or not they’ll feel good with stone cold facts. Sweat wicking. Size and dimensions. Typical fit.
J. Peterman product descriptions use the facts as a starting point. Then they dig, expound, educate, and enthrall.
Some J. Peterman product descriptions are so aspirational that they become caricatures of themselves. You may be tempted to roll your eyes and write them off as nothing more than gimmickry, but no one can deny that they stand out from the product description pack.
But what about SEO for product descriptions?
We’re not here to knock SEO product descriptions like “WUAI-Women Summer Sundress Casual Colorblock Tie Dye Spaghetti Strap Sleeveless V-Neck Loose Beach Long Maxi Dress”.
When new brands need to optimize for discoverability, SEO is a necessary component for product descriptions, especially on Amazon. (Never mess with Amazon’s formula.) Product titles that get the SEO treatment may lose their panache, but they get the job done when potential buyers are searching based on must-have features.
How do I know if I can experiment with product descriptions that do away with SEO?
Creative product descriptions like J. Peterman’s aren’t for every DTC brand––but they might be for yours. Here are some signs you can begin to experiment with creative writing in product descriptions:
- You’re an established brand with some solid recognition.
- Most of your organic search traffic comes from branded keyword searches.
- You’re struggling to stand out in a saturated market––and most of your target keywords are highly competitive anyway.
- Customers are starting to form a community around elements of your brand.
- Your email newsletter sees high engagement––meaning you own an audience that has a high tolerance for experimentation.
If you decide to experiment with creative product descriptions that defy some of the core elements of SEO, make sure to test before you swim into the deep end.
Start with a few products and measure any hits to organic traffic. Gather a decent amount of data, including customer feedback––then decide if it’s worth the long-term brand investment.
Key elements of a J. Peterman product description
A place you can see
Clothes protect us from the elements, but most products are attached to a place.
You use dental floss in a bathroom––anywhere else would strike others as odd. And that meal kit you love? You’re not making it in your living room.
J. Peterman uses creative writing techniques to drop potential customers in a specific place where the product just happens to fit in:
“Beaches stretch empty for miles…. You walk into town for dinner, dangling your sandals from one finger until your bare feet feel the shift from sand to cobblestone.”
An empty beach signals the beginning or end of a season. The shift from sand to cobblestone indicates a multi-purpose garment. This is a dress for in-between states, and you know it because of an image in your mind, not because of an item in a list of features.
A time you can feel
Some products are also seasonal. Depending on where you live, you’re not thinking about buying new gardening tools in November.
J. Peterman gets specific about when customers would wear their apparel. In copywriting, specificity builds credibility by signaling to the audience that you understand their needs. And this is as specific as you can get:
“Cool in the morning, warm by noon…. Not quite fall. Not quite not…. You need a dress for these in-between days.”
One person’s perspective
J. Peterman product descriptions carry a distinct voice. You can hear this person’s personality shine through, via cadence and word choice.
Some descriptions even use the first person, like this one: “I’m referring, of course, to the sport’s infamous 19th century, when professional rowing was at its downright dirtiest and, in my opinion, its most entertaining.”
A character quirk
Great customer personas are as specific as possible when describing buyers. Your product isn’t for everyone, nor should it be.
J. Peterman embraces niche personas with descriptive character text. Whether they come across as realistic or aspirational depends on the perspective of the reader, but they always achieve one thing: They embrace some of the quirks of being human.
For example, this line: “You keep a sweater on the back of the chair by the door.” What this implies is that the person wearing this type of dress at this particular moment of the season is a sophisticated, organized sort of person who thinks ahead about the weather. Perhaps they tell their kids to bring a sweater because there’s a chill.
A picturesque purpose
Features and benefits: they’re the bedrock of effective product descriptions. But what would happen if you gussied up your benefits copy to strike at an emotion?
“These days call for something floral. Something comfortable. Something with pockets.”
Women’s apparel is notoriously uncomfortable and without pockets. J. Peterman understands that this character they created––the woman who keeps a sweater on the back of the chair by the door––won’t stand for much that’s impractical. She wants her florals and her pockets, and there’s no reason she should settle for one over the other.
Features, but with flair
After the pizazz, J. Peterman does get down to business. Every product description ends with a nod to the conventional features list, but with some added flair.
“Head-turning floral print on a deep navy background. Self-fabric tie on each sleeve creates a ruffle effect.”
Other descriptions look like this:
“Men’s Plaid Seersucker Jacket (No. 6573) in a cotton seersucker blend. Single needle topstitch throughout. Two-button, three-pocket blazer style. Double vent. Interio welt pockets. Undercollar contrast oxford cloth. Bember-lined sleeves. Unlined, unstructured body. Italian horn buttons. Imported.”
“Crew Pants (No. 6520). You don't need to know the difference between bucket rigging and German rigging to wear these crew pants. Made from top-dyed French terry and designed after a classic rowing pant, they're also perfectly suited for lounging. Wear from boat to beach. Drawstring waist. Elastic at waist and ankles. One back pocket. Imported.”
Creative writing prompts for your product descriptions
Creative writers love writing prompts. While they may not always lead to full stories, they get the juices flowing and force you to build creatively within helpful constraints.
If you want to try writing creative product descriptions, try these prompts and see where they take you. Exaggerate details. Write the most outlandish scenarios you can dream up. And if they sound ridiculous, who cares? It’s only an exercise.
1. Someone has stolen your product in a heist. Why did they steal it and what will they do with it now that they have it?
2. Someone is using your product in a way it was not meant to be used. How are they using it and what are the consequences?
3. The most unlikely buyer has purchased your product for themselves. Who is this person and why did they buy your product?
4. Elon Musk has just tweeted that your product is what people will bring to Mars when they can go. Why does he think your product is essential for space travel?
5. A stand up comedian develops a five-minute set about your product. What are they saying and how does the audience react?
6. Rewind time: The pandemic has just begun, and people are hoarding your product. Why are they rushing to buy?
Questions to ask about your product
After you’ve indulged in some ridiculous thought experiments about your product, it’s time to reel things into reality. You never want to get so creative that your potential buyers don’t understand the core features and benefits of your product.
Take some of your favorite passages from your writing prompts and add a layer of practicality with these questions:
1. What are some of the most defining characteristics of my ideal customer?
2. What are some of the words my ideal customer likes to use on a regular basis?
3. Where is my customer most likely to use my product?
4. When is my customer most likely to use my product?
5. What are some of the most interesting things about my product?
6. How do I want my product to make people feel?
After you answer these questions and extract some of the more vivid details from your creative exercises, you’ll likely reach a middle ground between impractically creative and informative.
The last step? Refine your word choice until your description sounds like a person is narrating it. Say it out loud. Allow yourself to get swept up in the scene you’ve created, with your product as the star.