Over the years, I’ve had a few favorite catalogs that really demonstrate how to write product descriptions. One was the Banana Republic catalog from the mid-1980s. At the time, Banana Republic was just two people — Mel and Patricia Ziegler, a husband-and-wife newspaper writer and illustrator — who specialized in finding old army surplus clothing in faraway places, like crates of British Army warm weather gear in India or wool coats in Scotland, and reselling it.
As Patricia said in a 2016 AdWeek interview:
“In England, we found Melton wool overcoats made for the British army selling for 25 bucks.”
The product descriptions in their catalog contained little mini-stories about how they found a particular vest or shirt, or how a piece of clothing was meant to be used. It was a great little system. Mel wrote the product descriptions, and Patricia designed all the artwork. The products were illustrated, not photographed, and I would read the thing over and over again, feeling nostalgic for a period in time and at a place in the world I had never been.
And I coveted many of the products they sold, like a photojournalist’s vest for $80 (which was a lot of money in 1983), or a safari hat. I even owned an Israeli paratrooper bag for a time.
How to write product descriptions
As you learn how to write product descriptions, use some creativity. They need to be more than just specs, sizes and colors — they need to tell a story. So here are five ways you can do just that:
Just tell a story.
Imagine you’re on a beach.
Use the Iceberg Theory.
Include customer testimonials.
Share some history.
Break out the notepad — we’re going to look at each tip in more detail.
1. Just, you know, tell a story
You want to tell a story with your product descriptions? Then tell a story!
Each story has a beginning, middle and end. Whether it’s a description of how you found that particular item, or what happened when you field tested it, or how it saved someone from being attacked by an angry beaver, use 30 to 50 words to tell the story. If you’re working online, you’ve definitely got the room.
If you have a story about a customer who had life-changing results with your product, tell the story. Even if it’s a general story based on a statistic about that product, tell the story.
2. Imagine you’re on a beach
Or at the lake. Or in the mountains. Or wherever. As you explore how to write product descriptions, focus on getting the reader to imagine using your product. You can do that with questions, with some visual imagery, or even just telling the reader, “Imagine you’re on a beach.”
You can tell a story with your product description by describing how your customers can use it, how they’ll feel, the results they’ll see, and so on.
Imagine, if you could put stories in your product descriptions, how much more money you could make. Imagine a giant vault full of money, a veritable sea of bills and coins, and you’re swimming around in it like Scrooge McDuck would do in Duck Tales.
See, like that.
3. Use the Iceberg Theory
I’m a big Ernest Hemingway fan. And one of my favorite stories about him is the famous six-word novel. (There’s still some question about whether he actually did this, but it’s still a good example.)
Supposedly, Hemingway had a bet with some writer friends at the Algonquin Round Table that he could write a six-word novel. They didn’t believe he could, so he wrote on a napkin, “For sale: Baby shoes. Never used.” and then collected $10 from each of his friends.
As you read those six words for yourself, you bring your own experiences and understanding to it. You know what those six words mean in that order. I didn’t have to explain it, you understood it. That’s the Iceberg Theory. As Hemingway put it, the 10 percent of the iceberg that we see is supported by the 90 percent of the iceberg we don’t see.
So if you said, “These new running shoes will make you feel like a kid again” in your product description, you’ve “ridden the iceberg.” Everyone hopefully remembers how we felt when we got new gym shoes when we were kids: They were springy and bouncy, and you felt like you could outrun the wind.
Just by saying “like a kid again,” you tap into that old feeling. You don’t have to explain how they feel, how they’re bouncier and add some more spring to our step. Your customers will know.
4. Include customer testimonials
Those Duluth Trading Ballroom Jeans? A product from another company that savors telling a story in their product descriptions. The name actually came about from a letter sent by a customer. He said he loved the way the jeans were built because they gave him some extra room and comfort. He was the one who made the “cheap hotel syndrome” joke, and they loved it so much, they renamed the jeans. And they loved the story so much, they’ve included it in every issue of every catalog for the last several years.
Your customers are going to be some of the best sources of stories out there when you’re learning how to write product descriptions.
They’re the ones telling you their experiences, how they use your products, and what results they saw.
Reader complaints can sometimes even work. If you change product suppliers or you make a better version of your product, tell the story about how a customer complaint led you to change directions.
5. Share some history
J. Peterman, the fictional catalog company from Seinfeld that became a real company, shares history lessons about some of their products. For example, the web copy for the counterfeit mailbag gives a lovely explanation of how it was made, and really makes me want one:
“The secret thoughts of an entire country were carried in leather bags exactly like this one. Except this one, a copy, isn’t under lock and key in a museum. It’s for sale.
I borrowed the original from a friend, a retired mailman who, like thousands before him, was kind enough to test it out on the tree-lined streets of small towns everywhere. Before we were born.”
Did you see the iceberg? Not only tree-lined streets of small towns, they added more fantastic detail with that final sentence, “Before we were born.” You don’t even have to think about it, you know how far back that must be, and how small the towns must have been. Maybe you even started making up little stories about the secrets the mail carriers actually carried.
Later, to add to the mystique of the bag, they explain how and why you should beat up and scratch the bag. Pay attention to the tone and voice of the description, too.
“How to take care of the Mailbag: The first scratch will kill you, but in fact, it’s the first step in the right direction: patina.
So the sooner it gets scratched, nicked, bumped, dug, hit, squeezed, dropped, bent, folded, and rained on, the better. Really.”
I love how the J. Peterman company is not only explaining how to get the rich patina of a leather bag, they’re giving you permission to do so. Really.
And by doing so, they make the bag rich with history, enough so that you feel the comforting weight of the letters — and the pride at being trusted with a country’s secret thoughts — when you finally sling it over your shoulder.
Closing thoughts on how to write product descriptions
People buy things based on their emotions, and only later do they justify it with logic. A product description filled with specs and statistics only helps them to justify something they want. But it’s a good description that makes them want it in the first place.
If you want to make people fall in love with your products, and buy them no matter what, logic and statistics be damned. Tell a good story, stir up people’s emotions, and make your products sound cool.