The holidays are supposed to be filled with good cheer, but for many consumers, they’re filled with annoyances: stress, overeating, horrible gifts and truly boring marketing campaigns. When it comes to holiday promotions, consumers are tired of seeing the same old tropes, such as Santa selling a 10-pack of staplers or receiving that holiday fruit basket from a client. Here, experts offer tips for creating well-timed holiday messaging that actually will resonate with consumers.
1. ‘Season’s Greetings’ matters. Whether to use a more secular tagline such as “Happy Holidays” or a more religious one like “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” depends on your audience. “Overall, the holiday season is all about being welcoming and warm to everyone. ‘Happy Holidays’ and ‘Season’s Greetings’ are the safe bets. If the holidays are about, ‘the more, the merrier’ … add ‘Happy Hanukkah’ or ‘Joyous Kwanzaa’ into the mix,” says Elisabeth Dick Oak, director of verbal identity at New York-based global branding agency Interbrand. “If you’re talking about a gift guide or something that’s specific to the actual day, there’s no reason why you can’t use ‘Merry Christmas.’ If you want to use all of those in various instances, it’s absolutely fine.”
Adds Sarah Schaffer, editorial director at Rockville, Md.-based branding agency HZDG, whose clients include King Arthur Flour, Hilton and Maidenform: “I’m a big fan of ‘Happy New Year.’ It removes the quandary about which one to use, and it gives brands a chance to recap the year and bid good wishes to their consumers for next year. It automatically doesn’t feel transactional because the holiday shopping spree is over in early January.”
2. Timing is everything. Seeing holiday ads in August is a surefire way to annoy customers, but marketers still have to get their promotions out early enough so that customers can take advantage of them. “Christmas creep is real, but it’s not going anywhere,” Oak says. “A good rule is to make sure your message doesn’t get stale.” To do that, brands should focus not just on their retail or marketing plan, but on a content plan: new holiday-themed content to roll out on your website or social media channels on a monthly or weekly basis, she suggests. “If you’re targeting early birds in September, tailor content to them and phrase it in ways that are going to catch their attention. It’s the same thing for last-minute shoppers. Don’t say, ‘This is your last chance! Major discounts!’ You can get a lot further if you’re solving a problem for them: ‘Here’s how to get that great gift in a hurry.’ ”
Adds Susan Cantor, president at New York-based branding agency Red Peak Group, whose clients include Acer and American Express: “Marketers have to strike a balance between supporting their business objectives and not causing any kind of consumer backlash. The right time is after Halloween. It lets marketers maximize the four weeks of November before Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and give them all of December for their holiday messaging.”
3. Rethinking Black Friday and Cyber Monday. In October 2015, outdoor retailer REI announced it would close its stores on Black Friday, and encouraged its customers to enjoy the outdoors rather than shop. The retailer launched a social media hashtag around its decision, #OptOutside. “The REI decision was really smart and great PR for them because it ties into their values of the brand. They’re saying, ‘Get out there. Enjoy the outdoors. It’s not time to shop.’ It shows that they are one of those companies that totally understands their audience,” Schaffer says.
Most businesses shouldn’t opt out of Black Friday altogether, but it is being eclipsed in terms of importance by Cyber Monday, and marketers should adjust their messaging accordingly, experts say. When it comes to Cyber Monday deals or messaging, less is more, Cantor says. “People are already shopping online on Cyber Monday, so [marketers] don’t need to spend a lot of time and money promoting that behavior. Instead, they need to focus on offering drivers from a promotional standpoint that they think will get people visiting their site.”
4. ’Tis the time for meaningful messaging. The holidays aren’t a time for transactional language, Schaffer says. “Tap into your raison d’etre, your business and what you’re doing.” For example, a catering company could run a campaign about holiday meals. “The message might be that they’re encouraging you to spend time with your loved ones and share a meal. It comes from a place of authenticity because they’re in the business of making moments for people to relax and gather and celebrate. There’s no shame in calling attention to what you do best, as long as it comes from a place of realness.”
When it comes to holiday messaging, don’t force it, Oak says. “For some brands, it’s OK to be silent. If the holidays aren’t central to who you are, or it’s not going to be a meaningful time for you to put a big message out there, then don’t do it.”
B-to-B companies, in particular, should avoid sending run-of-the-mill holiday swag, she adds. “Don’t send the cookie-cutter gifts, the bottles of wine. Think about ways to thank your customers in a creative way. Maybe you show a reel of all of the things you were able to accomplish in the last year because of the fact that they worked with you.”
5. Storytelling still works. CSR is a good play for brands around the holidays, Schaffer says. “Tell a story. Harness some journalistic techniques to dig up touching messages that resonate on a global level. The end of the year is a great time to educate your consumers about the good work you’ve been doing, and put a spotlight that you care about the world or your community.”
Or, highlight the way your company takes care of its own. For example, global consultancy PwC shuts down its firm between Christmas and the New Year, and promotes the effort as #PwCTakesABreak. “It’s fun to see one of those brands say, ‘Hey, we’re giving our employees the gift of downtime,’ and it’s powerful because it says, ‘We care about our employees’ and ‘This is a firm that I want to work with. I want to be one of their clients because they’re taking care of their people,’ ” Oak says. “It’s better than ‘Happy Holidays from all of us at …’ ”
Like other campaigns throughout the year, holiday messaging comes down to knowing your customer, Oak adds. “There’s a huge push to want to appeal to everybody because it’s the holiday season, but you can have a really powerful campaign by zeroing in on one audience.”
This article was originally published in the December 2015 issue of Marketing News.