Jonathan Salem Baskin
Of course you've had things in the can since those cold weeks in January when you held planning meetings with your brain trust of leaders from the operational departments in your organization. Fresh memories of 2009 reaffirmed two things for you: first, your brand strategy is less dependent on creative than on the actions of non-marketers (and not just their executional obedience) and second, that you need to do things differently in 2010 even if last year was only marginally horrible. The holiday selling season is but a calendar entry that no longer guarantees consumers will show up and buy.
Don't have that plan? You're in trouble. I don't care how challenging next week looks; November will make it feel like a fond memory, so stop reading this column, step away from your computer and convene a meeting as described above. You can't plan alone no matter how stunningly hilarious your agency's creative might be. The holidays aren't a time for talking as much as selling, and operational qualities like pricing, services and staffing will more likely make the difference. Get out of your department and get engaged with the entire company.
For the vast majority of you who have your plans locked and loaded, however, I've surveyed a few CMO friends to come up with some best-of ideas for you to review. My apologizes if parts of it are redundant:
Nix the funny video or e-mail campaign. It's been done more than once, and nobody can remember what brands did it anyway. If you simply can't resist the urge to get quoted in the marketing trades, at least challenge your digital agency to come up with something that directly, specifically and unequivocally drives sales. They'll shirk and protest but there's no reason why you can't talk about selling during the few months of the year when consumers are most willing to listen. If you don't, you're just wasting their time and your budget.
Think social now. If you're smart you're building up communities of interest in your stuff so you can sell to them later. Face it: Apart from your most vocal fans and critics, most of the "friends" of your brand are strangers who are about as involved as drivers slowing as they pass an accident scene. There must be meaningful and engaging ways to start migrating them into real conversations, and you have a fleeting opportunity to offer value without asking them to fork over cash. Stop treating them like a direct-mailing list of the Great Unwashed.
Make service a lead-gen activity. It's time to go beyond the squeaky wheel approach encouraged by your Twitter monitors and start serving everyone by finding ways to help them avoid problems altogether; "service" should be a synonym for "conversation" or "relationship," so how does that change what appears on your home page, the ways your FAQ are prioritized, or how often/with what you proactively reach out to your customers? Fixing the .01% of complainers so the magic of evangelism will deliver customers is stupid when you can encourage the other 99.99% of them to buy more. Think narrative of successful experience (i.e. ways to make people aware of how great things are).
Play around with pricing. Consumers' gift-buying budget is fixed come November, but now their available funds are somewhat larger. So why is your plan to wait until the last minute to capture those dollars? Where's the layaway plan? How about discounts for pre-orders? Imagine if you combined discount pricing with added values (extended service, for instance) to encourage earlier shopping. Giving your customers what they want at a price they like is a lot smarter than planning to disappoint them later this year. Wouldn't you pay for the privilege?
Anticipate the rush. If you have a retail presence there's a good chance that holiday shopping in your stores will be painful -- long lines, overworked staff, merchandise crapped out on hangers and tables. How you prepare for this inevitability could be a key differentiator for your business, so do you have a plan to get people happily into, through, and out of your stores? Will you enlist local retirees as volunteers or schedule store visits for groups? Are you playing with hours of operation and dynamic pricing? God forbid you're banking on a Black Friday predawn rush; it would be more efficient to randomly select customers and purposely step on their toes.
Plan for the day after. A fair amount of your business is going to get time-shifted to the weeks after the holidays, driven mostly by gift cards and returns. You should plan for this in ways that incorporate your marketing creative (tell the marketplace things that recognize this reality and position your brand to benefit from it), social campaigns (imagine thriving communities of recommenders and swappers), customer service (how many returns are from people who couldn't figure out how/why to use the gifts they received?), pricing (slashing prices the day after Christmas is like looking your customers in the eyes and telling them that you cheated them), and staffing (what if people wanted to be in your stores during the post-holiday rush?).
My ultimate point is that if you're really smart, you don't have a Holidays 2010 strategy that's separate from your Entire Year 2010 strategy. It's one long continuum, and your holiday marketing later on will narrate the operational differentiation that you're putting into place right now. The winning CMOs are leading their businesses by doing instead of talking and will be measured on their ability to generate profits, not awareness or chatter. They know that their selling season has already started. It never stopped.
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