Who Took the Storytelling Out of Holiday Season Marketing?

Focusing on Direct-Response Price-Discount Offers, We Miss Golden Opportunities to Grow Brand Loyalty

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Cue "Do They Know It's Christmas?" by Band Aid on YouTube. By New Year's Day you will have heard this song in stores and on the radio and maybe on your own iPod more times than you will see an effective digital ad from the retail sector.

Why? First, people don't get tired of the song. Second, retailing is too focused on direct response to get its message heard amid all the clutter of the holiday season.

Don't oversell direct response. We see this mistake over and over. Try the following experiment on Google. Search "winter jacket" and then "Gore-Tex jacket." You'll find hardly a website or ad campaign that communicates any information other than lower prices. But abandoning good creative in the busiest shopping season makes no sense.

A primary reason that creative drops off the priority list is that retailers aren't aspiring to communicate emotion and tell stories. Steve Jobs built Apple 's success around creativity, design and emotion, so that it became one of a precious few retail brands that don't compete on price. Apple ads have created a loyal posse of brand advocates who would never consider "being a PC person." As marketers, we should aspire to create countless more brands like Apple . But we're not going to do that with banner ads that just push discount prices over and over again.

Another issue is that the internet is not built well for discovery. I can walk into an outdoor retailer at a mall or a big-box, consumer-electronics store and easily walk out with $100 worth of products that I hadn't planned on buying. It's harder to do that online, where the experience is so search-focused that impulse buys become much less likely. Spending money on search is certainly necessary in marketing, but we need to supplement this with display ads, exclusive experiences for customers and other ways to get consumers to browse. Direct response won't get it done.

What's the solution? Creativity and engagement. In the holiday season, tell a story with advertising. Make a connection with consumers that leads them to feel good about the brand and the experience of purchasing your product. Create awareness early in the customer-decision process. Rely less on price and direct-response advertising.

  I can suggest several good examples of this creative approach. When you go to Patagonia's site, you won't be greeted by a big jacket. Instead, you will see the drama of ice climbing on a stunning winter's day. OfficeMax engages shoppers with a greeting that goes beyond the latest sale on printer ink and suggests the "Five Things You Will Need This Week." One of the hottest digital retailers, Moosejaw, simultaneously directs shoppers to specials on outdoor gear and to "Moosejaw Madness," a game-style experience that supports the brand, communicates a story and sells product. Moosejaw's physical stores are not Walmart0sized. They don't have big TV budgets. But they have the right approach.

Christopher Skinner is VP of strategic intelligence at Centro.
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