Macy's vs. Wal-Mart: The Battle for Black Friday

Antony Young Compares Retailers' Holiday Campaigns

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Antony Young
Antony Young
Wall Street analysts and Madison Avenue execs alike braced themselves at the start of last weekend's retail sales, the traditional kickoff to the all-important holiday-shopping season. How retailers fared represents a clear barometer for how consumers are reacting to the current economic downturn, as well as a clue to how tough 2009 will be.

Macy's and Wal-Mart, two heavyweights of the retail world, led the way with aggressive media campaigns to promote the must-win battle for Black Friday. Competition for shopper dollars was going to be intense. While these retailers clearly chase different customer segments, we couldn't resist the opportunity for a head-to-head comparison of their respective media strategies.

Holiday Campaigns and Content Strategy
Macy's had four notable advertising programs leading into the Thanksgiving weekend. First was Macy's 150th anniversary, a celebration of the department store's long and proud history.
Martha Stewart is among the celebrities appearing in the feel-good 'Believe' campaign for Macy's.
Martha Stewart is among the celebrities appearing in the feel-good 'Believe' campaign for Macy's.
Next up was the feel-good campaign "Believe," centering around the "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" editorial by the New York Sun in 1897, and a Santa letter drive with a potential million-dollar donation to Make-A-Wish Foundation. "Believe" featured a TV ad starring celebrity designers, including Tommy Hilfiger, Kenneth Cole, Martha Stewart, Carlos Santana and Jessica Simpson.

Third was the annual promotion around the Macy's signature Thanksgiving Day Parade and its national broadcast on NBC. Finally, there was the tactical price and promotion offers. All classily executed, but one can't help thinking there was one campaign too many.

In contrast, Wal-Mart kept it a bit simpler. Much of the creative focused on the theme of "saving you money to deliver special family moments." It also re-ran the popular "Carol of the Bells" creative from last year, which shows staff turning the lights above the registers on and off to the tune of holiday music, promoting the added checkout aisles for the holiday season. Finally, there were the tactical promotions which really did much of the heavy lifting for the price-conscious Wal-Mart shopper.


5 stars Outstanding/Innovative
4 stars Highly effective
3 stars Good
2 stars Disappointing
1 star Disaster

Campaign Timing

Macy's 2 stars
Wal-Mart 4 stars
Wal-Mart kicked off the battle for consumers' attention earlier than its rivals, prompted by a consumer study they commissioned that revealed shoppers intended to start shopping earlier to save money. The same survey also revealed that more than a third of Americans buy gifts for their children first. With this in mind, Wal-Mart identified 10 popular toys and advertised them for $10 each. Macy's, not to be outdone, promoted a one-day sale on Nov. 19 with 20% to 60% off.

Media Mix Strategy

Macy's 3 stars
Wal-Mart 3 stars
Up to Nov. 16 (latest data available), Wal-Mart advertised much more aggressively on radio than it has in previous years, placing three times the number of radio spots than Macy's. Traditionally, Wal-Mart runs a much heavier national TV schedule over the holiday season -- about double what Macy's usually spends on network, cable and syndication. Macy's, on the other hand, was far more active in newspapers, buying ads and FSI's across 300 local papers. This is where it spends just under 60% of its above-the-line media budget to promote its premium brand and product offers. Wal-Mart, in contrast, favors circulars distributed directly to homes to promote its catalogs.

Digital Strategy

Macy's 4 stars
Wal-Mart 4 and a half stars
Traditionally, retailers have been slower to embrace online beyond e-commerce opportunities, so it was encouraging to see both retailers deftly handle the web's possibilities. According to TNS, Wal-Mart was much more active online than Macy's.
Antony Young is CEO of Optimedia U.S., a Publicis Groupe company headquartered in New York. He is co-author of "Profitable Marketing Communications" (Kogan Page 2007).
The online ads for Macy's focused on supporting the traditional "Believe" media campaign, with opportunities for consumers to view videos and directing them to the Christmas campaign's website. Wal-Mart's online advertising tended to be a lot more tactical, e.g., encouraging users to click to get details on one-day specials or promoting co-op advertised brands.

Macy's "Believe" campaign came to life online with a microsite that tells the story of Virginia O'Hanlon, features an electronic Believe Meter, offers a downloadable letter kit complete with official Santa letterhead, and allows customers to design their own "Claus" with the "Be Claus" application. "Be Claus" personalization tools allow customers to upload a photo and design themselves as Santa Claus. The final artwork can be used as an e-card, posted to a Facebook or MySpace page or sent to a mobile phone. EarthCam had a live webcast of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Wal-Mart caused a stir with various Black Friday comparison shopping websites and search engines by trying to embargo their holiday catalog, which was leaked a week and a half early. This had the effect of building buzz and anticipation for Wal-Mart.

Both companies were particularly active online in promoting Cyber Monday specials.

Local Events

Macy's 4 stars
Wal-Mart N/A
Macy's leveraged its strong local links with distinctive seasonal events. One of the chain's strongest assets in New York is its storefront window displays. The Herald Square holiday window display was unveiled Nov. 23, designed around their holiday theme "Believe." The display included several touch pads that move "ingredients in a big arcade game" inside the display. Approximately 7,000 viewers pass by the window every hour. In Atlanta, they had the "Ride the Pink Pig" at the Lenox Square store; in Chicago, the lighting of the 45-foot Great Tree spectacularly decorated with 15,000 lights and 4,000 ornaments; and at San Francisco's Union Square store, a partnership with the SPCA to find new owners for homeless dogs and cats.

Wal-Mart, while involved extensively in local communities and causes, and with a slightly higher concentration of local spot TV and radio, concentrated its media and marketing efforts at a national level.


Macy's 3 stars
Wal-Mart 1 stars
The "Believe" campaign broke on Nov. 9 with a national TV spot and innovative newspaper ads, including full-page reprints of the "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" editorial and "disruptive" print ads (ads that break into editorial space). The ads invited children around the country to deposit their letters to Santa at their local R.H. Macy Santa Mail letterbox to help grant the wishes of seriously ill children.

Wal-Mart kept to the basics. I thought it could afford to be a bit more adventurous in its media placements.

Hispanic Media

Macy's 4 stars
Wal-Mart 3 stars
Clearly, for retailers, the Hispanic market is an important and growing customer group. Not surprisingly then, Wal-Mart ran a heavy schedule on Univision, Telemundo, TeleFutura and Azteca America, plus cable network Galavision, leading up to Thanksgiving weekend. But Macy's actual share of its TV schedule on Spanish-language networks was twice that of Wal-Mart's. It developed a Spanish-language version of the "Believe" campaign featuring designers Carlos Santana, Ana de la Reguera and Carlos Ponce. In addition, it ran specific print executions in Spanish-language newspapers.

Mobile Marketing

Macy's 3 stars
Wal-Mart 3 stars
The day of the Macy's Thanksgiving parade, a special mobile promotion was developed involving spectators' Bluetooth devices. When Santa's sleigh passed by them on the route, they received a message asking if they wanted to receive a free download.

Wal-Mart launched a Savings Alert mobile service that gives consumers constant access to and weekly notifications about special weekly holiday savings, instant gift ideas, recipes, product information and reviews. Customers are able to sign up at or by dialing #WMT from their cellphones.

TV Programming

Macy's 3 stars
Wal-Mart 3 and a half stars
Macy's picked special programs in prime time where it knew moms were either watching alone, such as "Dancing With the Stars" and "The View," or spending time with their family, such as "Gossip Girl," "Grey's Anatomy" and "30 Rock."

During this year's Emmy Awards, Macy's launched its 150th-anniversary spot that showed the history of Macy's and its impact in pop culture, with Bob Hope and clips from the 1947 Christmas-themed movie "Miracle on 34th Street." You also see Shirley MacLaine as a majorette in a parade and Jerry Seinfeld and Elaine talking about the balloons.

Wal-Mart, instead, ran ads during football broadcasts, pushing TVs and Blu-ray players.

Interestingly, Wal-Mart ran TV ads on CNBC featuring moms talking about how one-stop shopping at Wal-Mart helped them save money and gasoline. As reported earlier in Ad Age, this pitch served the purpose of reinforcing to investors that Wal-Mart was a strong defensive stock in light of the current stock-market crisis, but was also an effort to advertise to higher-income shoppers who are increasingly visiting the company's stores.

Overall Performance

Macy's 3 stars
Wal-Mart 4 stars
Macy's is a fantastic retail brand that reassures consumers of the department store's image of an American institution across the holiday season. Its ads provide warm and polished messages, its promotions remain consistent to the brand, and its media strategy underscores its brand positioning. A high level of local events, newspaper advertising and TV clearly drove shoppers to their stores.

Similarly, Wal-Mart's media campaign, while less glitzy, delivered hard-hitting retail advertising, but also elevated a consistent platform around its "Save money, live better" proposition. In our view, Wal-Mart's media worked harder and was more focused, which helped it to cut through. Wal-Mart won with the shopper, but also wins in my book.
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