How Marketers Get Inside Your Head to Get You to Stuff Your Stockings

With a Study of Seasonal Psychology, Brands Find the Right Mix of Price and Emotion in Ad Messages

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Best Buy ads target moms who want to best Santa
Best Buy ads target moms who want to best Santa

Consumers claim they're keeping a close eye on holiday budgets, so how to explain this year's record-breaking post-Thanksgiving retail sales?

The secret is landing on the right marketing message, but it's no simple feat. For retailers, planning for the Christmas ads just now airing kicked off months ago. Many begin assessing the season as soon as the last holiday season ends, with the heavy lifting in market research and consumer testing happening in late spring or early summer.

Zeroing in on a strategy that will resonate with cautious and fickle shoppers has been particularly tricky in recent years. In 2008, uncertain consumers gravitated toward nostalgic, heartwarming holiday messages such as Macy's "Believe" campaign, but by 2009 price and promotion prevailed. A year ago, recession-weary shoppers embraced quirky, whimsical advertising, such as Target 's Two-Day Sale campaign featuring comedian Maria Bamford.

It's a delicate balance. While over-the-top holiday gifts such as a Lexus—which has been running holiday ads depicting cars with giant red bows since the late 1990s—seem out of place amid the Occupy Wall Street movement, Mike Gatti, executive director of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, cautioned that retailers too focused on price will also appear tone-deaf.

"Anybody who thinks it's all about price isn't registering as much this year as they were a few years ago," Mr. Gatti said. "Consumers are saying, "Don't try to tell me you have the best price, I expect that .'"

So this year retailers are doing their best to make consumers feel they have permission to spend by highlighting extras, guarantees, and tidings of comfort and joy. The message: We give you the comfort of giving a great gift without spending too much and the joy of the hunt to find it.

Sears stresses guarantees with its "Real Joy. Guaranteed" campaign, while Best Buy plays into Mom's desire to "win" for her family with "Game On, Santa." Kohl's appeals to a similar sentiment, saying, "If what you want most this holiday is to get everyone what they want most ... there's no better place" than Kohl's, in its "Love to Give, Happy to Save" campaign from McCann Erickson.

Retailers' messaging seems to be getting through. Research from Shopper Sciences, part of IPG's Mediabrands, found that 80% of shoppers surveyed spent more than they planned to Black Friday weekend. Shoppers have been "living in a siege state of mind," said Shopper Sciences CEO John Ross, so consumers are susceptible when they stumble on that perfect item that wasn't on the list.

"We see the consumer mind-set becoming really interesting," said Rob Raible, VP-integrated marketing at Sears. "[They think] "I've survived a couple of years in a tough economy, and I know how to deal with it.' But we knew there were consumer barriers."

Sears' campaign from McGarryBowen highlights the options of having items not available in the store shipped for free, and of buying online and having items ready for pickup in five minutes. "Previously it was just a price war," Mr. Raible said. "We know it needs to be about more than price."

Tom Lamb, Lowe's senior VP-marketing and advertising, echoed that message. "If you look back at the last couple of years ... we did not do a good job of balancing price and promotion with emotional connection," he said. This season, Lowe's "Shine on, America" spot from BBDO looks to capitalize on the fact that people are viewing their homes differently—as a place they might be for a while, rather than as an ATM.

Best Buy research found that women held back last year and that they wanted to feel they were "winning" the holidays, though they didn't necessarily need to take credit publicly. Drew Panayiotou, senior VP-U.S. marketing, said the intent of Best Buy's campaign is to allow women to revel in their role as "chief gift giver." The spots, created by CP&B, show women talking about gadgets with Best Buy employees before flash-forwarding to Christmas Eve, where Mom celebrates her purchases amid Santa's arrival and razzes the big guy.

Target is driving home the message that it can help consumers tackle their to-do lists with "Santa has elves. You have Target ," from Wieden & Kennedy. "Consumers want to make sure they're shopping smartly and getting the best possible deal, but they also want to make sure they're giving great gifts," said Dustee Tucker Jenkins, VP-communications at Target .

So good things can come in small packages—even if they have big red bows.

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