Marketers Pack Up for the (Perpetual) Holiday Season

Brands need to deploy a year-round marketing strategy catering to consumers

By Chuck Kapelke

Chris Gash/

It's time for brands to prepare for one of the most important times of the year — the holiday shopping season. But marketing during this crucial period is no longer wedded to images of people bundling up against frigid weather or families congregating in the kitchen to whip up some eggnog. A recent Gartner survey of 273 consumers found that nearly 50 percent of respondents plan to start their holiday shopping in October or November while 16 percent said they now shop year-round for holiday gifts so as to take advantage of the best deals.

"Consumers are coming off the supply chain woes of last year," says Kassi Socha, director analyst in the marketing practice at Gartner. "They still have some concerns about whether inventory will be on the shelves or available online when they go to shop. They're also feeling the effects of inflation and are concerned about a potential recession down the road. Those factors combined are leading them to shop earlier than ever."

The holiday season has become somewhat perpetual due to online shopping. In fact, 60 percent of the consumers Gartner surveyed said they plan to primarily shop online this year, and about 21 percent plan to increase their online shopping compared to last year. What's more, roughly 38 percent plan to use one or more "hybrid" (digital and in-person) shopping services, such as buy online, pick up in store, called BOPIS, for curbside pickup or same-day delivery.

CMOs and brand managers at companies that rely heavily on holiday-season revenue need to have their digital marketing strategy in order, be nimble in how they allocate budgets, and ensure they're generating decent ROI.

"Audit and prepare to adjust your prior holiday budget, rather than just copying it into 2022," says Shar VanBoskirk, VP and principal analyst at Forrester. "Eradicate a copy-and-paste mentality from the media planning process. Audit your channels, tactics, and audience targeting to identify and trim out underperforming executions, including legacy targeting or ad-serving hiccups."

Always-on Gifting

Brands that stand to capitalize the most on the holidays have an "always-on" approach when it comes to gift-giving, say industry observers, with built-in features to facilitate purchases for different recipients and price points.

"Having an always-on gifting strategy and then amplifying it during the fourth quarter is a strategy that I would recommend to most retail advertisers," Gartner's Socha says. "It's great to establish themselves as a gifting destination with consumers, and it's great for SEO value, so when holiday search traffic picks up between October and December, they've already got a key ranking on the organic side."

Tiffany and Co., for example, offers a year-round holiday shop called "curated collections," featuring a list of gifts for under $750, gift ideas curated by singer Mary J. Blige, and presents for assorted recipients like "Him," "Her," and "Baby." Every product on the site also has a "drop a hint" button, to send a note to someone who might pick up the tab.

Similarly, L.L. Bean's website has a "wish list" designed to make it easy for visitors to let loved ones know what they want. According to the Gartner survey, about 35 percent of consumers say that they discover what to buy purely by looking at friends' and families' wish lists.

The Flat Marketing Strategy

Holiday shopping in the U.S. has long been associated with major "sale days" like Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving), Cyber Monday (the Monday after Thanksgiving), and Green Monday (the second Monday in December). But with the possibility that Amazon may run a "Prime Early Access Sale" in October, marketers need to plan across a longer timeframe.

"Because of e-commerce, the holiday season has flattened out considerably," says Lee Peterson, EVP of thought leadership at WD Partners. "Black Friday has become Black November. It takes a lot of pressure off in one sense, because when you get to December, you don't need to be as price- and sale-oriented during those last couple of weeks as you did in the past."

Online shopping giants like Amazon, Target, and Walmart have tools to help brands maximize their presence during key events. Walmart Connect and Target's Roundel, for instance, provide omnichannel advertising while Amazon lets sellers customize their product detail pages with images and content, as well as coupons and other deals.

"We encourage brands to run a deal or coupon during the holidays," says Carmen Nestares Pleguezuelo, CMO, North America marketing for Amazon Stores at ANA member Amazon. "Deals help to improve the discoverability of brands and products, since deals can be featured in our deal events, which are some of the most highly visited pages on Amazon."

Even staid brands can make inroads with gen Z and millennials around the holidays, thanks to social media. Consider Bissell, whose vacuum cleaner went viral on TikTok in 2020, with various videos showing people making a mess and the Bissell cleaner coming to the rescue.

Bissell continues to enlist influencers and create content to promote various themes, including the holiday season. "Keep an eye out for new content rolling out over the course of Q4 that will feature a number of our products perfect for consumers prepping for hosting holiday gatherings, in search of gift ideas, cleaning up the messes post-party, and everything in between," says a Bissell spokesperson.

Social channels play a key role in perpetuating the holiday season by enabling e-commerce directly from users' posts. TikTok, for example, recently launched "Shopping Ads," which places shoppable video in front of viewers who are more likely to buy the products and services displayed.

"We empower brands to work with creators, jump in on platform trends, and inspire the community to cocreate alongside them using TikTok's unique tools," says Rema Vasan, head of North America Business Marketing at ANA member TikTok. "Holiday marketing on TikTok is so much more than just promos and deals. Brands should be showing our community new recipes they can try or new activities that could become a tradition."

A Mixed Bag for Messaging

The pandemic, which could potentially surge this fall and winter, and the looming threat of recession are not exactly a recipe for holiday spirit, so it's critical that marketers strike a balance in their messaging. Advertisements related to the holidays can be festive, but should not be tone deaf to the challenges many people now face, what with 30 percent of consumers surveyed by Gartner saying they plan on spending less this year.

"Consumers are pretty quick to blame companies for the price increases they're seeing," Socha says. "Retailers need to be very transparent in their advertising about the reasoning behind their price increases, and lead with value and free shipping to earn that consumer trust."

It's also crucial that brands can effectively play Santa and deliver orders on time, making sure products are in stock and systems are in place to keep up with the pace of demand, particularly for the inevitable swarm of last-minute shoppers.

"Get involved in the supply chain," VanBoskirk of Forrester says. "If you can only support limited production when facing holiday demand, you really want that production to be used to make the products that your customers want. This means that marketing should help product teams and manufacturers know the right products to make, instead of spending time and budget trying to hawk products of limited interest."


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