Throughout the year, consumers battle against their worst retail impulses. They look at the best TVs and the newest computers and tell themselves to show restraint. So, when they reach an occasion on which impulsive spending is essentially encouraged through seasonal marketing (Christmas being the biggest example), they take full advantage.
This is mostly due to the excuse of gift-giving. It’s also due to the simple thought of “I’ve earned this” — they’ve scrimped and saved for months, so why shouldn’t they treat themselves to some ill-advised therapeutic expenditure?
Because of this, seasonal traffic is something that every marketer is eager to win. It converts at a speedy rate with orders that are significantly larger than normal purchases, seeing people make buys that they wouldn’t otherwise consider. To harness it, retailers pursue seasonal marketing, but deploying a successful seasonal marketing campaign isn’t easy.
The main problem is the level of competition. Everyone wants that traffic, so the online world becomes saturated with relevant content, advertising, and landing pages. To some extent, you need to embrace the spirit of contrarianism, but it can endanger your brand image if you push it too far. In this article, we’re going to consider how you can create standout content marketing that suits your branding strategy (and look at some great examples of such marketing) so you can win at seasonal marketing and also stay true to yourself.
Establish a solid baseline with the expected content
As much as creativity and boldness need to factor into your seasonal marketing, truth is there are some areas you realistically need to cover because they’re such reliable sources of income. You likely won’t be able to stand out with your content covering those areas, but you don’t need to: you just need to be there.
The perfect example of such an area is gift-giving guides. It’s so typical for people to be unsure of what to buy their friends and family members and look for inspiration online. Someone might look for “Great gifts for grandparents” or “Cheap gifts for coworkers” — and rather than picking just one result, they’d probably open up numerous tabs and browse through them.
If you create your own gift-giving guides (and tag them correctly), you can show up on that list. You can do individual pages for specific types of buyers, or you can do one overarching guide with different sections (this is what Shopify did in 2019, for instance). All that matters is that you get your products seen, giving each one of them a chance of being picked.
Then there are the elements that are even more basic, such as laying out your shipping promises (can you guarantee delivery by certain dates?) and defining your return policy. The process of covering off all of these things is a matter of laying the groundwork, allowing you to move on to your meaningfully-branded content.
Be reverent or irreverent (either extreme works)
There’s so much buzz and hoopla around seasonal occasions that the worst thing you can do is put something out with no notable stance. What’s clear from the long history of seasonal marketing is that there are two particular approaches that reliably pay off: being reverent or being irreverent.
Why is this? Well, you can look at it somewhat like politics. People want you to be strongly for or against things: you’re unlikely to get very far by going for something in the middle. Let’s think about the former option first: being reverent. This involves playing up all the things people love about the occasions in question, treating them as incredibly important and momentous.
One retailer that has mastered reverent seasonal marketing is John Lewis, a UK department store that has become known for its Christmas campaigns. It concentrates on specific products, but it does so by telling stories that tug at the heartstrings. The perfect example of this is the 2014 edition featuring a festive penguin love story:
Tick off all the emotional elements as you go through. A smiling boy and his best friend having adventures. The seasons visibly changing as the year passes. A Christmas tree being decorated. Watching TV as a family. Relatable loneliness — and then companionship appearing (as if by magic) on Christmas Day itself. If it weren’t pitch-perfect, it would be open to mockery, but the simple truth is that people want to feel that there’s something magical about Christmas.
So that’s what being reverent involves, and if you want to do something similar, then the key is being completely earnest. Don’t worry about flippant social media comments or the notion that you need to be edgy or sarcastic. Tell a simple story about Christmas, tell it well, and people will warm to you and whatever you have to offer.
But maybe that isn’t for you: maybe being earnest doesn’t fit your brand. If so, that’s fine, because you can go in the opposite direction and have a lot of success. Being irreverent about Christmas, in particular, holds a lot of power. Everyone knows it isn’t always magical. Sometimes it’s a frustrating period of miserable weather and forced “merriment” — and if you skip all the spirit-of-Christmas material and focus on not taking things seriously, you can get attention.
Maybe the most direct contrast I can think of comes from Harvey Nichols, another UK department store, through its 2013 campaign entitled 'Sorry I Spent It On Myself':
In addition to gently mocking the over-the-top presentation style that’s so common to Christmas ads, this campaign spoke to a truth that often goes ignored: plenty of people spend minimally on gifts so they can spend more heavily on themselves. Instead of condemning those people, Harvel Nichols tells us that it’s OK. The point of a gift is to think of someone, after all — and creating a range of cheap (yet still overpriced) comedy gifts was a masterstroke.
Focus on memorable (and shareable) elements
Both of the examples we’ve looked at so far made their products very clear, but it isn’t necessary to do this. The point of seasonal marketing is primarily to be talked about. People are already looking for excuses to buy things, so you don’t need to sell them on anything aside from your brand in general. Provided they remember you as a result of your marketing, it’s achieved its primary purpose — anything else is a bonus.
For a great example of a campaign that operates through viral appeal and puts minimal focus on the specifics of the product (or products) on offer, we can look at Dollar Shave Club’s 2019 Father’s Day campaign (entitled Manifique: A Father’s Day Gift):
Now, while it’s true that the men in this video are holding razors and using shaving cream, the video isn’t about those things. It’s about subverting expectations. You’d expect to see lean athletes in dancing videos, but instead, you have normal-looking men undulating in varying states of undress. It’s funny, and it’s shareable, and that’s what matters.
You can also think about everything that goes into Super Bowl halftime ads because the Super Bowl definitely counts as an opportunity for seasonal marketing. You have so many ads packed into a small amount of time, and the fact that people are unlikely to stray from their celebratory snacks to investigate products means that ads will need to have a lasting impact. This has formed a curious contest, with each participating company trying to be the topic of discussion.
Vogue has a good rundown of some of the biggest hits from Super Bowl history. Remember the Budweiser frogs? Did that have much of anything to do with the product? No, it didn’t: but it stuck in the brain, and that’s the kind of marketing that pays off for years to come.
Have the most memorable Super Bowl ad and you’ll get the most mentions on social media throughout the following weeks — and that social media attention will be what drives sales. The same can be said of Christmas ads, or Father’s Day ads, or Valentine’s Day ads. Make your work attention-grabbing and impossible to forget, and your sales will benefit down the line.
Creative branded campaigns can be immensely effective at cutting through general seasonal marketing efforts, but they need to be handled extremely well (and supported by more generic content meeting regular expectations). By taking a strong stance on the importance of the seasonal occasions in question — building up their significance or undercutting it for effect — and concentrating on memorable moments, you can outperform your competitors and make the most of the frenzied retail interest.