A Merry Little Retail Holiday, Unwrapped

Brands go to great lengths to heighten the emotional connections with customers during the holidays, when feelings trump rational thinking in purchasing decisions. But is it enough to drive sales?

A Merry Little Retail Holiday, Unwrapped

by Emily Kent

Posted on 11-09-2017

This article is part of CMO.com’s November series about commerce and consumerism. Click here for more.

The burgeoning experience economy affords brands new opportunities to connect with consumers, but, in the age of extreme convenience, does economy trump emotion, even at holiday time?

The holidays bring with it a cacophony of marketing activity, but building a retail experience that transcends platforms remains a significant challenge for marketers. The brick-and-mortar scents, smells, and ever-increasing array of pop-up experiences are not easily replicated online. For marketers who face fierce price pressure from Amazon and dedicate a significant proportion of their marketing budgets to the key festive sales period, tackling this challenge is a business imperative.

The holiday season has long been a period of creative experimentation and advertising beauty for retailers. In the U.K, where department store John Lewis regularly has the nation crying into teacups with its festive advertising, it is akin to the Super Bowl in importance for the creative industries.

“The Christmas period is almost unique in its ability to encourage customers to override rational decision-making about where they shop, and what they buy,” said Rob Curran, head of customer experience at Wunderman. “At Christmas, the emotional experience takes more prominence in the customer’s mind than at any other time in the year.”

In Search Of Emotional Connection

In the face of fierce price pressures from Amazon, the holidays will see a growing number of brands attempt to heighten this emotional connection with consumers and drive sales through delivering deeper experiences. Mariam Asmar, innovation director at McCann London, said retailers were elevating the customer experience—from in-store customisation, to pet-friendly stores, and even in-store consumer-controlled music—and embracing new ways to entice consumer traffic.

She explained: “We all know retail is in a period of flux at the moment. Millennial consumers are finding the balance between purchasing fast fashion and luxury items, so the brands that fall in between are having challenges.”

Maria Harrison, president at Bullseye Strategy, has predicted that, this holiday season, we will see a growing swathe of brands trying to create experiences that leave memorable impressions on consumers, as well as tying their offline and online campaigns together to create an omnichannel presence. “The best thing brands can do online is create experiences that are share-worthy,” she explained. “Getting the like is good, getting the comment is better, but getting the share is the holy grail.”

Economic uncertainty is also driving a trend towards nostalgic retail experiences. Janey Fry, design director at Conran Design Group, believes that “making memories” will be a key trend this festive period, and promoting community and togetherness will be delivered through celebratory brand experiences both on and offline. While she predicts that pop-ups will continue in abundance, she also believes kinetic physical advertising is ripe for exploration.

“Coca Cola’s LED robotic signage in Times Square was a really exciting first step, but, if a brand can make it less of a pause-and-refresh experience and more interactive, personalised, and structural, I think we could see something really exciting happening.”

The Omnichannel Festive Battleground

Connecting online and offline consumer behaviour remains the overarching trend in the retail market, and analysts believe technology will have an even bigger impact on personalisation when it comes to connecting online and offline holiday shopping. Ensuring consumers have a seamless shopping experience, regardless of what platform they are on, is a key battleground in the competitive holiday market.

In line with the rise of social media-driven shopping, a growing number of retailers and brands are also increasing their investment in influencer marketing to amplify in-store experiences or pop-up activity on consumers’ social media feeds in the key holiday sales period. Jay Mathew, chief operating officer at Mirum Shopper, gives as example the work the company has done with Fujifilm, a brand which sells a lot of photo gift products at Walmart.

“To cut through, brands need to draft in social influencers as key opinion leaders,” Mathew said. “Our work has focused on talking to their audiences before the holidays so the customer knows about the products well before the end-of-year rush.”

Yet, in general, experts believe marketers are being thwarted by an on and offline activation gap, a trend Mirum’s Matthew attributes to the fact that many retailers still manage their stores and their commerce platforms as separate P&Ls. “It is hard for a brand to provide a seamless omnichannel experience when their retail partner is split,” he explained.

Consumers are unforgiving when it comes to brand experience and, with competition from Amazon only ever increasing, an inconvenient and not joined-up shopping experience cannot be papered over by beautiful advertising alone.

Efficiency Trumps Emotion Even at Christmas

While advertising agencies have long trumpeted the power of emotional advertising as the key to cutting through at Christmas, convenience and price often trump any brand loyalty to any given individual retailer. According to data from Slice Intelligence, between the first of November and 16 of December, Amazon accounted for 36.9% of total online Christmas sales. Lee Barber, a planning partner at Grey London, believes this share is only going to grow.

He explained: “For every brand and retailer out there developing a strategy for Christmas and beyond, Amazon should be the very first thing on their agenda.”

The success of the emotionless user experience of Amazon, based on brutal efficiency, suggests that the experience economy has its limitations. Tariq Khan, director of interactive at TMW Unlimited, said: “On successful websites such as Amazon, ASOS, and Ikea, the brand is defined by the efficiency of the user journey and the sophistication of its pricing strategy during the sale periods rather than its ability to stir emotion.”

In line with this trend, taking a walk through Macy’s with a VR headset might sound like a great way of experiencing the brand, but it is not a huge leap to imagine the novelty wearing off quite quickly.

The holidays may provide the creative industries the opportunity to tug on the nation’s heartstrings, but smart marketers recognise that building experiences and emotional connections alone is not enough. The fusion of data and technology is where the future of growth and innovation lies, even during holiday time.

Topics: Retail, Experience Cloud, Insights Inspiration, Digital Transformation, Marketing, CMO by Adobe

Products: Experience Manager, Experience Cloud