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Holiday Marketing As You Know It Has Been Upended: How Midsized Merchants Can Compete with REI’s Shock & Awe Campaign

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There’s something curious happening to the holidays. Historically, brands have captivated audience attention most during this time of year. Toy ads abound, catalogs show up on your doorstep, lists are made, purchases placed and retailers reap a seemingly ever-increasing amount of revenue.

In fact, for years, holiday season sales as a percentage of total retail sales in the U.S. have topped 20%. And in preparation for this mass influx, brands often begin advertising holiday sales in October and make headlines for opening their doors on Black Friday earlier and earlier each year. In 2014, not even Thanksgiving day was off limits as brands including Walmart, Target, Macy’s, Kohl’s and more opened their doors to eager shoppers.

But there is something different about this year. As millennials –– now aged 18-34 –– take over as the power purchasing group, one thing is becoming abundantly clear: they don’t like ads. To capture a millennial audience, a brand has to be more strategic than ever before –– and relying on traditional methods and “what has worked in the past” isn’t going to move revenue needles for any retailer.

As proof, let’s take a look at REI’s most recent holiday shopping campaign. Or, better stated, it is an anti-holiday shopping campaign in regards to their commitment to shutter their doors on what is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the entire year: Black Friday.

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REI announced that its closing its stores on Black Friday this year. The brand’s online store will also have a screen that discourages purchases. Instead, the entire company will have a paid day off, and REI is encouraging both employers and consumers to do the same. They’ve titled this campaign #OptOutside, and the idea has been some nine months in the marking. Why so long? Well, it wasn’t just because a big brand takes time to produce everything needed to properly execute on a strategy –– though that was surely part of it. First, however, they had to get the CEO on board, who was initially against the idea.

“If there was any [internal] resistance, it was me saying, ‘Are you kidding?’” said CEO Jerry Stritzke. “But yea, this idea was very enthusiastically embraced. We knew it would be an idea our store associates loved and our 500 million co-op members who all love the outdoors.”

Now, not all brands can close the doors on Black Friday and still prove profitable. Stritzke did admit that REI is in a nice position to test this strategy out, now having their second consecutive year of double digit growth. That sort of successful scaling gives companies some leeway in their holiday marketing campaigns –– allowing them to test out the shocking in favor of the experience.

You’ve seen this before. In fact, you see it often. In 2004, Amazon launched free two-day shipping via Amazon Prime, a service for which the company still nets shipping costs of $1 billion per quarter as of 2014. Even lesser known companies do this. This summer, Gravity Payments’ CEO took a 90% pay cut to raise his company’s minimum salary to $70,000.

Stunts like these are typically well-received, especially if you are targeting millennials. In general, millennials are looking for authenticity in marketing. They are looking to spend their dollar in a way that helps rather than hinders a cause. The millennial purchasing mind is what has propelled the success of Warby Parker and TOMS Shoes, two companies which give back to charities with every purchase. And, there are now articles galore explaining the benefits of cause-based commerce. Explain your mission, be transparent and give back when and where you can, and your profits will rise, some studies suggest.

But for scaling small and midsize businesses, the shock and awe marketing treatment isn’t always a feasible option. There are associated losses, and all of these stunts are risky. Fail to garner the proper press coverage for a marketing event like these, and you’ll risk losing out on the brand awareness and subsequent loyalty these types of campaigns can produce.

So, how can small and midsized brands compete, or at least test out these strategies themselves without a loss is profit? Well, this holiday season, beyond simply donating proceeds to charity and advertising your efforts in a vacuum of sorts, brand can utilize the #GoodKarmaSale hashtag.

The #GoodKarmaSale Campaign

The Good Karma Sale campaign was launched in 2014 by the founder of online store The Wild Unknown. The goal was to create a campaign that didn’t leave the founder feeling disconnected and conflicted about focusing so much on the selling aspect of the holiday season.

“The frenzy of expectations around Black Friday / Small Business Saturday / Cyber Monday will soon again have us spinning. Year after year it’s a weekend that’s left me feeling disconnected and conflicted,” wrote Kim Krans, founder of The Wild Unknown. “Sure –– more sales –– but in the end it’s an unfulfilling version of what the holidays are ‘all about.’”

So, The Wild Unknown launched a site-wide discount campaign, letting customers know that a percentage of total sales were being donated to a non-profit. They called this campaign the Good Karma Sales, it performed better than any sale they’ve ever run.

This year, Krans is encouraging other businesses to do the same, and to use the hashtag #GoodKarmaSale in order to help smaller retailers compete with the big box brands and increase discoverability.

Here is how the Krans suggests running this campaign on your site:

  1. Call it a GOOD KARMA SALE! Stop using the language “Black Friday / Small Business Saturday / Cyber Monday.” Those phrases never felt quite right anyway.
  2. Choose a non-profit or charitable organization to give back to.
  3. Run any promotion you were planning for the post-Thanksgiving weekend (20% off, buy one get one free, free shipping, maybe nothing at all. This part is up to you.)
  4. Commit to donating 5-10% of your total gross sales to the non-profit of your choice (NOT adjusted sales after expenses! Keep it simple, clean and easy to calculate!)
  5. Once your GOOD KARMA SALE is over, donate the proceeds within a week (on or before December 7th). This keeps the momentum going and the gesture swift and clean.

Head over to The Wild Unknown’s site to join the #GoodKarmaSale campaign and to get a few more tips from The Wild Unknown as well as photos to increase promotion shareability. The goal is to generate an internet takeover of small and midsized brands coming together to sell quality items and give back to communities, all in the name of the holiday spirit.

This type of collaboration at scale is how you combine brand authenticity with discoverability in order to attract millennials and increase sales.

Leave a Comment
  • Thanks, Gisela! Updating that right now :)

  • Gisela Sejpal

    From the studio manager at The Wild Unknown: Thank you so much for the article! One correction: it’s Kim Krans, not Kris. :)

  • Karolina Jasvinaite

    Thanks for the article, Tracey. An interesting attitude about the Karma points and donation instead of Black Friday wording. It’s hard to imagine it would work for majority.

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