It's ten days to Christmas and we're already two days into Hanukkah, so I'm ready to call the season's retail sales:

  • The worst performing stores and brands will often evidence the "best" advertising, only the results won't be their fault.
  • The best sales results will come from businesses that offered low prices, and they won't get credit for any marketing success.

I blame this likely outcome on the JOKE syndrome, for Just Offer Killer Entertainment.

JOKE has been epidemic for at least the past few holiday selling seasons, as the prevailing wisdom all year long has been that companies should entertain consumers. It's why we see web sites featuring dancing elves or chocolates, and TV spots and magazine ads that are interchangeably funny or cute. Lots of campaigns focus on the personalities of eponymous model employees because JOKE sufferers believe that their customers won't buy things if marketing tries to sell to them, so 'tis the season to engage in conversations of one sort or another.

In fact, more than half of all retailers are using some sort of social media in their holiday marketing (Facebook, Twitter, web site-based activities).

Come January, we'll blame consumers for not validating the JOKE approach with their pocketbooks, just like we did last year, even as we celebrate in marketing circles our ever-improved ability to pay for the privilege to waste their time to no commercial end whatsoever. We're already noting some campaigns as if moving merchandise wasn't more than a nice-to-have afterthought.

You can come up with your own list of the likely winners and losers simply by turning the topsy-turvy JOKE perspective on its head. There's an inverse relationship between entertainment value and sales: for every nanosecond that a store or product brand wants you to spend laughing, rocking, or finding friends whose time you want to similarly waste, that's time that probably won't be spent selling anything reportable to shareholders.

The JOKE makes calling the season a no-brainer.

Any of the "new" marketing ideas that that buck this affliction mask really "old" ideas, whether bait-and-switch sales realized via door/web-buster prices on Black Friday/Cyber Monday or distributing coupons via Twitter (how did a timeworn direct mail strategy become "social" because the medium changed?). Getting a friend or URL link clicked is a new way of tracking the old analog idea of wasting time saying nothing of commercial interest to unqualified, unlikely purchasers.

Conversely, brands that have articulated clear, dependable cost/benefit value propositions all year long will sell better during the holidays than any of the brands that fully embrace the JOKE, but will do so in spite of the marketing noise and not a result of it.

It didn't have to be this way. 

More marketers could have rejected the inane, empty promises of the JOKE lobby's newfangled experts; we've known since January that the holidays would come at the end of a very tough, confusing year, and that there were a variety of things businesses could do -- and then talk about -- to sell to consumers:

  • Better retail store experiences, instead of lean inventories and misleading pricing intended to obfuscate how horrible the shopping experiences could be.
  • Smarter employees who didn't just talk (even from the heart) but actually possessed certifiable expertise, and were incentivized to provide credible advice.
  • More meaningful promises so that products and services weren't positioned just as enhancements and upgrades, but as fixes and life-changers.
  • Broader relationship offers to add ongoing, service/conversation-based attributes that extended and deepened value propositions.
  • Clearer financial incentives that recognized that cash and credit card debt are only two of a myriad of possible ways to buy stuff (where are the subscription and holiday-club buying programs)?
  • Novel ways to get there, so imagine spending most of the year strategizing how your business would prompt sales vs. letting the marketers and their vendors imagine was to make your brand entertaining?

We could have seen an explosion of creativity in redefining and delivering brand value to consumers. Instead we got "fun" social campaigns. JOKE in lieu of substance.

Why? Such real innovation -- whether from the brands, or at the locations at which they're retailed -- would have required that marketers return to the oldest premise of them all: it's OK to sell, and being better, faster, more reliable and, yes, cheaper, is and always will be the drivers of sales (and thus brand value). 

Make it as entertaining as you want. Have fun and please your branding gurus. But never ever forget to sell.

Sadly, I suspect that our conclusions about sales this year will be no different from last year. Ad and marketing creative that prompted forwards and fond memories will be touted as the products of genius, then held up in parallel to even the slightest hint of activity in the real world to be credited with causal responsibility. Dozens of big name brand CMOs will say (or be told by their CEOs) "I want some of that, too," and get to work copying the means without ever fully understanding the ends. 

The folks who actually sold stuff during the holidays will get far less praise, as the drivers of that success will be seen as circumstantial ("consumers were looking for deals") and not worthy of emulation (or even comprehension). The most important and compelling brand attribute this year will be price, just like it was last year, only most marketers won't be able to understand or admit why. That's why I'm comfortable calling the season right now.

The only thing I can't predict is when we're going to realize that this JOKE isn't so funny anymore.

Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gerhard3/2128211643/

Original Post: http://dimbulb.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/12/calling-the-season-now.html

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