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Thinking outside the Christmas box

Think outside the Christmas box - there is too much cynical money grabbing from brands and not enough brand building in the season of good will, says Justin Foxton of CommentUK.

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Christmas is great, isn't it? A bumper time for brands to direct mail and field market us all to death. From early November we are bombarded with is tacky animated Santa Clauses and silly elves printed on low quality mailers shoved in their wad loads through our letter boxes giving us the most transparent of Christmas specials, designed to cause us to part with more money under the spurious guise of "helping us save this Christmas season". The British public is not a bunch of idiots. We all hear about how important the Christmas period is to the high street retailer. We are becoming aware of the con that is Christmas, and this is demonstrated by the fact that yields during recent festive seasons, have not lived up to expectations. But does it all have to be like this?

The points above lead to a really interesting marketing challenge and before I discuss that I'd like to step back in time just to set the scene. Between 1924 and 1932, a series of experiments were conducted in a factory in the Hawthorne works of the Western Electric Company in Chicago. Many years later the confounding results were termed The Hawthorne Effect. This effect asserts that the mere act of observing or studying something can alter it. The experiments were diverse, but involved for example, testing workers productivity in varying light conditions. Oddly, whether the light was dimmed or brightened, productivity went up. It seemed that the mere act of involving people in a piece of research caused them to work harder.

Why is this particularly relevant at Christmas time and what is its relevance to us direct marketers? Well, it demonstrates something we've all known for a long time but which marketers in general seem to have forgotten. It proves the Biblical adage "Give and you shall receive". Roughly speaking, give people your ear, and they will give you their hearts and minds. In plain terms, stop blathering on at your customer; listen to them, involve them, and they will become your faithful advocates. Stop telling them what to buy and what not to buy, and become interactive with them in a 3D way. And mostly, give them a sense of the fact that you truly want to understand them and add genuine value to their lives, and they will buy your product and more importantly, talk about it to their friends, family and colleagues.

This has never been truer than at Christmas time. Christmas is meant to be the season for giving; it is the perfect time of year for brands to listen to and reward customers, and the Hawthorne Effect demonstrates that this will cause behaviour change in your favour namely purchase and advocacy.

Christmas is a time where as marketers we should step back, get atypically warm and fuzzy, and remind ourselves that it is better to give than to receive. By better, if the Hawthorne Effect is to be believed, we mean increased advocacy, increased sales, increased brand exposure, increased word of mouth and ultimately increased profit.

The question is; what as direct marketers can we do to cause the Hawthorne effect? The basic principle behind it is simply to involve your target market in something. We could be getting out there and giving them our time; asking them some seasonally related questions, seeding our product into their lives in an interactive, subtle one-on-one manner. We could be giving them a product sample, but perhaps delivered in a unique and unforgettable way - not simply a hurried, disinterested interaction with a bored student in a baseball cap on Oxford Street.

Christmas is the perfect time to give the customers entertainment; comedy, carols, dance. Research has proven that an emotional response is caused by entertainment. If you can shift emotions you can cause behaviour change and long term recall. Incidentally, this principle can and should be being used in all marketing all year round, but sadly there are very few great examples.

One exception is Costa Coffee which has embarked on a campaign that ticks all the boxes by mixing Christmas carols with brand-related messages in a new advertising campaign.

The "carol-vertising" campaign features 'Costa Carol Singers' touring around UK shopping centres singing reworked Christmas carols to promote its brand.

The new lyrics produced for the campaign include "Ding Dong merrily we buy, our Christmas treats from Costa", and Costa's rendition of 'We Wish You a Merry Christmas' ends with "Oh bring us a ginger latte, Oh bring us a mint hot chocolate, Oh bring us some Christmas fruitcake, And bring it right here!" Witty, seasonal and on message for the brand but above all very easy to remember from the consumer's point of view and undoubtedly creating some advocacy for the brand right now.

Mike Lawless Costa's head of UK retail has remarked that the brand see Carol-vertising as an innovative way of reaching people at a time of year when every major brand is jostling for cut through using more conventional advertising techniques. The brand is now in talks with other high street brands that are considering using carol-vertising to promote their own brands.

Another excellent example is a campaign run this week at a series of high traffic London hot spots. It was done by Oxfam Unwrapped and was designed to give cold early morning commuters a heart warming laugh as they made their way to work. A team of comedy performers led a team of hearty volunteers - 30 in all - through a high energy aerobics workout set to a thumping soundtrack of high-tech versions of old Christmas standards. Why an aerobics workout? Well, the team of 30 was dressed as Santa Clauses of course and they were being whipped into shape by a sexy instructor preparing them to be strong enough to deliver all the presents from the Oxfam Unwrapped catalogue to poor homes in third world countries. We saw Santa's bench-pressing alpacas, stretching using loo seats and brandishing fishing nets. The crowds loved it, became involved in it; gave the activity their ear. They had been given something they would honestly never forget and they voted, in their droves, with their support whipping up hundreds and hundred of catalogues.

So, even though there are only a few examples so far it seems that some brands are capable of thinking outside the Christmas box and are willing to embark on something new that really reveals the true spirit and heart of the brand. Memorability and stand out are what it's about in marketing and the activities described above are not exactly rocket science - but they do leave a lasting impression that goes beyond the bored student handing out leaflets by the tube station, and they do away with the pervasive feeling that consumers have at Christmas which is that brands merely see us all as credit cards on legs to be swiped through as many terminals as possible before the big day.

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