It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and it’s not even Halloween. Many retailers like Restoration Hardware are already decorating for the winter holidays. Target even aired a Christmas TV ad on October 14, three weeks before Halloween and six weeks before Thanksgiving. The Target voice-over announces, “The holidays are coming and they’re gonna be big”.

One consumer replied to Target’s ad in social media: “Hey Target….can I at least finish trick or treating before I get bombarded with Christmas?” Is the accelerated timing consumer-centric or retailer-centric? Is it driven by actual consumer shopping behavior or competitive one-upmanship?

“Christmas creep” has been a marketing phenomenon the last few years, as retailers progressively move the date earlier to claim more holiday shopping. Competition for the holiday dollar will be even fiercer than normal this season.

What is interesting about Target’s campaign is that it’s a strategic change from their earlier marketing strategy. Two years ago, Target’s former CMO argued to keep holiday communication after Thanksgiving: “Guests really tire of these messages when they’re started too early in the season, and it doesn’t align with where they are in their lives. They look at Thanksgiving as family time … and aren’t yet ready to get into the frenzy that defines the Christmas shopping season.”

Competitive strategy and consumer behavior are sometimes at odds. Brands have to balance what’s best for the business and what’s best for consumers. I wonder where the holiday shopping promotion push fits on that spectrum.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away one signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. I’ll pick one comment. Thanks!)

22 Comments

  1. Tessa Stuart says:

    I was on London’s largest shopping street, Oxford St, last week, and astounded to see that the Christmas lights – sponsored by Unilever’s Marmite (“Love it or hate it” branding tag line ~ very apposite in this piece of brand association) – are up already. It’s not yet Hallow’een here. Mr Brand Manager, remember that “the consumer is your wife”. She is increasingly ignoring these tired old tropes of “Whip the women into a guilt-induced panic Christmas frenzy” branding in retailing. Me? I buy Christmas experiences as gifts now, because few of us need more things…..

  2. Stephen Macklin says:

    It’s really very simple. They believe there is a positive ROI for starting Christmas messaging earlier & earlier every year. Eventaually they will reach a limit where the cost of the messaging for the length of the “season” is not worth it. Or perhaps there will be a point where consumers say enough is enough and hand a big lump of coal to the brand that start’s christmas first.

  3. John says:

    I loathe it all, but I wonder if there’s a recognition by retailers and brands that many people are doing their Christmas shopping earlier than before – both to get it done and avoid the crush and also to spread out the financial pain. It’s a chicken and egg situation obviously but I imagine they realise that there’s only so much spending for which to compete.

  4. tom says:

    I know people who start Christmas shopping on the day after Christmas, when the clearance sales start. And the sterotypical male who waits to being shopping until the week before Christmas is a reality. I doubt very seriously that consumers are going to make a buying decision based on how soon a retailer started airing Christmas ads. “Sorry, Johnny, I didn’t get that toy you wanted because Target aired a Christmas commercial on October 14 and I thought that was a bit too soon.” Are Christmas ads in October annoying? Yes. Will it change anyone’s buying habits – for good or bad? No.

  5. Alina says:

    I noticed that there have been toy ads on television most of this month. My reaction was that they were targeting children to create demand for new products that will become the “cabbage patch kid” of the season (I’m sure most of us recall many “must-have” toys of Christmases past).

    Sadly, while many of us are irritated by holiday advertising before Halloween, I think that it will work to create an earlier desire for the newest toy in the minds of children. I expect that the toys advertised early will most likely be requested of shopping mall Santas. The combination of shopping areas dressed for Christmas early and these early toy ads will likely work on kids, and therefore work on parents who don’t want to disappoint them.

  6. Dogzilla says:

    If Target’s CEO held fast two years ago that holiday ads would not appear until Thanksgiving, but they now appear with auto-dealers’ Columbus day ads, then the holiday marketing monster has stomped out reason like Dogzilla crushing a Tokyo police car underfoot. As the city burns in the wake of Dogzilla’s holiday push, at least we’ll have the fire sale ads.

  7. Bill Carlson says:

    While I also hate the Xmas ads showing up before I even cover my pool for the winter, I saw data a few years back (which was used in a published marketing piece for a client) that reported 40% of consumers start shopping *before* November, i.e. obviously translates to “before Halloween”, and another 39% start *in* November.

    So it’s kind of hard to argue that there shouldn’t be any holiday advertising going on as early as it seems to start…

  8. Kathryn Neal Odell says:

    I wonder if the early holiday advertising actually serves a secondary purpose with consumers who might need to have a “happy destination” to think about during this drawn out recession and unsettling presidential election. We don’t know what will happen with our jobs, our mortgages or our futures— but we can take a hiatus from that and think about what little thing to buy on sale for Uncle John. Just like the Shirley Temple movies during the Great Depression, an extended holiday shopping season provides us with some much-needed escapism.

  9. DSprogis says:

    “Christmas Creep” – what a great term! I think the heart of the issue is that it dilutes the value of the day itself. Setting aside the Christian Christmas issues with commercialization, by extending the holiday 10 weeks, 20% of a calendar year, the day itself loses value. Furthermore, it creates a huge issue for parents that actually try to get the presents that their kids want. My son changes interests 5 times in 10 weeks. If I get him what he wants in October, you can be sure it will no longer be top of his list by December 25th. So why bother shopping so early?
    .
    The only thing more annoying that “Christmas Creep” is “Election Creep”.

  10. Russell says:

    This does create an opportunity for someone creative. Deliberately have a campaign that pokes fun at this. Drive home the message of ‘Strawberries in Summer, not Winter”. Commit to keeping store promotions genuinely seasonal.
    Advertizing that you are not doing Christmas in October gets you attention and differentiation.

    However the key is not doing this one year only to go with the herd the following year ala Target. This tanks your credibility and authenticity.

  11. Rhiannon says:

    This is a popular topic for me and my co-workers. My feeling is that early holiday advertising, while it usually does grate on my nerves, is OK as long as:

    a) The ads are brief.
    b) The ads are framed as “get your shopping over and done with, before the crowds.”

    Ads that follow these guidelines do not grate on my nerves, and I actually find most of them appealing.

  12. Sarah says:

    Christmas Creep is the original – the mothership of all “creep” occasions. But now “creeps” aren’t even relegated to holidays anymore. This harkens back to a very telling story that circulated the web (originating from the NYTimes) about how Target was able to tell that a teen girl was pregnant before her father did (http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/02/16/how-target-figured-out-a-teen-girl-was-pregnant-before-her-father-did/). Can we call this “baby” creep? Certainly puts the “creepy” in creep, so to speak!

  13. Srinin says:

    The Christmas Creep reminds me of a scene taht Paul Samuelson described in another context. A kid stands up so that he can see the see the baseball game. The guy in the row behind him stands up because his view is obstructed by the kid. Now the guy in teh row behind has to stand up… soon the entire stadium is standing!

  14. John E. Bredehoft says:

    How much of this is motivated by fear of competitors? Perhaps the people at Target are saying, “If we don’t grab the October Christmas shoppers, Walmart will.”

  15. Brian Wolf says:

    I get the idea of a toy manufacturer starting early to stoke demand for their product, but retailers aren’t really stoking demand for products–they are trying to win share from other retailers. And this means they are selling what retailers always sell: service, selection, experience, and/or price. Why in the world would anybody start advertising those things when consumers aren’t in the frame of mind to shop yet? (I am skeptical of the numbers Bill Carlson saw–40% of people start their Christmas shopping in October and 79% by November? This doesn’t match up to people I know.)

  16. Bill Carlson says:

    @Brian — Just for the record, not data that was invented out of thin air… Was published in a paper by a premier consumer analytics/insight organization and is based on research by another major consumer research organization.

    I actually agree with your gut-feel but the issue is probably more about how much purchasing activity actually takes place pre-Halloween — or even pre-Thanksgiving.

    For example, a blog by another organization published at the same time (late 2010) as the paper I’m referring to reported: “as of Oct. 24, 54 percent of consumers surveyed had started their holiday shopping for the year and 23% had completed more than a quarter of their total shopping.”

    “Started their holiday shopping” can of course be as simple as buying one gift, or even just becoming more conscious of the need to shop for gifts, but saying 23% were more than a quarter of the way done suggests that yes indeed, among the people you know it’s possible just 1 in 5 were more aggressively shopping.

    Again the point being here that advertising that connects with half of consumers who *are* “in the frame of mind” seems like a good call — even though I will wait until Xmas Eve (but please don’t tell my wife…).

  17. Bill Carlson says:

    And just out of curiosity, I went back to some of the data for that paper and can add a few interesting tidbits.

    First, 20% of respondents reported they start their holiday shopping in September or even earlier(!), and another 20% reported they start in October.

    Second, as of the first week in October, 2010, when the survey was fielded, over 15% reported being half-done or more. Again, many factors there which could be sliced and diced such as how many gifts, actual amounts spent, demographics of the shoppers, and so forth.

    Point well taken that Xmas advertising to the masses before Halloween may not resonate with a majority of consumers but the minority it does connect with is large enough to matter.

    And I will still be shopping Xmas Eve… ;)

  18. Brian Wolf says:

    Bill, I agree with your conclusion–that advertising Christmas early makes sense because a meaningful minority of consumers get a very early jump on the shopping–if consumers are making intentional Christmas shopping trips early. The other possible explanation is that people are shopping normally in September and October, and are happening across items they think would make a good Christmas gift and purchasing them. This is especially easy to imagine in a place like Walmart or Super Target where consumers are coming every week to do their grocery shopping. If this is the case, then I think I’d have to go back to questioning the value of early advertising, which I presume is designed to convince consumers to come to a particular retailer for intentional Christmas shopping trips.

  19. Bill Carlson says:

    What we lack is any data to reflect holiday sales impact based on that specific advertising (i.e. real life ROI!), so all we can do is speculate. But the way I see it is that if 40% even *think* they’re starting their holiday shopping in Sep/Oct, then appealing to them seems to make sense regardless of their shopping being “intentional”? And that seems somewhat validated by the fact that some are half done or more by late October.

    To turn things around, I question the basis for the Target CMO’s comments two years ago: “Guests really tire of these messages when they’re started too early in the season, and it doesn’t align with where they are in their lives.” Is there some research to justify that? It’s in direct contradiction to data reflecting that in fact many are in a holiday shopping frame of mind well before Thanksgiving.

    And finally (really!), the fact is that MOST ads don’t align with where I am in my life but that’s not stopping any of it…

  20. facebook_concettaphillipps says:

    It honestly depends on what they’re hawking and how annoying the ad is whether it bothers me. Layaway ads this time of year make sense, too. I like the idea of “Christmas creep” expressed here a lot – it starts to explain useless holiday sentiment trying to drive sales.

    But at the same time, to crafters, this is same old, same old. Crafting retailers roll out Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Back to School, and July 4th within the same month, sometimes within the same week. Hobby Lobby, for example, is the worst. So we’re already used to seeing Christmas ads 6 months before the holiday actually happens.

    Is there any data at all that Christmas creep does more than just annoy consumers? I find it hard to believe that anyone wants it.

  21. tomfishburne says:

    Hi all,

    Really great commentary this week! I look forward to hearing whatever post mortems are released in the new year on how these strategies played out for all of these retailers.

    This week’s print goes to Bill for bringing some fascinating and counter-intuitive data to the discussion. I’m sure that the 40% of consumers who go Christmas shopping in October played a role in Target’s decision.

    Many thanks!

    -Tom

  22. DonnaE says:

    Ha! Here in Australia, we do not celebrate Halloween (well the retailers are REALLY trying hard to get this one up!) OR Thanksgiving – so imagine our horror when the first Christmas decorations go up in the stores around the last week of AUGUST!!!

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