Communication around holidays & special events in 2021

Mihai-Alexandru Cristea 24/12/2021 | 12:34

Despite the global pandemic, the growth rate of holiday sales between 2019 and 2020 was more than double the average year-over-year growth of previous years, exceeding predictions from the US National Retail Federation. This enduring upward tick in holiday sales illustrates that consumers have built lasting habits around holiday spending. Smart brands will respond accordingly.

By Romanita Oprea


According to eBay, people say they spent an average of around GBP 528 on Christmas shopping and celebrations last year (2020), compared to GBP 551.34 in 2019. This year, 30 percent of consumers plan to spend more, with only 15 percent planning to spend less. This is much more optimistic compared to 2020, where only 13 percent said they’d spend more, and 31 percent said they’d spend less. Still according to ebay’s findings, despite this optimism, many people are worried about further disruption due to covid-19: 45 percent say this means they will likely put off making plans for Christmas until the last minute, and 30 percent are so worried about more disruption that they might celebrate Christmas early with friends or family. When it comes to priorities for this Christmas, ebay’s research finds that while more people want to “go big or go home” with their celebrations and gifts compared to last year (13 percent in 2021 versus 8 percent in 2020), a greater number are still looking forward to a quieter, more relaxed Christmas (25 percent)—rather than a blowout party.


Are there any new trends in brand communication around the holidays and special events of 2021?

Considering the current situation, Anita Panait, creative communicator at Brandelligence PR, wouldn’t say that we are seeing new trends, but rather activities being adapted to a new and unexpected context. “I’m seeing a mix between old-but-gold, classic marketing incentives, such as partnerships and giveaways, as well as some new practices that have come to light based on clients’ higher expectations. They are more sensitive, their habits are changing quickly, they expect perfect services and want to feel unique. So we are talking about trends like customised marketing, incentive-based loyalty programmes, special deals, all-in-one packages, family offers, clear and transparent digital communication, including activities that support the community,” Panait said.

The best gifts this holiday season might be those that can be not unwrapped, but experienced—and this might be a long-lasting trend, especially as the pandemic has proven that we all miss human connection and a human approach. These days, probably more than ever, good communication has become the key to executing successful events and it will continue to play an integral role.

For most of us, the pandemic was like a wakeup call about the importance of time and how we use it, about the importance of spending quality time with family and enjoying special experiences. People are now searching for fast, yet customised services, as well as safe and well-reviewed venues and experiences. “After almost two years of adapting to a new way of living, I don’t think we will come back to what once was; we will instead redefine normal living. People now want to be charmed, and as a hospitality entrepreneur, you have to show that you deserve them, and especially their time,” Anita Panait added.

The pandemic has forced companies to shift to new ways of communicating the holidays and other special events. Last year’s context made many holiday gatherings and social events inadvisable. This year, the landscape looks a little different because of the growing vaccination rate. „Therefore, we saw brands being slightly more focused in their communication, as the context allowed events and consumers to return to more outdoor experiences. We all remember the extraordinary growth registered by digital channels last year, as consumers turned to online shopping to meet their holiday needs. While e-commerce will remain an important factor in consumer behavior this year as well, we also saw consumers shifting back to in-store shopping,” said Marina Viscun, head of sourcing at Mediascope.

In this context, she adds that the brands should be able to offer both a physical and digital experience that is tailored to individual preferences. „We expect shoppers to engage with more touchpoints this year while shopping for holidays, thus brands are expected to offer a seamless experience across different platforms, to remain top-of-mind throughout this season. Another trend for this year’s communication between brands and consumers refers to building direct connections through personalized conversations and shared values. Brands will be able to also drive revenue through engaging with consumers on a more personal level,” added Viscun.


All about experiences

A June 2021 survey by Google and Boston Consulting Group revealed that online shopping would play an important role in consumers’ buying journeys this year. In 2020, there was a sharp shift towards e-commerce due to the covid-19 crisis. But in 2021, over 80 percent of consumers are seeking out in-person shopping experiences.

Ahead of this year’s peak shopping season, many local economies are open, but not without setbacks. Lockdowns are returning in some countries as new covid-19 cases rise and fall. According to specialists, e-commerce overall will remain steady through the end of the year, but the growth rate of online sales in the peak season will not be a repeat of 2020. With this new balance, brands have to create marketing campaigns that cater to the omnichannel shopper—building offline and online touchpoints.

As AdWeek wrote, in-store, supply chain, and logistical uncertainties prompted retailers to kick off 2020 holiday efforts earlier than ever with online deals and promotions last October. Nearly half of shoppers surveyed by AdWeek also started holiday shopping before—and often in place of—in-store doorbusters on Black Friday. This continued through the end of the year, especially online, driving a dramatic 47 percent increase in e-commerce sales during the traditional holiday season.

Many of those transactions happened on mobile devices. For example, Adobe found that over half of digital Christmas revenues in 2020 came from smartphones. Therefore, the American publication expects to see more digital acceleration with another extended e-commerce-driven holiday shopping season in 2021. Pent-up demand may result in even earlier activity, so brands should start connecting with both loyal and new customers across digital and mobile channels.

Whether people intend to shop in-store or online, many shoppers plan to research gifts on the internet first. According to ebay, nearly two thirds (63 percent) state they will likely research gifts online before committing to purchases and over a third (38 percent) like to get inspiration from gift guides (e.g. in magazines or online). Conversely, 29 percent say they will likely browse for gifts in physical stores, then buy online. When Christmas shopping, many consumers are also keen to support local (58 percent) and small businesses (57 percent). With slightly fewer respondents stating their support in 2020 (53 percent), this could be a growing priority for shoppers. When it comes to gifting, people who will be giving gifts this year prioritise good value for money (58 percent) and quality of products (44 percent).

„While the pandemic made the Romanian consumer more cautious of his expenditure and sensitive towards price and promotions, we saw in 2021 a gradual return of the consumption level, as easing mobility restrictions led to an increase in Romanians’ appetite for travel and shopping,” said Marina Viscun. The Romanian consumer pays more attention to quality, prefers local products, and is prepared to shift to online shopping, shows a study launched in 2020 by EY Romania, “Behaviour of the Romanian Consumer in the context of COVID-19”.

On the Holiday season, we see a consumer who plans his purchases. According to a study conducted by iSense Solutions in 2021, almost half of Romanians in urban areas started buying Christmas gifts four weeks before the holidays. Moreover, Romanians are still cautious, and 66% will spend their holidays only with their close family members, shows the same study.


Understanding the audience

The holiday season is also a perfect time for marketers to engage brand audiences through gifts. Brands can nurture their audiences with custom e-gifts, company swag, handwritten notes, and more. There are several platforms that can automate prints, deliveries, and orders so that marketers and brand representatives can focus on results.

“2020 brought us a Christmas like no other with retailers, brands, and consumers having to flex and adapt their plans on short notice. As we look forward to what we hope will be a less disrupted Christmas, this data from ebay demonstrates that it is more important than ever for brands to understand the mindset and behaviours of their audience in the run up to this crucial period. The brands that will win this Christmas will be those able to use this insight to drive cultural relevance and ensure that their campaigns reflect the diversity of their audiences. But if there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that things can change quickly and that businesses need to be able to adapt and pivot in response, so flexibility will be key,” said Pauline Robson, MediaCom UK’s managing partner.

Brands should ensure they have the data insights and tools available that allow them not only to understand these different experiences, but also to tailor their marketing to people with the most relevant messages. And, with so much still uncertain, brands will need to be prepared to react and pivot strategies in line with any unexpected changes.

Technology was a key factor for development during the pandemic. Shifting to online platforms allowed brands to remain top-of-mind and continue to gain revenue in this difficult context. Social media, on the other hand, allowed the acceleration of another trend: social commerce. „At the intersection of e-commerce and social media, we find an asset that fully supports the brands’ omnichannel commerce strategies. Social commerce has proven itself to be more than a passing habit, and now we know that the future of e-commerce is one where we find social commerce at its groundwork. As more young adults declare that their main source of inspiration for shopping is social media, social commerce is here to stay,” commented Mediascope’s representative.


Online. Offline. How to tackle hybrid events

Humans have limited attention spans, especially now as we continue to work remotely, managing distractions and responsibilities at home. For in-person events, attendees now also have access to multiple mobile devices, making creative engagement tactics a must-have. Therefore, it is very important to know how to prioritise different types of content. People learn in different manners, so it’s best to mix up the way content is being delivered, whether it’s via a live streamed keynote, moderated panels, fireside chat with a Q&A portion or interactive breakouts and workshops.

Another tactic in the world of online or hybrid events is creating opportunities for two-way dialogue by finding ways to have your attendees take part in the event. For example, using live polling and surveys, interactive Q&As or chat functionalities helps people connect and learn from one another. Incorporate gamification elements to help motivate attendees to participate in a variety of ways. This could include awarding points for attending various sessions, asking questions or engaging with a sponsor.

And probably the most important aspect is making sure everything—or as much as possible—is personalised. Communication plays an important role in bridging the gap between virtual and in-person events. Starting with the event website and registration, it’s important to think through how to personalise messages for those attending on-site rather than virtually. For in-person attendees, create clear and specific on-site communications, and for online attendees, determine how to best use the virtual platform to maximise the experience. When it comes to event swag and communications materials that one would usually receive on site, there is an opportunity to create a similar experience for those attending virtually with packages that get mailed out in advance of the event for attendees with items such as notebooks, snacks, and a personalised note from the host committee.

“Keep a laser focus on attendees’ desires. With so many events (even high-profile ones), there’s a healthy dose of scepticism among them. Questions arise, such as, “Is this a sales pitch?” or “Am I actually going to get anything out of this?” Your communications strategy needs to be developed with these in mind. Only then will you drive the desired attendance and hype,” said Patrick Ward, marketing director at Rootstrap, for Forbes.

The influence and rise of demand in social media has also greatly impacted the way events are created and communicated about today. Therefore, content and the manner in which it is presented are of rising importance. According to Melissa Kendal of little word studio, having a content calendar is key. One must determine the cadence of all types of communications, including short-form videos, Instagram posts, tweets, emails, and so on. Set up a tracker so that you not only know when these get published, but can also see how they perform. Each week, meet with your team to analyse the performance of past posts and iterate future posts. The rapid development of social media has pushed businesses to pay more attention to how they treat customers, as everyone can come out nowadays and tell the world about their experience. What you communicate on social media should always be reflected by the customer experience, and ideally, customer service should to go that extra mile and exceed expectations.

Moreover, according to Mediascope’s representative, one of the most important things brands should consider when developing a new communication campaign is the consumers’ concerns to avoid deaf-tone communication. Paying attention to conversations in social media can be an effective way to know what your target wants to hear from you. „Another important aspect that we also recommend to our clients is not being afraid of innovation. Keeping your brand open to new can also come with various opportunities and allows it to re-invent itself to remain relevant. We understand the changes that are happening in the field and we come up with communication solutions for the brands on the market,” also considers Marina Viscun.

“Half of all shoppers we polled experienced some difficulty knowing what to buy for others, highlighting the need for discovery aides—especially during the holidays. Of those who discovered something online last season, 45 percent said it was a gift for someone.

The concept of online discovery is not new, but the way it happens is changing. Many are turning to social apps, specifically, for personalised inspiration and curated recommendations. Nearly eight in 10 consumers we surveyed said they used at least one Facebook app or service for discovery last holiday season. More people are purchasing on social apps as well. Grand View Research estimated that social commerce represented 11 percent of global retail ecommerce revenue in 2020, generating USD 474 billion,” said Alicia LeBeouf, Head of Industry, Retail, Superstores & Grocery at Meta, for AdWeek.

Can we still talk about seasonality in communication like we did in previous years or has that slowly disappeared? “In its basic sense, seasonality in hospitality is a fact. Seasonality actually characterises the hospitality industry and it is essential to determining customer behaviour. The highest season used to be the festive period, when many regions attracted the most visitors. However, the effects of seasonality are felt by most hoteliers or restaurants and it is essential to maintain communication and marketing strategies even during periods of low occupancy rates,” Anita Panait said. She added that nowadays, seasonality is influenced not only by seasons, time availability or income disposal, but also by political tensions, economic instability, natural calamities or a prolonged global pandemic. “People will start to travel more often and do more exploring, and the gaps between seasons will probably be more balanced in the future. Of course, there will always be highs and lows, but what you do between these periods in terms of marketing and communication is essential,” Panait explained.

According to Marina Viscun, seasonality still affects business sales and plays an important role in each industry’s cycle. Understanding the business performance allows business owners to allocate energy and resources where they can make a difference. „Creativity is the key to success. The communication process must be continuously adapted throughout the brand’s life cycle. Each year looks different, especially in today’s context where things change in a rush. Consumer attitudes, behaviors, and expectations have changed during the pandemic. Competition became stronger and new challenges emerged for brands, but the true power that creativity can have on business performance will be as important as ever,” she added.

The role of the communicator will become increasingly important as communication becomes more stratified and complex and clients will need the advice of consultants and PR specialists as much as they need water or air as they navigate these new waters.


Alina Galeriu, general manager at Galeriu & Partners PR:

“One thing has stayed the same over the years in terms of the way our clients communicate during the holidays: it’s all about the joy of giving. Even though all industries have been going through very difficult times, our clients are still willing to send out press kits and show their generosity with sample products and creative gifts that are waiting to be unboxed. Getting influencers more involved for such activities is of course a new development that wouldn’t have happened a few years back. So, yes, social media still is the rising star in the communication mix. You can’t beat its drive and exponential growth.

You asked about creativity, and I will highlight two main directions: first, cost efficiency is the most in-demand skill during this pandemic, and of course it takes a lot of creative effort to make an impact with small budgets; the second has to do with attention to detail, because since the number of social interactions has declined, brands need to make each encounter with the consumer really count. The same goes for encounters with influencers or journalists as a public relations consultant.

Every detail matters. From the wrapping paper and ribbon of the press kit to the greetings in your email or the moment you decide to do a press pitch. This is a permanent PR concern: remembering that every word, every gesture, and every detail tells a story, so you need to be wise and skilful enough to control that story by putting time and effort into planning your every move ahead. I believe PR has never been more strategic and customised as it is today.”

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