Holiday Food Marketing – Eight Things Marketers Should Know

With contributions from:Signal Theory experts

These Signal Theory experts have planned countless holiday food marketing campaigns for our various clients over the years, and they’ve learned a few things along the way.

If yours is a consumer-facing product, you need to understand holiday food marketing.

Whether your planning for this year’s holiday season has just started or you’re well into executing your 2018 plan and are already looking ahead to the 2019 holiday season, this guide should help.

How to Start Your Holiday Food Marketing Planning

There are important basics that need to be identified upfront when planning any campaign, not just those for the holidays:

  1. Goals: What do you intend to accomplish?
  2. Experience: What has or has not worked in the past?
  3. Budget: What is the optimal spend?

We work closely with our clients to identify the answers to these questions and leverage that information to create impactful, results-driven campaigns.

Beyond these basics, what are the experts doing with marketing plans to break through the noise of the holiday season and capture consumer attention?

We asked some of our best planners and strategists. Here’s what they had to say.

1. January Is the Time to Begin Planning Your Holiday Food Marketing

Holiday themed stopwatchYes, it’s true. If you aren’t already at full throttle with your 2018 holiday marketing plan, you may have missed the opportunity to maximize this holiday season. But read on. It’ll be time to plan for 2019 in a very short time.

Food shopping is the subject of far more consideration during the holidays than it is throughout the rest of the year. And understandably so – our Signal Theory FoodThink data shows that 50 percent of people enjoy hosting family for the holidays and 80 percent say the food is often one of their favorite parts of any particular holiday.1

Large groups of guests also lead to more food preferences and dietary needs that need to be addressed. More than a quarter of people (27.6 percent) say they follow a specialty diet.1 As a result, it’s not unusual to see increased sales of organic or other specialty dietary items during the holiday season. For example, Nielsen reported that in the three weeks leading up to Thanksgiving 2017, conventional sweet potato sales declined by 2 percent while sales of the organic variety increased by 12 percent.2

With this extra consideration, the research stage of the holiday consumer path to purchase starts earlier and lasts longer. In fact, according to a 2017 report by RetailMeNot and Kenton Global, 60 percent of shoppers planned to start shopping for the 2017 holiday season before November 1, and 12 percent had begun holiday shopping that summer.3

With consumers in the holiday food-planning mindset as early as the summer months, Signal Theory advises clients to have relevant content ready to activate. This is where long-term, slow-burn channels such as Pinterest shine.

Our experts also warn, however, that in no way does this mean brands should bombard consumers with explicit holiday messaging at the height of summer.

“It doesn’t necessarily start with showing them a fir tree and a snowman in August. You can start holiday marketing tactfully with things like recipes and other content that is relevant but not explicitly holiday-themed,”  says Sara Theurer, marketing automation strategist.

Kelly Birch, media manager, agrees. “Everyone gets mad that in August they’re being shown pumpkins. However, no one is disappointed with a pumpkin bar recipe that’s just a pumpkin bar recipe.”

Campaign planning is a different story. Signal Theory recommends brands begin planning for the holiday season in Q1, when holiday marketing research is often released. This ensures marketers aren’t chasing their tails at a time when consumer planning for the next season has already begun.

“Sometimes, as busy marketers, we are our own worst enemies. We say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, but the fire’s here.’ So it’s hard to plan ahead. But if you’re going to do it right, there has to be constant and timely discussion. You can’t just start thinking about it in July.”  – Kelly Birch

2. Try to Create Brand Loyalty During the Holidays, Not Steal It

Holiday themed minds workingThe power of tradition is a strong force, and that’s one reason consumers stick with brands and products they know and reject a switch to something new during the holidays.

“You’ll be hard-pressed to change the mind of someone who’s been buying the same brand forever,” says Theurer.

For that reason, the holidays aren’t the ideal time to go head-to-head with established, traditional brands competing for the same consumer.

Established brands have the luxury of celebrating consumers’ loyalty and historically emotional connections in their marketing campaigns. Rather than participating in a battle they can’t win, challenger brands should consider focusing on alternative events and newer traditions such as Friendsgiving. The #friendsgiving hashtag, as of November 2018, yields almost 1 million Instagram posts.

“If you’re a brand that’s been around forever, push in on that. If you’re a newer brand in the industry, you’ll need a different approach.” – Sara Theurer

3. Don’t Bet on Price Discounting During the Holidays

Holiday themed coins inside a gift boxPrice discounting is an age-old way to drive volume and repeat purchase, encourage brand loyalty and steal from competitors. For challenger brands, cutting prices could be a worthwhile holiday tactic as they seek to become the item of choice for new traditions and audiences.

Similarly, don’t be afraid to discount items that are already low-priced. Consumers tend to be less loyal to products that require little investment.

Discounting high-end products, however, is more delicate, and brands need to carefully consider if a price discount is going to deliver enough sales to be worthwhile. While some brands may be left with no choice but to price discount in order to keep up with the competition, such pricing should be applied as strategically as possible.

Here are four considerations for your pricing strategy:

1. Price discounting high-dollar holiday items risks damaging brand and price perception

If activated too regularly or too heavily, price discounts can erode the quality perception of a product. It doesn’t take long for consumers to form an expectation and begin thinking more about price and less about value.

2. Price discounting high-dollar items is unlikely to steal from competitors.

Take centerpiece products like the Thanksgiving turkey or the Christmas ham. With so much tradition at stake and beloved guests to impress, consumers are unlikely to switch from the brands or suppliers they’ve bought from for years, even for cost savings.

3. Price discounting high-dollar items is unlikely to recruit new consumers.

If a consumer is simply not in the market for a high-dollar product, then a shallow discount probably won’t change that.

Media Manager Madeline Harris confirms: “If they aren’t looking for a $100 cut of meat, then they probably won’t be looking for a $90 cut either.”

4. Price discounting high-dollar items is unlikely to drive additional volume with existing consumers.

Take meat again as an example:

“You’re probably not going to get high redemption rates on a $100 roast because that audience is such that if they happen upon the coupon, there’s a reason they can afford to spend $100 on it anyway,” suggests Birch.

That’s not to say that discounts on these types of items are never worthwhile. Price discounts are a great way to reward loyal customers and invest in a trusting consumer relationship, and they may drive trial of one cut of meat over another. But, during the holidays, proceed with caution because they can end up costing more than they return.

“You’re not couponing to necessarily try to beat the competitor, but you’re adding a little icing on the cake.” – Sara Theurer

4. Segment, Segment and Segment Some More

Holiday themed arrow in bullseyeCompetition is strong for share of voice during the holidays as more brands fight for shrinking amounts of consumers’ time. Signal Theory advises brands to resist the urge to shout louder at more people and instead to use marketing dollars wisely, with laser focus.

This doesn’t mean take your foot off the gas – consumers still need brands to talk to them. This is the time of year when they’re looking for inspiration, help and the best deals. But holiday communications have to resonate quicker and deeper than at other times of the year.

Brands have a lot of data at their disposal, and when used responsibly, that data can lead to smarter communications and a competitive advantage. That means segmenting so that they can engage in a truly personalized conversation with their consumers.

“We have all this data now,” Birch says. “We have the data that allows us to speak to our audience in an intelligent way and give them the information they need to make a good decision. The holidays are the times we should be the most specific in targeting both our audience and our messaging.”

Theurer adds: “And that doesn’t mean ‘Hi, first name.’ That’s not enough anymore. It means serve them a personalized image based on the type of product that they’ve most recently bought.”

Also consider that not everyone in your audience is the one planning, shopping for and cooking the holiday meal. There may be ways your audience will be engaging with food during the holidays that are independent of the grocery store.

Consider what else they might need to know. Consider the college student who’s home for the holidays, returning to his or her dorm with leftovers. Consider the neighbor who’s been tasked with bringing the wine, or the gluten-free cousin who prefers to make his or her own dessert.

“It’s more time-consuming, but evidence shows that the more relevant and timely information you get to your audiences by segmenting them and personalizing your messages, the better the return is going to be.” – Sara Theurer

5. The Holiday Season Is Not an Email-Testing Environment

Holiday themed email iconLike all holiday marketing communications, email is more competitive during the holidays. But it’s still a go-to place for consumers looking for deals.

To cut through the noise, email communications need to be personalized and thoughtful. Your audience will see right through them if they’re not.

“I get emails during the holidays from brands and I think, ‘I have not seen you in my inbox in the last six months,’” Harris says.

These holiday-only emails may cause friction with consumers, rather than feel-good connections.

“Email is tricky during the holidays because everyone sends a ton,” Theurer says. “But that doesn’t mean consumers start ignoring their inboxes. You still see the same open rates. You just have a lot more to compete with so you have to be a little bit more thoughtful from a technical perspective.”

Theurer advises to, as early as you can in the year, ensure your inbox placement is good. Spam filters are very strict during the holidays, and you will be competing against companies that haven’t been slacking the rest of the year. Those without prior histories, relationships or positive reputations will go into a spam folder.

“The holidays are not the time to launch a campaign,” she says. “They’re not the time to send to your entire list because you just want to get the word out to every single person. Do more segmentation. Get more relevant offers to segments of your audience. Send every 30 days to ensure you’re keeping up your sender reputation.

“There are technical things that you can’t start in November and assume you’re going to reach the inbox. You should enter the holiday season with your database hygiene taken care of.”

6. When It Comes to Social Channels Don’t Just Post More – Post More Strategically

Holiday themed chat iconsSocial media poses unique challenges. The number of channels in play and their different purposes mean that there is no one-size-fits-all content strategy. This is magnified in the holidays when, as we’ve learned, no matter how loudly you shout, if messaging isn’t personalized, it will blend in with the rest of the white noise.

Remember: The world doesn’t stop because it’s the holidays.

Content Strategist Megan Zander says, “It’s not just a holiday season. There are still things going on in the news. There are still things going on at work. It’s different from person to person and region to region. All those things are still relevant. Always consider that.”

Brands need to keep their eyes and ears on everything else their audience is talking and thinking about. If your users are offered nothing but holiday conversation, they will begin to doubt your interest in having a real conversation with them.

Each platform’s purpose can help with different stages of your holiday food marketing. For example, Pinterest is used for both long-term and instant planning. This means that content needs to be available as soon as consumers are looking for it, meaning in the summer.

At the other end of the spectrum are Facebook and Twitter, whose usage is more real-time conversation.

Perfectly positioned between the two is Instagram. The ability to collect images and follow specific hashtags without having to follow a specific account has turned it into a planning and inspiration tool not unlike Pinterest, while its newsfeed and story tools deliver similar real-time social commentary to that of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.

It’s also important to know how people already feel about your brand and product, and tailor your messaging to that.

Zander warns: “They don’t want to hear about how they should be buying your product if they’re already buying it. So maybe you don’t need to drive conversions during the holiday season. But maybe it’s a good time to tell a story that will strengthen your relationship.”

Brands in this position can afford to take their foot off the sales pedal and use social for other conversations. For example, use social channels to thank and reward loyal consumers and to show them what happens behind the scenes of the brand they love.

There are also opportunities to learn about your audience and expand your reach by listening to what your audience is talking about, and with whom. Consider where else your consumers are seeing and sharing content. Widening your footprint to include these groups increases your reach to an already engaged audience.

“There are a lot of gains to be made from just listening and learning what people are asking for, then putting it out into the universe,” Birch says.

“And sharing it cross-channel,” Theurer adds. “If you know a trend that people are talking about on social, I’ll bet your email audience is interested in it too,” she says.

Instant Pot is a great example of this. Facebook is home to Instant Pot-loving communities that are unaffiliated with Instant Pot itself, totaling more than a half-million members.

Neighboring communities such as these are the places shoppers will go when seeking inspiration, so brands would do well to listen, respond and create content easily shared by these groups.

“If you create content for your audience’s audience, your content will end up in communities you don’t know about. Though you can’t track them, they’re still just as important.” – Megan Zander

7. Have a Social Media Crisis Plan and Look After Your Community Managers

Holiday themed map of the world with chat iconsIt’s easy to wrongly assume that once the big day hits, your holiday marketing job is done.

Thanksgiving and Christmas no longer signify the end of your conversation, and it’s extremely important not to compromise the one-on-one interaction that social media breeds on these days.

Your social platforms are the first places people will visit when they have something they want you to know quickly (not least because they bank on your quick response out of fear of a bad review going viral). As a result, your marketing team becomes the first port of call for any and all consumer-care issues.

“When people are stressed out, they tend to go straight to the nearest mountaintop to shout about it,” Zander says.

Developing a crisis plan and increasing your internal resources for one-on-one discussions with consumers during the holidays will go a long way toward appeasing the angry and engaging the happy.

“But if you are quick and smart and kind in your response, they are very quick to turn it all the way around,” Zander continues.

Real-time community management like this also presents an opportunity to engage and reward positive community members and surprise and delight those who are leaving good reviews with things like secret discount codes and surprise product giveaways. Giving community managers the autonomy to issue rewards such as these will help twofold.

“It’s a beautiful way to talk to and build relationships with the people whom you know are purchasing your products,” Birch says.

Theurer adds: “And the community managers who are watching their Facebook feed on Christmas Day because they have to are going to appreciate that they get to be the person who delivers good news.”

Perhaps most important to remember is to give your community managers the credit they deserve.

Respect that those employees are working over the holidays. They are likely sacrificing their own holiday traditions for the sake of your community. Make sure they know they are appreciated.

“It’s the obligation of brands to keep their staff supported. Make sure they have the tools and the resources they need over the holidays. If your community manager is stressed out and not having a good day, chances are that’s going to spill over into every conversation he or she is having online.” – Sara Theurer

8. Consider Whether You Need to Market During the Holidays at All

Holiday themed lightbulbWhen considering holiday food marketing, perhaps the most important question a brand can ask itself is “Is our product relevant enough to invest what we need to in order to break through the clutter?” There might be reasons you either don’t need to market during the holidays or why you won’t succeed if you do.

Signal Theory has worked with brands that fall across this entire spectrum. The first thing we ask of our clients is to help us understand their sales curve during the holidays versus the rest of the year.

In other words, are consumers going to consider your product whether you market it or not?

When Holiday Sales Are a Sure Thing

For luxury or seasonal brands whose sales naturally peak during the holidays, investment is often well placed when weighted toward conversion tactics that talk to shoppers at the end of the path to purchase such as added-value promotions.

Kansas City, Mo.-based artisanal chocolatier Christopher Elbow, an Signal Theory client, does well here.

Christopher Elbow Chocolates is a local icon whose chocolates are beautiful, gourmet luxury gift items. Because sales naturally peak during the holidays, there is simply no need to invest in straight price promotions. Doing so might dilute both brand perceptions and profit margins that there’s just no need to sacrifice.

Instead, their marketing investments pay dividends when put toward storytelling and nurturing their community. Their added-value promotions such as free shipping or a mini treat for consumers to keep for themselves are great ways to increase value perception and reward loyal consumers without risking brand perception.

Search Engine Marketing Strategist Matt Smith says, “Sometimes it’s not a question of whether and how much to invest but more about where to invest. If awareness is already there, directing dollars toward tactics that are going to get people to fully convert might be a better way of spending your money.”

When Holiday Sales Are a No-Deal

At the other end of the spectrum are brands that stand little to no chance of a sales peak during the holidays. If that’s the case, again, consider if investment at this time will give you a return worth trying for.

In other words, are consumers going to pass on your product whether you market it or not?

“I see a lot of food products trying to wedge themselves into Thanksgiving,” Harris says. “Just do yourself a favor and reserve your resources.”

Often a product’s affiliation with another very specific food season – grilling season, for example – might take it out of the running for huge sales in the holidays. In these cases, investing heavily in the holidays would likely bear no fruit.

“If holiday sales aren’t comparable to the summer months, I wouldn’t plan on putting media behind it,” Harris says. “Just because it’s the holidays doesn’t mean you need to be out there.”

But brands in this position can still benefit during the holidays. Holidays are an opportunity to piggyback on consumers’ current mindsets by seeding content on longer-term awareness platforms such as Pinterest.

Zander says, “Sometime the relevance of a product to a consumer mindset, like cooking, even if it’s not relevant to what they’re specifically shopping for, gives you the opportunity to talk about it. Not necessarily to sell it, but to talk about it and to get it into the long-term funnel. So you might not be driving someone directly to a purchase during the holiday season, but you can use the opportunity of relevant conversations to create awareness of your brand.”

When Holiday Sales Take Work

Of course, there is a glut of products that fall somewhere in between the two. For these, holiday marketing can mean the difference between a successful year and a dud.

Using branded meat as an example again, as a year-round purchase, prime rib roasts and beef tenderloins are not synonymous exclusively with the holidays, but synonymous with them nonetheless. Products like these can’t afford to be passed over for a competitor, but their year-round presence dilutes the urgency awarded to more exclusively seasonal products.

In these situations, we recommend a marketing approach that engages with consumers at every milestone on their path to purchase – long-term paid social to inspire awareness and consideration, real-time conversation on Facebook, paid online media to capture shoppers online at the point of conversion and point-of-sale materials to seal the deal in-store.

Understanding the need, or lack thereof, to market your product during the holidays goes back to simply knowing your goals. Do not give in to the assumption that the holidays are an “anything goes” period where strategy goes out the window.

“Know where you fall on the holiday marketing spectrum. And if you don’t belong there, that’s OK.” – Cheryl Tulipana


If You Remember Just One Thing About Holiday Food Marketing

Our experts urge that if you take only one thing from this post, let it be to fight the temptation to talk to everyone as loudly as you can. It’s easy to get caught up in the current of the holidays, lose your voice and try to be everything to all. Don’t do it.

Trust us when we tell you that if you are more purposeful and more specific in your messaging and your segmentation, you will come out on the other side as happy as a child on Christmas morning.

1. Signal Theory FoodThink. 2018.
2. Nielsen 52 weeks sales ending 9/30/2017. November 2017.
3. RetailMeNot. October 2017.

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