Retailers seek out competitive edge pre-holidays

NEW YORK: During this holiday season, retailers are finding that they can't rely solely on a message of value.

NEW YORK: During this holiday season, retailers are finding that they can't rely solely on a message of value. To gain a competitive edge in a cluttered marketplace, various brands are focusing on ways to differentiate their value proposition through greater use of social media, new media relations tactics, or enhanced CSR programs.

Best Buy recently launched its @15 philanthropic gift-giving initiative that aims to raise money for teen programs, and it's continuing its Black Friday VIP contest which launched last year and tasks consumers to submit stories about what the day means to them. To kick off the season in October, the retailer also launched a Scary Technology photo contest, prompting users to submit images of outdated home technology.

While the consumer programs are standard for the retailer, Scott Morris, senior manager of PR at Best Buy, explained that the team has shifted its promotional tactics, including more comprehensive use of Twitter and Facebook.

“This year, we looked to see how we could move some of our budget to programs that were very social media focused,” he said. Morris said the company is also leveraging its Twitter customer service tool, Twelpforce, though “it predates our holiday initiatives.”

The retailer is also shifting its media strategy to gain a competitive edge. The team flew executives to New York to conduct holiday outreach to business media outlets in September, a few weeks earlier than usual.

“We felt it was important that we come out very early in the story cycle of holiday and give business writers a snapshot of the health of our business and what holiday would look like for us,” said Morris. “Because we're not a manufacturer, it's not something we've done.”

Danielle Arceneaux, SVP at Kaplow, explained that this kind of lead time in PR outreach is not uncommon for today's holiday placements.

“The strategy was that you didn't want to go out too much before; you didn't want anyone to ruin an exclusive. Nowadays, maybe you want a story in one column, and it could be booked for the two-week range you have in mind,” she said. “There are fewer newspapers and magazines, and that makes the papers that really do tell these lengthy stories about a company's performance or brand even more valuable.”

Morris said Best Buy also revamped its holiday media page, which displays all of its initiatives and various microsites. It also introduced a happiness theme in its ad efforts.

“We wanted to understand what was going on in the competitive landscape this year, and what was being reflected in the economy and consumer insights,” he said. “Happy was an area we wanted to reinforce.”

Best Buy's agency PR work is mostly handled by MS&L, though Ketchum also works on elements.

“This year, [retailers] are going into holiday with their eyes wide open,” added Scott Krugman, VP of PR for the National Retail Federation. “It's about building loyalty and trust with the right marketing mix.”

He agreed that marketers are reevaluating their messages and how they communicate value, especially from a positive, human angle.

Specifically referring to mid-tier discounters, he added, “There's pressure for them to emphasize value in a down economy. The other thing, which is not easy to do, and not many retailers have mastered the concept, is to look at a customer and make a different type of value proposition.”

Macy's, like Best Buy, is shifting its promotional strategy through the expansion of its philanthropic holiday “Believe” campaign in partnership with the Make a Wish Foundation.

“We really wanted to take that idea that really resonated with the customer last year and build on it and add freshness and newness to it,” said Holly Thomas, VP of media relations and cause marketing at Macy's.

The team is doing a national Santa tour which begins on November 28 and stops in 25 cities in 25 days.

The retailer is increasing its consumer engagement efforts via an interactive “tell us why you believe” effort that tasks consumers to submit videos and essays at http://social.macys.com/believe2009/ and on Facebook.

“We wanted to raise that visibility for our charity partners as well,” she said. “It's an important time of year for them and we're happy to help them get some visibility.”

Vanessa Bismarck, partner at fashion PR agency BPCM, noted that during the holidays, “Most marketers don't feel it's appropriate to do events just to celebrate themselves and drive sales. Most will try to attach a charity to an event they're doing.”

She added that some of her clients have gone the traditional event route, especially at this time, looking at direct consumer engagement as an authentic way to connect them with the brand and drive sales.

JCPenney has also extended its Angel Tree program, in partnership with The Salvation Army, online at http://angel.jcpenney.com/ and on Facebook.

“This is the first time we have joined forces to make the program available online,” Kate Coultas, PR manager at JCPenney, stated via e-mail. “Our campaign includes a stronger emphasis on nontraditional media components such as social and mobile media, which reaches customers on their terms and allows them to opt in to engage with the JCPenney brand.”

She added that the social media component allows the brand to elevate the support of its cause, and it underscores its focus on the ‘Joy of Giving' this holiday season, a common theme throughout the industry.

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