A time for giving

Corporate giving and product promotions are popular exercises at Christmas, but the purpose behind them can be lost if they become just a Yuletide habit. Helen Donald finds out how to get seasonal promotions and present-giving right

Christmas is a traditional time for giving, but it’s a relief for most people in the promotions and incentives industry that it comes but once a year. The trouble is that, while everyone expects to give and receive at work as well as at home, the scope for disappointment invariably seems to be greater at work. And even if people are happy with what they are given, how many can actually remember who gave it?

One anecdote which does the rounds every year concerns the marketing director who came back from his lengthy Christmas break to find all the cards and presents for clients still sitting unsent in his office. He was doubly dismayed to find that no one had even noticed that they had been forgotten and there was no discernible loss of business or goodwill as a result of his blunder.

Harrods head of corporate services Gavin Dixon says: “Any gift has to be memorable and appreciated, otherwise it is utterly worthless. Companies, like all of us, tend to be more generous at Christmas – it’s a time when it seems appropriate to say ‘thank you’ – but they have to work harder at getting it right.” Every year, companies spend large sums on presents – which the recipient may not even want – just because they think that they ought to. When pressed, their justification is usually that they have always given a gift at Christmas and to stop suddenly might be detrimental to much-valued client relationships.

Some things aren’t seasonal

Bill Brown, general manager of Leisure Vouchers, which is part of Whitbread, maintains that good planning is required at Christmas: “If anything, you have to work even harder to make an impact at Christmas, yet it is the one time of year when normal marketing disciplines fly out of the window.” Brown cites the growing demand for measurement in the incentives market but points out that, when it comes to Christmas gifts, few companies make any attempt to measure return on investment.

Good planning can be as simple as making time to gather information, says Dixon: “Christmas is a busy time for many companies and there is a danger that they leave gift planning too late. You should allow plenty of time to collect details such as names and addresses, which always takes longer than you anticipate. If you intend to send something perishable, you should check in advance that the recipient will be there to take it home.”

Harrods is famous for its hampers, and Dixon concedes that they remain one of the most popular Christmas gifts. However, he claims that many are bought at other times of the year, particularly since Harrods launched themed and bespoke summer hampers. Harrods corporate services can also provide gifts from any other part of the store. Dixon likes to be given some information about the recipient, so that his team can recommend something appropriate, but he believes that gift vouchers can be a sensible choice if the recipient’s tastes are not known.

Brown agrees: “Many people are hung up on making a gift personal, but it’s so easy to get it wrong and you could actually end up doing damage to a client relationship.” Brown thinks that people who insist on choosing individual presents because they think vouchers are impersonal are acting self-indulgently. He suggests writing a handwritten message on the voucher wallet, which the recipient sees every time they look at the vouchers. That way they are also reminded regularly of who the gift was from. The key, says Brown, is to avoid being mechanistic.

One trend that industry observers have noted is that companies are spending more money on fewer people. Brown says: “Budgets have not really been hit hard by the market downturn, but people are definitely spending their money more wisely.”

Goodwill to some men

Advocates of this approach point out that companies often spread their gifts far too wide, and end up rewarding people who may not be decision makers. Brown says: “It is far better to give a bigger gift to the people who really matter to your business than to give small gifts to all and sundry.” Hi-tech gifts get cheaper every year and Brown thinks that sophisticated gadgets could prove popular business presents this Christmas. But generosity can backfire. Dixon cautions that an over-ostentatious gift may be embarrassing for the recipient.

Just as planning is crucial when it comes to corporate gifts, the same is true for Christmas promotions in store. Dynamo account director Luke McIlvenna thinks that companies place too much emphasis on Christmas and forget to apply the usual rules of good promotional planning. He says: “Christmas itself is not special. The challenge is to plan appropriately, whatever the time of year.” Unfortunately, Christmas is still one of the busiest times for in-store promotions and it can be hard for a promotion to stand out from the background noise, no matter how good it is.

Jon Derry, managing director of promotional agency KLM, says: “Traditional Christmas promotions are price-based and it’s a brave marketer who tries to run added-value promotional activity at this time of year. The majority of shoppers aren’t going to have time to respond to it.”

Dynamo, by Derry’s criterion, is one of the brave few. It recently created a promotion for Hovis, in a tie-in with Hamleys toy shop. Competition winners would be entitled to a “trolley dash” around the store. McIlvenna says: “Hovis is not a seasonal brand, so we could have run a promotion at any time of the year. However, our target market is families with children, and during the planning stages we identified a very close fit with Hamleys, so a joint promotion at Hamleys’ busiest time of the year made sense. Christmas itself was not the rationale for the promotion.”

KLM has put together a promotional campaign for Parcelforce Worldwide to communicate the last international parcel postal dates for Christmas delivery and to encourage businesses and consumers to use Parcelforce Worldwide. Anybody who sends two or more parcels before the recommended last postal dates will receive a £100 travel voucher. Derry adds: “We chose a travel voucher because travel has universal appeal to both business people and consumers. It also fits in well at this time of year, with the travel industry’s peak booking period of January.”

A grotto needs elves

Derry advocates working closely with retailers at Christmas: “Competition for retail space is so intense that creating standout is vital. Marketers need to make retailers’ jobs easier by focusing on merchandising, perhaps with the help of a field sales team who can ensure stock is regularly moved onto shelves and that displays and point-of-purchase materials are assembled correctly in the right place and are well-maintained.”

Mercier Gray joint managing director Anton Mercier points out that many consumers find shopping at Christmas stressful. He believes that both retailers and brand-owners could do more to make a journey to the shops easier. He says: “Simple things such as segmenting gift ranges by price work best. Christmas magnifies the complexity of communication, so if you want to maximise sales it is vital to communicate value, image, range and convenience much more clearly.”

Mercier also advises agencies to consider busy shoppers when recommending brand promotions: “On-pack promotions rarely work at Christmas, because consumers just don’t have time to respond to them.” He also thinks that Christmas theming, while obvious, needs to be handled sensitively.

Creating promotions that work and finding the right presents, whether for your mother or your top ten clients, can be hard work and it’s easy to forget that Christmas is supposed to be a time of fun. “Everybody wants a little respite from the drudgery,” says Leisure Vouchers’ Brown, “and that’s what we all tend to lose sight of.”

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