Make it a season to remember

It’s time once more to think about Christmas promotions for staff and clients. Not only must they be original and memorable, they also have to be economical for your company, says Paul Gander

Finding inspiration for Christmas incentives can be tough. Finding an incentive that is equally inspiring for the recipient and your own finance director can be even tougher.

Dynamo Marketing Communications has scored a hat-trick of Christmas promotional successes over the past three years. And for once, these surprise packages were mailed out to clients rather than being developed on their behalf. The team is aiming for a fourth hit this Christmas, having recently merged with Catalyst to form Wax Communications.

Summarising the agency’s thinking, director Jan Bates says: “We wanted something interactive, which would help to build the professional relationship and would keep going until Easter.”

Engaging promotions
The first of these was a “grow-and-win” promotion involving a pot of earth, a miniature watering can and an amaryllis bulb. “The client had to nurture the plant for three months or so, then send us a photo. Everyone who did so successfully won an Easter egg. If you produced a red flower, you won a weekend away,” Bates explains.

A hard act to follow? Dynamo rose to the challenge with “grow a giant beanstalk”, this time involving a magic wand and printed scroll, together with horticultural paraphernalia. And last year, the task was to add water to a silicon-based gel and photograph your own scene sculpted from the resulting “snow” drift.

Bates claims there was another message hidden away under this chemically-induced avalanche: “The bookies were giving odds on whether it would or wouldn’t be a white Christmas. We were saying there will definitely be snow. We always deliver.”

Of course, it could be argued that Christmas is all about reliability, consistency and – to some extent – predictability. Certainly, that is the basis on which that most traditional of seasonal gifts, the festive hamper, has built its success. The format, especially when linked to a luxury brand, sends out its own message before the recipient has even had a chance to open it.

Together, the Harrods hamper range and gift collection now number 34 different items, says corporate service manager Tracy Finn. Prices stretch from an affordable £12.95, for a solitary Christmas pud, all the way to a bonus-sized £5,000, for the Chairman’s Choice hamper.

Bespoke offerings
Even with this type of gift, though, not all customers will have the same preferences. Says Finn: “Some clients want the more stock items that can be shared around the whole office, but others want something quirky and original.” As she explains, from around mid-November, her department can normally only answer requests for the range of ready-made, off-the-shelf gift packs and hampers. But up until then, tailor-made hampers can be as “quirky and original” as the law, decency and space allow.

Finn recalls one Easter promotional gift that consisted of a Bluetooth headpiece inside a chocolate egg. She even had to sign a non-disclosure agreement to make absolutely sure it stayed a surprise. But she says that corporate clients will often wait until the last minute before deciding on the size and cost of an item. That decision seems to be based on fast-evolving business relationships and future prospects, Finn reports.

John Lewis Solutions for Business reports similarly lively interest in bespoke hampers. Last year, says corporate gifts account manager Manoj Jadeja, a single client ordered 6,800 of them.

Tailor-made selections may be the preferred option because the client wants to rule a particular product in or out, or because of religious and ethnic considerations regarding meats and alcohol, for instance. According to Jadeja, there is a growing tendency to want to include durable items such as dishes and bowls, candles and faux-leather goods.

In the case of John Lewis, bespoke hampers cannot be made up after the end of November, says Jadeja, principally because key items for Christmas become difficult to order after that date.

Of the retailer’s ready-made range, Jadeja says: “Last year, our £500 hampers were the first to sell out, so this year we’ve introduced an £800 version.” The same sum will also buy you a triple-vintage selection of Penfolds Australian fine wines.

For the first time, John Lewis is offering a hamper that includes fresh and short shelf-life products, including hams, game pies and fresh cheeses. Since the hamper cannot be stored, it can create particular challenges when it comes to delivery. But again, it provides a new variant on a familiar theme. 

Prize and incentive company Unmissable sees the value of differentiating a traditional item such as a hamper by including one or two unexpected items inside. Alternatively, organic or Fairtrade items can strike a significant note of difference. “How unusual you make it may depend partly on the kind of company you are,” says operations director Libby Christie. “You want to work to your company’s image.”

Cost isn’t everything
Even though fashion can still have the effect of inflating the aspirational or perceived value of the latest destination or gizmo, says Christie, internet access also means that people are more likely to know the real cost. Of course, with many items, including travel, that may not matter. “It’s not necessarily about having a massive budget, but about finding something that people haven’t done before,” she says. “Is it going to be exciting enough to get them there?”

If a round trip to Lapland does not cut the Christmas mustard, skiing in Dubai, a Bondi Beach barbecue or a party in an igloo in France may do the trick, she says. In keeping with the festive spirit, Unmissable can also create “advent calendars” with a different reward or incentive for every day.

When it comes to internal staff incentives, the surprise element in a specific gift or experience may help to maximise impact. But among blue-chip companies, the use of Web-based points systems is becoming more sophisticated, according to performance improvement specialist Grass Roots. The company’s own Options 25 Web platform can be customised and branded to individual corporate clients.

Grass Roots head of marketing communications Nick Wake says: “The strategic use of these accounts is improving steadily with broad-based reward and recognition systems, rather than tactical and purely sales-based offerings.” Naturally, the pre-Christmas period sees a rise in the number of points being redeemed.

The reward portfolios that Grass Roots manages have to keep pace with new launches and shifts in fashion. Broadly speaking, Wake characterises the most popular categories as “gadgets, games and vouchers”. These would include iPods, Nintendo Wii and Playstation 3. Top-rated items can change from one year to the next, he points out, so the fact that digital radios were all the rage in 2006, for instance, does not mean that they will be in demand this year.

AV Promotions, which supplies electrical and electronic gifts and promotions, agrees that the 18- to 35-year old age group is still most likely to be inspired by technology and gadgets. “Technology is moving so fast that, even if individuals received a TV or an iPod last year, that’s not to say they would not still appreciate an upgrade on the same item,” says sales manager Peter Andrews.

Getting personal
As ever, the more an incentive can be tailored to the individual, the better. This personal touch is one reason why AV is so focused on service, says Andrews. “It’s all about how the gift is delivered: the speed, the presentation, gift-wrapping and an element of personalisation such as a letter of appreciation.”

So what about the 35-plus age range? It is becoming increasingly difficult to second-guess the point at which gadgetry becomes less appreciated. After all, the computer games industry would have us believe that its products are now an inter-generational craze. Those allocating incentives may be hard-pressed to decide who on their gift list might prefer the Christmas staples such as fine foods, wines or spirits.

Digital printing techniques such as Variable Data Personalisation mean that items can be easily and cheaply tailored to the individual. Promotions companies such as Peninsular OneSource can transfer digital images onto canvas, for instance, stretched over a wooden frame like a painting. The company is also printing calendars with different images of the recipient each month.

But true appeal to the individual does not have to be that literal. As Unmissable will confirm, the same travel incentive can work well, and for different reasons, for everyone involved. And as Dynamo, now Wax Communications, has demonstrated, a fun and interactive element in an incentive or gift is able to draw in every individual in a unique way.

Spare a thought for Wax, now burdened with the need to refresh its own Christmas tradition with inspiration and novelty on a yearly basis. How will it match its trio of seasonal hits to date? Given the Catalyst connection, will it involve an even more violent chemical reaction? Bates believes another “Grow your own” theme is likely.

Whether for external or internal seasonal incentives, no one is spared the annual balancing act of managing expectations and striking the right balance between consistency and novelty, predictability and surprise.

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