From Black Friday and Cyber Monday to the January sales, the near relentless pace of discount culture is piling increasing pressure on brands and retailers to slash prices in a bid to stay ahead.
Some brands, however, are viewing these high profile discount events as an opportunity to reaffirm their identity, putting a spin on the trend in order to tell stronger stories.
Take Jigsaw. The fashion retailer not only shunned Black Friday but used it as an opportunity to reclaim the day with its #OurFriday campaign. Jigsaw shared images on Twitter and Instagram reinforcing the hashtag and highlighting the plight of workers during Black Friday. Images featured taglines reading ‘someone, somewhere will be getting a raw deal’ and ‘today we step out of Black Friday and into the light’.
A year ago the fashion retailer unveiled its price manifesto, coupled with its ‘reduced by nothing, standing for something’ positioning. The manifesto invited consumers inside the design process, to showcase fabric selection and pattern making at its London design studio. This behind-the-scenes detail explained the rationale behind why the retailer chooses to run just two end-of-season sales a year.
A lot of retailers make compromises on Black Friday, which is deceptive to the consumer.
Jessica Franklin, Jigsaw
The very fact Jigsaw does not run promotions or discounts outside the traditional summer and Christmas sale periods gives the brand a natural point of difference, explains brand marketing manager Jessica Franklin.
“We’re lucky at Jigsaw; the inspiration behind our collections and the suppliers we work with give a provenance and validity to our stories. It also means that when we do enter one of our end-of-season sales, the messaging has a bigger impact.
“A lot of retailers make compromises on Black Friday, which is deceptive to the consumer. We actively don’t want to be a part of that deception so it didn’t seem right to just sit back and say nothing.”
The level of positive feedback to the release of last year’s price manifesto prompted Jigsaw to use Black Friday 2016 to showcase the people behind the products. Franklin believes brands that build the strongest personalities gain the most loyal fans, which in turn makes them most resilient to tougher trading periods.
“In a world where discounting is becoming more and more frequent, it steals all the headlines,” says Franklin. “Certain brands will struggle to be seen as anything other than discounters, which will make telling any sort of brand story secondary messaging for them and a much harder challenge.”
Jigsaw believes opinion has shifted to the point that consumers want to know the story behind their purchase, from where their jumper is made to the yarn used to knit it.
“They buy it because they love it, not because it’s going cheap,” Franklin adds.
This opinion is shared by Anika Islam, founder of premium denim brand Wåven, who argues that having a great brand story is the only way to differentiate yourself, especially as an emerging label.
“I think storytelling and story doing are more important than ever. The market is so saturated and competition is high. So it’s about defining an ambition that is greater than commercial aspiration,” says Islam.
“We feel it is very important to stay true to our brand image and story. We incorporate new trends each season, but we always come back to the Wåven story and what we stand for.”
While the brand story is what most attracts consumers, Islam appreciates that having an affordable offering is crucial too. Wåven maintains a full price strategy throughout the season, until a select sales period.
“We try to pursue our own strategy to avoid becoming a discount brand all year round, which can be very damaging for any new business,” Islam explains.
“It’s important to stick to an honest price point to show your customer full transparency. Even though we are affordable, we’re still providing good quality denim and we want our customers to realise this.”
The loyalty of the Wåven customer base and increase in repeat purchases encourages Islam there is real demand for premium product, regardless of the discounts.
Showing your social purpose
A number of brands are leading a backlash against the voracious consumerism driven by Black Friday and Cyber Monday, using these discounting events as an opportunity to talk about their social purpose.
Fashion retailer Fat Face donated over £100,000 of its Black Friday profits to charity, while in the US ethical fashion leader Patagonia gave every dollar made on the day – totalling $10m (£8m) – to grassroots environmental groups.
Despite having four stores in the US, where Black Friday was born, Fat Face has never participated in the discounting, preferring instead to do something different and focus on its charity work instead.
CEO Anthony Thompson believes retailers should take a long view and channel their energy into creating loyalty and brand advocacy, rather than discounts. “I have always maintained that the pricing and promotional decisions you take this year are as impactful on the following year as they are in the moment.
“And over time it has a corrosive impact on brand integrity. Customers have long memories and once you start taking the discounting drug, you will find that you need a stronger dose, with a deeper markdown each time you discount, just to stand still.”
Cosmetics retailer Lush used Black Friday 2016 to shine a light on the global issue of government-backed internet shutdowns, in support of digital rights organisation Access Now’s #KeepItOn campaign.
“At Lush we don’t do Black Friday,” explains global brand team member Alessandro Commisso. “We did choose to support Access Now with their #KeepItOn campaign and Black Friday happened to be the perfect opportunity get the message across in the most powerful way.”
Lush encouraged consumers to sign a petition urging the UN Internet Governance Forum to discuss the future of the open internet at its meeting on 7 December. The cosmetics retailer also put all sales of its limited edition Error 404 bath bomb into the Lush Digital Fund, which invests in grassroots charities protecting the open source community, ethical hardware and the responsible use of data.
“This campaign and the £250,000 that will be going into the Digital Fund through the sale of the Error 404 bath bomb are just the beginning of Lush’s efforts in the area,” explains Adam Goswell, who works in global user experience and digital design at Lush.
“For us it’s not really about tying in with a specific event, quite the opposite. We are very reactive; if an issue comes up and we think we can make a difference we will just run with it.”
Lush maintains a full price strategy and only discounts after Christmas, less in an effort to push sales and more to keep stock as fresh as possible. This story resonates with consumers, as does the retailer’s focus on manufacturing with ethically sourced ingredients.
“If there’s nothing to hide, being honest with your customers and telling them the real stories shouldn’t be hard,” says Commisso.
“But brand storytelling is only as good as your stories. We’re lucky enough to have a lot of stories to tell and an engaged community that wants to know more.”
The lifestyle antidote
Creating satisfying lifestyle experiences is another way to offer an antidote to discount culture.
Having committed to offering good prices all year round, furniture retailer Made.com does not participate in the Black Friday discounts. This year the sales period did, however, coincide with the launch of Made Presents, an experiential pop-up space offering masterclasses in whiskey, chocolate tasting and gin mixology.
The better the experience you give, the more loyal consumers are going to be.
Annabel Kilner, Made.com
Running from 25 November to 4 December, the pop-up space in East London’s Shoreditch was filled with Made furniture, which gave consumers the chance to try the product at the same time as experiencing a range of events and classes.
“What we love about Made Presents is that it coincided with Black Friday and that it is the opposite of what the Black Friday promotional period is about,” explains Made co-founder Annabel Kilner.
“We were extending that storytelling experience. It’s purely about customers enjoying themselves or learning in a relaxed environment, so for us it’s all around creating lifestyle experiences.”
With 50 new products released each week Made has a wealth of design content to share and while Kilner believes the storytelling process is not becoming harder, getting cut through can be trickier to achieve. For this reason the brand story has to be consistent with the overall experience.
“Customers today have so much choice, so the brands who are really going to win are the ones they fall in love with and the better the experience you can give, the more loyal consumers are going to be,” says Kilner.
“Storytelling is really about creating that brand love and trying to get across a story people are going to care about and buy into. If you don’t have that you just become another commodity.”
Keep the conversation going
For brands to embrace discounting without losing their identity it is essential to retain the storytelling element in every execution. For fast fashion retailer New Look this means weaving the brand story into all activity, especially during busy trading periods, explains group marketing manager Georgina Whalley.
“You can’t just communicate your brand through advertising and promotions, it is about how you act as a business and interact with your customers.
“We put our customers at the heart of everything we do. While customers are always looking for value for money, they are also looking for confident and engaging brands who can connect with them across their different platforms, so our social channels are key in communicating our brand,” she adds.
To stand out during the fiercely competitive Christmas period New Look took its #AngelsxRobots festive campaign on and offline, combining a special Snapchat lens so customers could personalise the campaign with a Twitter takeover and large-scale out-of-home activity.
“Newness and innovation is central to the New Look brand. We show this through our campaigns like #AngelsxRobots, but also by anticipating and reacting quickly to the latest trends, updating our collections with 800 new products online every week and introducing new ranges such as beauty or menswear activewear,” Whalley adds.
When it comes to negotiating storytelling and discounts, Swedish fashion retailer Cheap Monday attempts to strike the right balance between what is interesting for consumers in relation to the offers currently available, explains marketing director Nadia Kokni.
“Brand storytelling is the most important thing. It is our way to speak and engage with our consumers. We work on that all year long, in all activities we do. For our discounts or sales we use the same tone of voice, adapting it to the offer.”
Relevancy across all channels is the key to effective storytelling, Kokni adds, arguing that by controlling the story in-house it is possible to maintain brand identity while still engaging in discount culture.
From fashion to furniture, brands are proving that storytelling and discount culture are not mutually exclusive. From reclaiming days like Black Friday to tell a social purpose story to putting a unique spin on the sales, retailers can make the discount age work for them as long as the strategy is strongly aligned to their brand identity.