Choosing the Brand over the Sale

By Taylor Engstrom in
Published or Modified on
December 1, 2016

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This year I was going to win Black Friday.

As offline retail and eCommerce have become irreversibly intertwined, Black Friday has taken a new form. To me, Black Friday means two things. As a digital marketer, it means an opportunity to learn acquisition tactics and branding strategies from the best of the best. As a yuppie consumer it means deals, deals, deals.

Without a doubt, Black Friday is the Super Bowl of digital marketing and eCommerce. And just like the Super Bowl, Black Friday has become a whole week of programming, starting as early as the Monday before Thanksgiving to, what seems like an outdated term now, the following “Cyber Monday”.

For a week straight we are flooded with promotional emails, “doorbuster deal” emails, inventory restock emails, and my favorite — countdown emails. Our social feeds are chocked full of ads from brands we already follow displaying products we already decided we weren’t gonna buy — or worse still — already have bought. Our go-to news aggregator and blogger sites, in true can-this-get-worse fashion now run whole stories detailing the best remaining deals.

But I’m not complaining. In fact, I ran towards the gold rush that has become “Black Week”. The week before Thanksgiving I crawled websites, followed on Instagram and subscribed to every mailing list from every brand I’ve ever considered buying a product from. From apparel to footwear to even luggage— I wanted a steal.

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving I was ready. That same day a sale went live. By Wednesday morning I began to see percentages off in subject lines. By Thanksgiving afternoon it was exclamation points and all-capital letters. And as expected, from Thanksgiving eve through Friday morning, it turned up to 11.

Besides the countdown emails (“HOURS LEFT!”) my favorite came from Lucky Brand — perfectly timed at 2:05 a.m. the morning of Black Friday.

This direct — intimate, really — communication was hyper focused on that shopper who was already up and ready to shop. The very idea of being cognizant of those deals was weaved into the personification of Lucky Brand (“Rebels don’t sleep”)

But besides LB, few emails and advertisements stood out. Savings and “missing out” themes are tried and true, and brands weren’t gonna miss out. Occasionally product specific and reengagement campaigns were leveraged. But all in all, nothing groundbreaking; nothing new.

I was disappointed. That is, until I opened a note from Away Luggage.

There, almost hidden in the body of the email, was something new. Instead of deal-mongering, Away had opted for brand equity. For brand-building. The fledging luggage startup had taken this deal-storm climate as an opportunity to state who they were as a brand.

By rebuking the model of Black Week, they stood out. They reminded customers who they were as a brand and in turn, reminded their email subscribers who they were as customers. They wanted those customers to be loyal year round yes, but they also wanted their customers to be the kind of people who didn’t stay up all night for a deal — or drop everything for a sale. They wanted customers who understood the value of being consistent with both high quality and fair pricing.

It’s easy for brands to take a vacation or mute their message when the potential for sales is so high. It’s easy to follow the crowd during such a season defining selling period.

But it’s much more impactful to take a stance and protect what is most critical in a crowded and copycat retail and eCommerce marketplace— the brand you’ve built.

Away wasn’t — and isn’t — the only brand opting for honesty and going against the grain. REI’s #OptOutside campaign, dubbed by Ad Age as “a future model for marketing”, takes brand equity even further by inspiring action. We’re not just gonna be closed on Black Friday, the REI brand declared, we’re encouraging you to do what it is you love most — go outside. eCommerce darling Everlane has embraced “radical transparency” as their brand rallying cry. They price entirely on a per cost basis, breaking them down line by line for their customers and potential customers. Traditional smoke and mirrors of advertising and marketing be damned — the new brand is up front and authentic.

In the age of hyper-personalization, hashtag-monitoring, cart abandonment, and more, the new trailblazers seem to be reading from a different script. These new brands, regardless of their tech stack or channel strategy, are taking every opportunity to circle back to their brand. In the new age of marketing, it is the old age of the Brand that is gaining favor over the Sale — online and off.

PS: I didn’t win Black Friday. I caved on two items a topcoat and bluetooth earbuds. Emails did not spur my purchases. The Away Carry-On is on my christmas list…

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