African Christmas

African brands and retailers are missing the Christmas opportunity

A missed opportunity for marketers

Christmas remains a big event in Africa, despite the increasing variety of our religious persuasions. Everyone is up for ‘holiday time’, regardless of the reason. Families gather with even more enthusiasm than usual. Children and old folks expect to be embraced and yes, spoiled a little.

Christmas in Africa is refreshing. There’s little of the jaded cynicism that taints the season in the West, epitomized by Tom Lehrer singing: ‘ Even though the prospect sickens, Brother here we go again.’

Retail Christmas in Africa doesn’t arrive before December, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. January is traditionally a month when families brace themselves for big outgoings like school fees, so we tend to impose a mini Lent on ourselves then.

In African business, by the second week of December most marketers are switching off. The year is done. The budgets for next year are submitted, perhaps even approved. The practice of marketing seems to go into hibernation until late January, by which time the boss is asking what’s going on.

Now this I find odd. The marketing profession is all about forward planning and anticipation. It’s the marketing team who aim to conduct a seamless conversation with the consumer. But here in Africa, many clock off for a month simply because they’re crossing a line in the calendar.

There are exceptions of course. The Coca-Cola team is always flat out over the Yuletide. The brand has been running campaigns with holiday themes since the 1930s.

Indeed Coca-Cola worries about the holiday feeling ending too early. “Our challenge is to keep Christmas going,” said Shay Drohan, senior vice president for sparkling brands at Coca-Cola in the US, so “it goes the whole way through the first week in January” and takes in New Year’s Eve, school holidays and Twelfth Night.

Still in the US, the sluggish 2012 economy is raising the stakes for the Christmas shopping season. Some retailers and marketers, worried that uncertainty among shoppers might increase as the weeks go by, hoped to pull demand forward by moving up the start of their pitches.

For example, Abercrombie & Fitch sent e-mails to customers in October that carried this subject line: “We’re feeling naughty and sneaking Christmas in early!”

“Let’s keep this on the down-low,” the e-mail began. “You can get the hottest new styles to cozy up to the fire and get under the mistletoe now, before they hit stores or our Web site!”

American brands start Christmas early with Black Friday (not to be confused with Black Monday). This is the name given to the day following Thanksgiving in the United States, which marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Black Friday is not an official holiday, but many non-retail employees and schools have both Thanksgiving and the day after off, followed by a weekend, thereby increasing the number of potential shoppers. It has routinely been the busiest shopping day of the year since 2005.The day’s name originated in Philadelphia, where it described the heavy vehicle traffic that would occur on the day after Thanksgiving. More recently an alternative explanation began to be offered: that “Black Friday” indicates the point at which retailers begin to turn a profit, or are “in the black“.

Back to African Christmas, 2012. Again we don’t see much in the way of Christmas offers or promotions this year. That means Marketers are missing a trick.

Regardless of any other circumstance, this is a time for joy. It’s a great time for a brand to participate in the joyful feeling, and even add to it.And when January and February do arrive, brands that have shared the joy will do better when reality kicks back in.

So, marketers, let’s look ahead to the festive season of 2013, and put our thinking caps on. Remember, ‘Carpe diem’ means ‘seize the day’. Not ‘take the day off’.

Happy Christmas. Happy holidays, to you all.

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