Shopping is fun. The holidays are fun. Giving and receiving gifts are great. Getting a good deal on something you’re going to buy is even nicer. From a consumer perspective, brands tripping over themselves to give you the best deal means that a day like Black Friday is a great time to buy.

But Black Friday has become a scourge for brands because it is nothing less than a race to the bottom that conditions consumers to not pay full price for your products.

I’m not going to go in to the whole “we consume too much shit” and the holidays have just become commercialized to the point that all people remember are the gifts they receive and so there is huge pressure on everyone to one-up themselves and others from previous years. All of those arguments are legitimate and it would make a lot of sense for the world, the environment, and society at large to dial back the expectations so that people can focus less on material items and more on taking time to love each other. That’s not my focus here.

Brands are cannabilizing their profit margins in a misguided attempt to gain holiday dollars. Here are some facts:

Fact: people spend money during the holidays

Fact: people love the brands they love

Fact: people will buy gifts for others regardless of the price tag

Fact: receiving a deal does not necessarily mean that people will buy more of your products

So why on planet Earth are brands offering site- and store-wide deals across all of their products?

The easy answer is of course that people are attracted to deals. Everyone loves to point out that they found something “for 25% off!” To some, the barrier of the price can be removed by dropping prices. That could incite people to buy things that they would normally not buy. If the objective then of a brand reducing their prices is to enlarge the potential audience of purchasers, providing a deal can do that.

There is just one problem with that logic: those people will only ever buy your products at a discount. They will never value your products at the price point that you want. Is that the customer you really want to be attracting?

Brands are at the mercy of retailers, of course, who need to get people in the door or to their website. Retailers can offer deep discounts on certain brands and then hope to make that up with the volume of sales and incremental purchases along the way. This puts an added pressure on DTC brands that are operating their own websites to match deals or else lose out on sales. Thus the race to the bottom.

We haven’t even touched on things like brand equity. For me, brands that offer discounts on their products in exchange for nothing in return are degrading their positioning and hard-fought brand perception. I am fully supportive of offering discounts in exchange for signing up to a newsletter, and I am especially enthousiatic about loyalty programs that provide services and rewards for each additional purchase. I think that adding exclusive gifts with purchase can be very effective to get people off the couch and into a store. Blanket discounts for no other reason than that everyone else is doing it erodes respect for a brand. Brands that work so hard to be unique lose that positioning behind their assets of “20% off” that absolutely everyone uses. You can make Friday great again, green, pink or whatever, but participating in Black Friday shows that your brand is more of a trend follower than a trend leader.

What should brands do to protect themselves?

Brands offering site-wide discounts is not a good practice. Sure you might see a peak in sales but what about the ROI? Not ROAS but real ROI? Those discounts come out of profit margins and attract customers that will likely not become loyal to the brand. There are a few things though that brands can do in order to take advantage of the sales uptick during Black Friday without prostituting themselves and degrading the brand positionning.

Segment your products

You will lose the price battle to retailers, and you will miss out on some sales, but if you elect to try and compete on Black Friday you should divide your products in two ways. First, look at what excess stock you have at the end of the year. This is what retailers do. Offer steep deals on those products to clear out warehouse space on products on which you’ve already recovered your ROI.

Then, divide your products into entry-level and premium categories. Entry-level products can be discounted to attract new customers while the premium products should stay at their regular price. Do not sacrifice the value proposition of your key products. Instead let deal-seekers get a peek at your brand. If they like the products enough they will graduate up and you won’t be beholden to reducing prices in order to generate sales.

Just saying get 25% off everything is as lazy as it is dangerous.

Limit your discount messaging

Nothing drives people to click or walk in a store like the words “free” and “new.” “50% off” works pretty well too. Do not fall into the trap. Promotional assets like these are identical to every other brand that’s trying to take advantage of Black Friday, from makers of bulk socks to premium lifestyle brands. No one is going to notice the attention to detail in your ads (particularly on social media). Scrolling through my feed right now, all I see are discounts and I am hard-pressed to tell the difference between any of them.

Instead, a brand should keep the focus on it’s products and entice people to click with gifting messaging. “Come see what we have for you today” is a cryptic message that will get clicks without degrading the brand with promotions. “Members get a great Black Friday deal” allows you to guard discounts behind data collection in order to get something in exchange. In no way will these assets be as performant as ones shouting about a huge discount, but I’ll take real brand love over clicks every Friday of the year, Black or not.

Don’t participate in Black Friday at all

I’ve always advised the brands that I work for to skip Black Friday entirely. The holidays is a marathon, not a sprint, and brand building is the equivalent of running around the world for years. Short term sales boosting can have negative long term effects. Look at the top brands of the world like Apple or Chanel. Do they offer discounts on Black Friday?

As a marketer, I have a responsibility to protect the brands that I work for. The business people have other objectives, and in most cases my opinion has been discarded as being unrealistic. But I do dream of a day when I’m not asked about my Black Friday strategy and instead am free to find legitimate opportunities to acquire new customers in ways that respect the brand.


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