Who Are You and Why Do You Want My Candy?

Cultural traditions and celebrations represent a very important opportunity for retailers and overall manufacturers. But in a rapidly changing demographic mix, it is easy to forget that Halloween is a largely American phenomenon and can be off-putting for someone with no cultural context for the holiday. Just what is this day all about?  Is it a celebration of evil? What is acceptable to give these masked children demanding food at your doorstep? Why is the Pentecostal neighbor offering to take my child to a “Hell House”?  And the list goes on.

The tradition of Halloween has now become one of the highest revenue producing traditions in the United States, representing $21 billion dollars each year, with a median of $40 spent per family. This tradition is constantly growing, presenting the opportunity to expand our market share and increase revenue. Just as the rest of the U.S. culture is continuously being exported, so is Halloween. And Halloween is finding traction in Europe, parts of Asia and Latin America. The key is making sure that while a retailer speaks to the representations and myths of a culture already immersed in the shared meaning of the holiday, newcomers are in a position to embrace it as their own. It is about providing people with little or no familiarity with Halloween with the tools to make Halloween meaningful. In order to be able to increase the overall revenue during specific cultural celebrations, it helps to know the origins the transformations these holidays are going through.

In Latin America, returning migrants have taken Halloween to their nations of origin. Their time living in the United States allows for them to develop a variation of their culture, in which neither the traditions of the country of origin nor the traditions of the United States define them. These migrants combine traditions and create their own. The emulation of the Halloween tradition in Latin American countries highly influenced by the United States such as, Nicaragua, Mexico, El Salvador, Panama, etc., allows for U.S. providers to market Halloween products there as well.

For example, The Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos) is a popular tradition in Mexico and parts of Central America, and is rooted on the Aztec tradition of honoring the dead. Aztecs used to honor the dead by talking to the spirits, dancing and celebrating death.  This celebration was dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the “Lady of the Dead.” Spaniards considered the exposure of human remains as a sacrilege and tried to eradicate this tradition. A way of doing so was to coincide the date of the festivity with November 1st All Saints Day. Just as the Celtic celebration of Samhain evolved into Halloween, so did the Day of the Dead transform into something new.

While very different, the important point is that these two cultural traditions have certain similarities in the ways they are celebrated. These similarities, the migration to the United States and the development of a new U.S./Latin culture by 2nd and 3rd migrant generations, are once again transforming Halloween.  So what can you do to grow sales at Halloween?

  • Expand what you offer. This transformation of American culture requires companies to provide sugar and wooden skulls, flowers, portable music players and toys for the children that have passed away alongside pumpkin pies and costumes. This provides a cultural signpost inviting people to explore rather than shy away from the holiday aisle.
  • Use multiple languages in signage.  Using Halloween as a way of signaling inclusion in the larger American society helps build interest and customer loyalty. We frequently take for granted that consumers and shoppers will simply explore a well-dressed store front or aisle, but for many first and second generation consumers culturally-specific events, such as holidays, can signal that they are not welcome. Using multiple languages in signage serves as an invitation to engage with and become part of the general population. That invitation can build loyalty like nothing else.
  • Go beyond orange and black. Most retail displays incorporate colors and sounds that are associated with either the harvest (orange) or death (black) in Western societies. Expanding the color scheme to include colors associated with harvest time, death, and all things scary in other cultural systems helps draw associations with similar holidays in the native culture. For example, white and red are often associated with Día de los Muertos celebrations and will draw people into the aisles to shop.
  • Create “safe” areas of terror. The hormonal reaction we humans get from responding to a threat or crisis is what motivates us to “like to be scared.” This is the same “fight or flight” syndrome which guaranteed our survival in more primitive times. At the moment we are threatened, we have increased strength, power, heightened senses and intuition. The key is to sanitize that fear rather than causing people to run. Without a culturally-centered idea of Halloween, the holiday isn’t a safe type of fear, it’s just plain scary, causing people to avoid the retail environment altogether. Don’t make the most frightening elements of a display the first thing people encounter, rather condition shoppers to the experience by starting with less threatening imagery that becomes scarier as they move deeper into the shopping setting.

Companies and manufacturers can readily learn the type of food, music, clothing, toys, etc., needed to cater to a changing U.S. population. These differences need to be known and addressed in order to effectively increase profits and customer loyalty.

The knowledge and origin of traditions as well as the knowledge and prediction of human behaviors allows marketers to better speak to their market. During a recession the elasticity of products fluctuates, but when purchasing these products is attached to a deep cultural need, the economy will have little or no effect on these products demand. Knowing these cultural and psychological variables allow retailers and marketers to build loyalty and grow their businesses even during tough economic times. When the time comes to celebrate Halloween (or any holiday), it is your brand, your service, or your product that will win out.


Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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