Here comes Krampus

When I told a friend and colleague about Krampus a number of years ago, before the legendary creature had captured the hearts of the world, I received an earful about the damaging nature of such a myth. I learned that Krampus was, it turned out, as bad as violent video games, eating too much salt or drowning kittens. The thing is, I already knew about Krampus. I’d grown up with Krampus (thank you to my grim, German ancestors). And while I’m sure there are people who would dispute it, I turned out reasonably undamaged by the tradition.


For those unfamiliar with the legend, Krampus is a demonic creature recognized in many Alpine countries. Krampus, with his horns and great lolling tongue, accompanies St. Nick during the Christmas season, punishing bad children – but lumps of coal are not part of his repertoire. When the Krampus finds a particularly naughty child, he stuffs the child into his sack and carries the frightened child away to his lair, where he presumably makes the child the centerpiece of his Christmas dinner. Krampus is a representation of the fear of winter. He is a harsh counterpoint to the perfect kindness of Santa. He is, in a sense, an answer to the questions children have about the inexplicable selflessness of a bearded gift-giver they have never met.

But is Krampus really so horrible? Will he really lead our children to lives of sin and an unrelenting fear of the dark? I hardly think so. Yes, Krampus is frightening, but regardless of what we want to believe, children are remarkably adept at distinguishing transitory, entertaining fear from the real thing. Krampus is indeed frightening, but he is also cartoonish. There is increasing data, for example, to support the idea that children are decidedly capable of distinguishing cartoonish violence from the real thing. So too with traditions like Krampus.

On the surface Krampus doesn’t have much to do with marketing. When you take a step back, however, it means that there are opportunities to embrace strategies that speak to the darker side of marketing and s

ets the stage for building brand affinity from Halloween through Christmas. The lines between the holidays are increasingly blurred and simply assuming that one cultural norm fits neatly into a single campaign pillar is a lost opportunity. Holiday shoppers no longer wait until Black Friday or even the month of November to get started. To get ahead of this holiday season, smart businesses must consider their marketing kick-offs much earlier. This makes Halloween an excellent starting point for the holiday season in its entirety, tying the fall-to-winter holiday continuum together. Krampus and similar spooky figures associated with the holiday season are, arguably, a better fit for Halloween, so why not use them as a connecting thread?  Ultimately, this leads to a more cohesive experience.

And that’s what marketing is all about: providing an experience. Why do I put up with getting nauseous riding roller coasters? Because my kids love the experience.  Why do people, young and old, love to watch horror movies?  For the experience of being spooked. Halloween marketing is built around providing some type of experience, but it needn’t begin and end with Halloween. Why not build continuity and extend the brand’s story? A brand story is more than content and a narrative. If you don’t have a story you are just another commodity in a season inundated with messaging. A replaceable cog in the consumption machine. By tying everything together, you capture people’s attention for the entire season, not just fleeting moments.


The Power of Rituals and the Bottom Line

In marketing and design, the tendency for most people given the task of figuring out how to engage more customers is to focus on the individual and his/her reaction and behavior at a fixed point in time. We gauge reactions to advertising, track eye movement for a website or record how many people stop at a display. Rarely do we take the time to understand how a product, service or brand fit into the larger picture of shared human behavior and meaning. Unfortunately, that means we overlook elements in the consumer’s life that have the potential for moving interactions with a brand from a transactional moment to something much more profound and long lasting. One element that is overlooked to our detriment is the nature of ritual and how it can be used to understand the customer. And consequently grow the bottom line.

A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. The term usually refers to actions which are stylized, excluding actions which are arbitrarily chosen by the performers. It may be prescribed by the traditions of a community, be it the larger culture or a subset of it.  And can be as grand as a person’s first Communion ceremony or as simple as the act of brushing our teeth in the morning. But regardless of how profound the act is, a ritual activity is anything but mundane.

From a researcher’s standpoint, ritual behavior can be thought of in a binary way (of course, this is only one way of breaking it down, but being an out-of-the-closet Structuralist my inclination is to construct models this way). On the one hand, ritual is an outsider’s or “etic” category for a set activity or series of actions which to the outsider seems irrational or illogical. On the other hand, the term can be used also by the insider or “emic” performer as an acknowledgement that this activity can be seen as such by the uninitiated onlooker. Understanding both positions, however, is pivotal in uncovering why people do what they do.

A ritual may be performed on specific occasions, or at the discretion of individuals or communities. It may be performed by a single individual, by a group, or by the entire community. It might be performed in arbitrary places, or in places especially reserved for it. It may be public or private. A ritual may be restricted to a certain subset of the community, and may enable or underscore the passage between social states. The purposes of rituals are varied. They are used to strengthen social bonds, provide social and moral education, demonstrate respect or submission, state one’s affiliation, or to obtain social acceptance or approval.  Rituals are used to ensure that certain “necessary” actions take place to keep us safe and happy. Sometimes rituals are performed just for the pleasure of the ritual itself (I’m thinking of my own after-work cocktail).

Alongside the personal dimensions, rituals can have a more basic social function in expressing, fixing and reinforcing the shared values and beliefs of a society or a group.  Rituals aid in creating a sense of group identity. For example, nearly all sports teams have rituals incorporated into their structure, from simple initiation rites when a team is established, to the formalized structure of pre-game pep talks.

At this point I can practically hear someone saying, “Yes, yes, that’s all very interesting but why does it matter to me?” Fair enough. The reason it matters is because rituals are constant – they are acts we perform whether we think about their deeper significances or not. Rituals are actions, they are not something we tend to ponder in great detail. From a marketing or design perspective, that means understanding ritual behavior leads to creating materials that become part of the fixed, long-term pattern of a  person’s life. If done right, your brand or your product becomes part of the ritual, making it that much harder to set aside when a new product or brand comes along.

Add to that the very simple fact that human being are symbolic creatures and ritual is largely a symbolic act. Language, thought and actions are all part of the larger symbolic landscape through which we interpret the world. The instance an object or activity, not to mention a brand, gain symbolic value the more likely they are to become integral to how we interact with the world and become necessary to our lives. The Apple sticker on the back of a person’s car says a great deal about the person – it’s worth noting that we rarely (if ever) see a Microsoft sticker. The brand has gained a symbolic relevance and is as much an element of identity as the clothes we wear for a night on the town.

Finally, understanding ritual allows you to uncover new, analogous areas for growth. A seemingly unrelated ritual or set of ritual behaviors may, in essence, be transferable to a different brand or product category. For example, if you want to understand how hydrating before and after a game can be ritualized, it makes sense to understand how “pre-gaming” takes place when groups of young men prepare for a night of drinking on the town. There are parallels related to shared ideals, male bonding and the establishment of group affiliation. That potentially means new ways of messaging and promotion.

Rituals of various kinds are a feature of almost all known human societies, past or present. They include not only the various forms of religious experience or rites of passage, but also modes of shopping. Many activities that are ostensibly performed for concrete purposes, such as the Black Friday rush to the mall and hitting the car lots the last day of the month, are loaded with purely symbolic actions prescribed by tradition, and thus ritualistic in nature. If you come to understand that, you come to understand new triggers and can develop a long-term relationship with your customer.

Krampus is Coming!

KRAMPUS IS COMING!  Well, Krampus came and went, thankfully overlooking my home this year and saving my children for another Christmas in 364 days. When I told a friend and colleague about Krampus not long ago, I received an earful about the damaging, scaring nature of such a legend. I learned that Krampus was, so it turned out, was as bad as violent video games, eating too much salt or drowning kittens. Ethnocentrism and the need to pass judgment on anything outside our particular cultural milieu seems to be as strong a drive as it has always been.


Krampus, for those unfamiliar with the tradition, is a demonic creature recognized in many of the Alpine countries. According to legend, Krampus accompanies St. Nick during the Christmas season, punishing bad children – but lumps of coal are not part of his repertoire. When the Krampus finds a particularly naughty child, he stuffs the child into his sack and carries the frightened child away to his lair, where he presumably makes the child the centerpiece of his Christmas dinner.

Krampus is represented as a beast like creature, generally demonic in appearance, with sharp horns and a great lolling tongue. The creature has roots in Germanic folklore. During the first week of December, particularly on the evening of 5 December, young men dress in costumes in parts of Austria, Bavaria and Hungary, roaming the streets and frightening children with rusty chains and bells.

But is Krampus really such an appalling figure? Will Krampus really lead our children to lives of murder or blind fear of the dark? I hardly think so. Yes, Krampus is frightening, but regardless of what we want to believe, children are remarkably adept at distinguishing transitory, entertaining fear from the real thing. There is increasing data, for example, to support the idea that children are decidedly capable of distinguishing cartoonish violence from the real thing. Those violent video games are simply not turning kids into sociopaths. Are they reprehensible? Perhaps, but there is no proof correlating video games with increased violence or people becoming desensitized to the suffering of others. So too with traditions like Krampus.

Krampus is a representation of the fear of winter.  He is a harsh counterpoint to the perfect kindness of Santa. He is binary response to the unattainable notion of goodness and love. He is, in a sense, an answer to the questions children have about the inexplicable selflessness of a bearded gift-giver they have never met. Krampus is indeed frightening, but he is also cartoonish and meant to convey something symbolic rather than literal, and children are far more adept and teasing this out than we would like to believe.

So what does this have to do with businesses? Perhaps very little.  On the other hand, it might mean that there are opportunities to embrace strategies that speak to the darker side of winter and the Christmas celebration. Simply assuming that one cultural norm fits all is a lost opportunity.

Shopping the Day After Christmas: Doing More Than Deals

It is the day after Christmas and my initial plans involved spending the day in beat up pants and slippers, indulging in a cigar and diving into my new Steven Pinker book.  Not a bad day.  But the operative word in all of this is “involved” – the past tense.  It turns out that while I will be able to do a bit of this, shopping is also on the agenda.  And I am far from alone. Between gift exchanges, product returns and shoppers (members of my immediate family included) eager to redeem gift cards, the day after Christmas has become a very busy day for retailers.

Last year, the day after Christmas obviously fell on a Sunday.  While blue laws are largely a thing of the past, there are still parts of the country where stores don’t open or have limited hours on Sunday.  Add to that the fact that Sunday is traditionally a day for family time for a large portion of the population, and the limitations to draw people into a store become clear. But retailers are under no such constraints this year. At the same time, many people still have the day after Christmas off from work. This adds up to making a prime shopping day.

In a survey released recently by American Express, 57% of Americans said they planned on shopping on December 26. That’s a 14% jump over last year.  Of those surveyed, more than 1 in 5 said  they’ll be cashing in gift cards, while 36% will be buying gifts for themselves. This is hardly surprising when you consider that the gift card has become a pivotal element in most of our last-minute shopping agendas (I myself picked up several when I ran into the wall of shopping fatigue).  And while I am predisposed to think of gift cards as a clear indication of a lack of imagination, this is my own bias and one that hardly applies to the rest of the world.  So, armed with cards, people are ready to break free from the confines of their homes and buy those things they really want in lieu of that reindeer sweater they received.

Granted, part of the post-Christmas shopping is a byproduct of the economy. Millions of Americans decided to delay some of their Christmas spending this year because of a lack of money or uncertainty about the economy in the new year. Some have postponed gift exchanges while others just wanted to wait to take advantage of the huge discounts widely available in the days and weeks after Christmas. Everyone, after all, loves a good deal.  But the deal is only part the attraction.

The day after Christmas has become a day for many people to break out of the confines of a house swimming in scattered toys, torn wrapping paper and a seemingly endless river of leftover ham. For example, it is a major day for theaters, as people swarm the local Cineplex. There is a significant spike in restaurant sales as people look for a healthier alternative to mashed potatoes and less dehydrating experience than the afore mentioned ham. So, yes, people are looking for those things they didn’t find under the tree, but they are also looking for entertainment, release from normative family obligations and a bit of indulgence.

And this is where the brick and mortar shopping experience becomes just that, an experience. No doubt, big box stores will see a spike in sales as people look for those deals, but the same will hold true for retailers that offer a bit more. Locations with a café or shopping-focused entertainment (e.g. personalized augmented reality applications for that new Christmas iPad) will keep people in the store longer and sell more products. Manufacturers that partner with retailers to place merchandise in areas of the store where they will be “found” by people looking to outdo the rest of the mobs with their shopping prowess will sell more of their goods – shoppers see themselves as skilled hunters and foragers, so to speak, improving their moods by making them feel superior. Retailers that make people feel good about the shopping experience help combat the fears people have about the economy after such an extended period of uncertainty.

The point is simple.  We know shopping will be big today. As such, it makes sense to think about how best to capitalize on that behavior.  Sales are a driver, perhaps THE driver, but the fiscal benefits are not enough.  There is more to shopping than getting your stuff. If you have a strategy that speaks to the deeper cultural patterns and psychological need as of shoppers, the better you’ll do and the more you’ll make.


Getting the 7% Retail Sales Bump

I heard an interesting statistic the other day from a retail expert, while driving to a Barnes and Noble to pick up a birthday gift for a friend.  Admittedly, he was quoting statistics right and left, as experts are wont to do, but this one struck me as particularly interesting, not for the number itself but for how it is being interpreted.  Specifically, the statistic was that slowing down a shopper in the store increases sales by 7%.  I have long argued that being overly efficient can indeed cause more harm than good in the store, so I wasn’t surprised to hear the 7% figure.  What struck me was the fact that it was being presented as a magic bullet that required neither an understanding of the relationship between shopper and retail brand, nor the context around why we shop.  The overarching recommendation was simple: slow the shopper down regardless of your brand, why they are there from a sociocultural position, or how they use your retail space.  One size fits all.

The problem is that a one size fits all approach won’t work. Again, I support the notion that slowing people down increases sales, at least in principle, but if the tools used to slow down the shopping process do not meet expectations of the brand or the psychological and cultural reasons for shopping, then they simply become irritants.

My Barnes and Noble experience serves as an example.  The layout of the store has changed since the local, privately-owned bookstore and Borders went out of business.  More precisely, the store now carries far fewer books, has two toy sections and has islands throughout the store meant to catch the eye (and hand) of the passerby by.  And yes, it does slow you down.  But does it get the shopper to spend?  Perhaps for some, but it doesn’t always work – indeed, it may not work very often once the holiday shopping season ends.  Why?  Because while the shopping practices around Christmas certainly have people primed to stop and engage with all manner of display, this may not be true the rest of the year, at least not at this particular retailer.  Slowing the shopper down with items and displays that are out of context serve only as annoyances.  Slowing people down, on the other hand, with spaces where they are encouraged to read or uses imagery that conveys the symbolic associations with the kinds of libraries one finds on an estate, amplify the context of the bookstore and slow down the shopper with relevant messaging, subconscious though it may be.  The bump in sales doesn’t come from the slowing of the customer in and of itself.  The bump comes from designing an experience that is tied to the shared condition or the retail space and underlying shopper needs, both functional and symbolic.

The retail space is an extension of the brand, not simply a place to display merchandise. As brands becomes more focused on shopper marketing, the retail space becomes increasingly relevant in how we think about marketing and design. This means that in addition to the consideration put into the initial design of the space, retailers have to think about the space as a destination, a place of pilgrimage.

Atmospherics has dominated much of the conversation around retail store design for the last decade. Approach and avoidance theory has focused on psycho-evolutionary principles. Specifically, Mehrabian and Russell propose that individuals’ reactions to environments are categorized as either approach or avoidance behaviors, which include four basic dimensions:

  1. A desire to remain physically (approach) or to leave  (avoid) the environment
  2. A desire to explore (approach) the environment as opposed to a tendency to remain inanimate in (avoid) the environment
  3. A desire to communicate with (approach) others in the environment versus a tendency to avoid interacting with others
  4. Enhancement (approach) of performance and satisfaction of task performances or hindrance (avoidance) of task performances

Environmental psychologists assume that individuals’ feelings and emotions ultimately determine their behavior. The problem is that people rarely shop as individuals, even if they are alone.  On the surface that may sound confusing, but the point is simple. Human beings are cultural creatures, shaped by shared experience and the unavoidable truth that we are part of a complex system of beliefs and interactions. Atmospherics addresses only the cognitive side of the shopper journey, letting the more powerful cultural drivers fall out of the equation.  An anthropologically informed model adds them back in. And without those cultural and symbolic elements, slowing shoppers down will not increase sales, it will simply slow them down.