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.


As Halloween Approaches (Even in September)

Halloween is more than two months away, but already I’ve seen products and displays going up in a few places. For better or worse, the holidays creep further and further out from their actual date as retailers see opportunities to sell their goods. And to add to the impending spookiness that awaits us, I spent part of my Friday night watching a scary movie with my children, fully aware that it would necessitate cramming four people into a single bed, somewhere around midnight – I was, of course, proven right.  All of this has me reflecting on the socio-cultural significances of Halloween as a reflection of cultural transformation, even if it is a single night. Yes, even the simplest things start the mind wandering.

A few years back, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State’s Delaware County Campus, noted that parents need to realize that scaring our kids isn’t necessarily a way to mitigate kids’ fears of death and other things frightening.  Rightfully, she contended that Halloween is a time when we expose kids to behavior that is not the norm and that children connect the holiday with death.  The argument goes that we, regardless of who “We” are, typically distance ourselves from death and shield children from it, but in this case, young children encounter their fears when they face decorations of skeletons and tombstones. This can be scarring. This, of course, is bad.  Or is it?  Is it even accurate?

First, we expose our children to death regularly.  What we shield our kids from is pollution associated with decay.  In the case of Halloween, we are presenting our children with a sanitized, safe form of death that has none of the associations with contamination.  Second, children are exposed to death when they play video games, tune in to the TV or deal with the loss of a grandparent.  We may try to lessen the pain or deflect the underlying causality, but death itself is indeed part of a child’s upbringing, though it may not be as overt as it is at Halloween.  I will concede that we expose our children to death less than we perhaps did in the past, when people worked the farm together and were accustomed to things like slaughter, but to assume children are shielded from death is fantasy. We’ve simply changed the medium.

And should we even be shielding kids in the first place?  We often work under the assumption that it is somehow our duty as parents to protect children from any and all discomfort, but there is nothing out there to prove that doing so benefits the child. Fear teaches, particularly when it is safe.  Discomfort teaches, particularly when it isn’t overwhelming.  Children are, I would contend, smarter than we often think.  To assume they can’t make the leap between the literal and the symbolic is a bit obtuse.  While Halloween teaches children about death, it also teaches them about the nature of symbolism, rules of reciprocity, a sense of self-reliance, creativity and a host of other positive elements of personhood.

As my oldest daughter walked from house to house last Halloween with her friend from Egypt, getting treats from homes comprised of people from a wide range of nations (our neighborhood happens to have large south Asian and Middle Eastern populations) it struck me how important this holiday is, because it is so public and because it is wrapped up in a universal need to deflect the fear of death.  It is a holiday that encourages parents and kids of other cultures to join in the fun and feel like they are welcome and integral parts of the adopted culture.  It exposes the children and parents of the adoptive culture to people and worldviews they may not have otherwise interacted with.  The experience can be thought of as enculturation, the process by which a person learns the requirements of the culture by which he or she is surrounded, and acquiring values and behaviors that are appropriate or necessary in that culture.  This has often been conceived to be a unidimensional, zero-sum cultural conflict in which the minority’s culture is diminished by the dominant group’s culture, but it’s not that simple.  There is an exchange of sorts going on. There are a couple of ways a person learns a culture. Direct teaching of a culture is what happens when you don’t pay attention, mostly by the parents, when a person is told to do something because it is right and to not do something because it is bad. For example, when children ask for something, they are constantly asked “What do you say?” and the child is expected to remember to say “please.” A second conscious way a person learns a culture is to watch others around them and to emulate their behavior. But in doing so, they often alter elements of it and reshape the culture – culture isn’t fixed, after all, it is a matter of practice, negation and shared invention.

What this means is that Halloween becomes a way of learning and exchanging.  Day of the Dead decorations find new uses, costumes come to reflect the sensibilities of the minority population and new ways of defining and interacting with the world emerge.  And there are very real, very meaningful results.  Businesses alter their merchandise, retailers decorate differently and new modes of shopping arise.  People develop new interests and curiosity about their world.  So, yes, Halloween may indeed scare the children, but the benefits of being scared outweigh a night of belly aches and spooky dreams.

It’s Never Too Early to Think About Holidays

The seasonal nature of shopping always presents a multitude of problem for retailers.  The back-to-school season, not to mention the fall and winter holidays, are still months away but for businesses planning what to stock, how to display it and how to get shoppers engaged it’s just around the corner. People are looking for ways to save money, but it is important to remember that people see seasonal shopping as more than simply buying goods.  Like all shopping, it is wrapped up in cultural and behavioral practices that represent a host of emotions and beliefs. If money and savings were the only issue, people would buy exclusively from warehouses or they would buy online.  Part of your value lies in the cost of your products, but much of your perceived value lies in the intangible.  And since seasonal shopping is usually more hectic, both at the store and in our daily lives, success means rising above the fray of your competitors shouting about how inexpensive their items are.  Following suit will only add to the noise shoppers are struggling with and do nothing to differentiate your brand.

  • Be bold: When times are tough the natural inclination is to play it safe, but this is a mistake. Take advantage of the fact that many of your competitors will be avoiding spending on advertising and marketing, or taking a “safe” approach in what they do. Don’t focus exclusively on value and savings, but remind people that holidays and seasonal practices are symbolically charged and need to remain so. People  need to be reminded that it is OK to enjoy the season. The point is that people need to feel a sense of catharsis and release, not mediocrity.
  • An image is word a hundred words:  Don’t overwhelm people with too much text in your print ads, focusing on imagery that celebrates notions of kinship, home and well being. Even if the copy in your marketing campaign is focused on value and savings, remember that text needs compelling images.  The images should use rich, warm colors rather than vibrant colors.  This suggests comfort and stability, associating your brand with a sense of tranquility. Include images that reflect hints of nostalgic and the home, such as meals, gatherings of friends and pets.
  • Indulge a little: Little luxuries are important when people are worried about the economy.  You are selling an experience, not just products.  Let people know going to the store is about more than the transaction.  Remember, getting them in the store is half the battle.  It’s OK to push big-ticket items, but pushing little luxuries will be more likely to get people in the door than telling them large-ticket items are on sale.  Once people enter a space they trust and enjoy, they are significantly more likely to move from small indulgences to big-ticket items.
  • Family values: Holidays and seasonal events (like going back to school) are a teaching moment in any economic climate, but even more so when times are tough.  Take advantage of this and be a partner to parents.  This establishes brand loyalty, increases the desire to buy from your store and turns you into something more profound and more intimate than a merchant. Stress your in-store events and partner with the stores around you that sell comfort items like hot chocolate, coffee and food. The point is to remind shoppers that your store is made up of people just like them, with the same concerns and same values.
  • More than the money: Remind potential shoppers that gift buying isn’t just saving money, it’s about feeling good in an environment even if you don’t spend a lot.  Everyone is talking about savings and stressing that means seeing your message lost in all the noise.  Stress why savings matter and provide incentives that go beyond issues of money.  After all, it’s better that they spend $20 than nothing at all. Offer more than free gift wrapping, offer people food, warm drinks, and a sense that your business is a place where the meaning of value goes beyond the pocketbook. In other words, messaging should welcome people into your “home.”
  • Traditions: People look to tradition and romanticize the past when times are hard, so use language and images that are tied to celebrating the past.  These symbols represent “simpler times” and provide symbolic associations with peace, stability and tranquility.  The last thing people want is to be reminded of the current state of affairs and an unsure future.  Be willing to use the actual names of the holidays you are promoting (not just the generic term “the holidays”) and imagery that speaks to maintaining tradition.