Drowning in a pink tsunami: Brands and the death of romance on Valentine’s Day

With 2015 put firmly to pasture, the first key 'marketing event' of the year (at least here in the UK) is around the corner.

Valentine’s Day fills a late-winter vacuum in the social and retail calendar – a beacon in the dark period between new year and the Easter holidays. No longer contained to a few Forever Friends plushies in Clinton Cards, almost every high street chain will be getting on the love train – none more so than the big grocers. A sea of pink greets shoppers, playing up to every 'romantic' paradigm – chocolates, balloons, cards; whatever appears to be the most common way to participate in a new social norm.

For brands in this environment, it seems too easy to forget a key rule of shopper success: disrupt. By creating products and promotions that fit into the Valentine’s mosaic, they disappear on shelf and elsewhere. Drowned in the pink tsunami. What might have seemed like a great idea when plotted on a year plan and compared to your own activity, once on shelf, it’s clear that differentiation is gone.

A second, and maybe more critical question is why do all these brands and retailers behave so similarly? There is an argument that you need to help shoppers make decisions quickly; being clearly and unquestionably for the purpose stated; getting people to grab and move on with little deep engagement. And for the everyday, habitual purchase this is absolutely a fundamental. But key events are exactly that, a special occasion, and a great opportunity to change otherwise automatic behaviour.

Perhaps the issue is that brands don't know how to approach Valentine’s without resorting to cliché? What is the pink balloon for the Instagram-following, Vice-reading, Tinder-dating generation? The potential to unlock this at Valentine’s, and indeed every one of the major marketing events, is enormous. This week, a wit put some fake shelf comms into a Tesco next to some suggestively-shaped veg, baby oil and squirty cream and social media loved it. And even if some marketing talking-heads may have dismissed House of Fraser's unshackled (unhinged?) emoji-thon, it's the first time for a long time that brand has been talked about.

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Being contextual is essential for modern brands to connect. The 'Oreo moment' remains the benchmark for all social media managers, and they would have been twitching like a sprinter in the blocks during this weekend's Super Bowl, searching for this year’s unforeseen left shark/lights out/free nipple talking point. As Beyoncé nearly slipped over during halftime, you could hear the collective disappointment of social pun-writers as she regained her balance.

In physical channels, stores, product and tangible touch points, contextual cannot be reactive – it has to be planned. But it can be equally powerful if done well. And this means properly understanding the cultural space in which your brand sits, and the role it can play in relation to that calendar event. Durex finds this easy for Valentine’s, but it's interesting to see Marmite leveraging its 'love' positioning with personalised packs.

As we go through the year, look out for campaigns that have made the leap from cliché to culture. They will be the ones with brand love and a deep and meaningful relationship with their shoppers, even when it's not Valentine’s.

Rob Sellers is managing director at Grey Shopper London

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