Happy International Talk Like a Pirate Day: Marketers using oddball holidays to drive cultural change

International Talk Like a Pirate Day is September 19. Brands -- and increasingly consumers -- know this.

Happy International Talk Like a Pirate Day, mateys!

According to TalkLikeAPirate.com, Talk Like a Pirate Day has been around since 1995 when two self-described guys, John Baur and Mark Summers, found themselves talking like pirates during a game of racquetball. They decided pirate speak needed its own holiday and Summers’ ex-wife’s birthday was the day to celebrate it. Then, in 2002, this little-known holiday got a shot in the arm thanks to a Dave Barry column in the Miami Herald. Thereafter, TalkLikeAPirate.com says, “Hell broke loose.”

Indeed it did. Since then, pirate-themed brands like Pirate’s Booty, Captain Morgan and Long John Silver’s have jumped on the bandwagon, along with plenty of other enthusiastic albeit unexpected voices, like that of Tidy Cats, which still arguably found a way to insert itself into the conversation with “Time to change the litarrrrrr."

But Talk Like a Pirate Day isn’t a fluke.

National Pi Day

Take March 14, for example.

San Francisco’s Exploratorium, which calls itself a museum of science, art and human perception, said Pi Day – a celebration of the mathematical constant Pi – was started here by physicist Larry Shaw in 1988.

It, too, has not gone unnoticed by brands, particularly those that can make baking and pizza pie puns.

As if that wasn’t enough, the American Pie Council “designated and registered” its own National Pie Day on January 23, but it seems to have embraced March 14 as the more popular alternative.

May the Fourth

Per StarWars.com, May 4 is the worldwide day to say, “May the Force be with you,” and celebrate “the beloved Star Wars story that binds our galaxy together.”

StarWars.com pointed to a half-page ad in the London Evening News in 1979 in which the Conservative party congratulated Margaret Thatcher on becoming the first female prime minister – “May the Fourth Be With You, Maggie” – as one of first references of “May the Fourth…” in popular culture. It has since gained steam thanks to the one-two punch of the Internet and rabid fans.

“While the idea of May the 4th did not start with Lucasfilm, the film company that created Star Wars has fully embraced the spirit of fandom that makes the day so special,” StarWars.com says.

So, too, have brands.

Black Friday

And then of course there’s the retail bonanza — that only sometimes turns deadly — known as Black Friday.

According to History.com, Black Friday’s origins can be traced to Philadelphia in the 1950s. That’s when the city hosted an Army-Navy football game after Thanksgiving and was besieged by shoppers, tourists and shoplifters.

“Sometime in the late 1980s, however, retailers found a way to reinvent Black Friday and turn it into something that reflected positively, rather than negatively, on them and their customers,” History.com said. The result is the event we know today with “black” referring to the day of the year businesses finally turn a profit. It is also popular in the UK, which, notably, does not even celebrate Thanksgiving, and has since spurred additional holidays like Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.

Everyday is something

These are perhaps the best-known examples of new holidays, but they are not alone.

Take IHOP and National Pancake Day, for example.

In fact, every day is something.

And both marketers and social media are to thank/blame.

That’s in part because the former are always looking for excuses to interact with consumers in an increasingly noisy environment and holidays provide precisely that, along with the additional potential to create engaging experiences if they play their cards right.

And this is important because consumers have a lot more control over the messaging they see now because of tools like ad blockers and ad skipping, so brands are increasingly challenged to connect with them in meaningful ways, said Joe Grigsby, managing director at digital marketing agency iCrossing.

That means moments like World Emoji Day, for example, are indicative of a broader conversation among marketers that can’t interrupt consumers and must find ways to integrate themselves into consumers’ lives.

“Where that naturally goes is, ‘What are those moments?’” Grigsby said. “Many moments that already exist are noisy – Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day. So it’s how to lean into something more niche and that’s how you end up with [World] Emoji Day and National Guacamole Day.”

What’s more, to consumers, this isn’t always marketing, but rather an experience, which ups its appeal, Grigsby added.

“With so much advertising being noise, we’re trying to find ways to cut through,” Grigsby said. “It’s probably a gimmick, but, right now, these kinds of holidays are ways to do that.”

Topicality

What’s more, poor CPG brands can have a hard time finding enough material to cover in the content-heavy world we live in.

“It’s one thing if you are Game of Thrones…but if you are Miracle-Gro or toilet paper, there are limited things to talk about, so topicality becomes an important thing,” said Victor Pineiro, senior vice president of social media at digital agency Big Spaceship. “They are taking advantage and finding any excuse to talk about something and then because brands are talking, others do, too, and [these holidays are] becoming semi-legit.”

Occasions

An additional challenge for CPG brands is that consumers don’t generally think about them day to day, Grigsby said. But holidays, no matter what they are, are a reason for consumers to consider a different offering.

“Occasions can drive a shift in awareness, perception and behavior,” Grigsby said. “Maybe you have your go-to cocktail. I’m a gin and tonic guy. And the only time I typically have a different one is Cinco de Mayo or New Year’s, so it’s not surprising online opportunities for [iCrossing client] Beam Suntory are occasion-driven. It’s an opportunity to try something different, but it doesn’t feel like something different – it’s additive.”

Today is…

In addition, Grigsby noted technology like Alexa is helping push awareness of these lesser-known holidays as she greets you with, “Good morning. Today is…,” and tells you whatever oddball holiday it may be.

‘Weirdos, unite’

Per Omid Farhang, chief creative officer at brand experience agency Momentum Worldwide, consumers – specifically those that are particularly passionate about something – are also driving this trend.

“I believe it's a product of the renaissance of tribalism. It's never been easier to create social circles and earn social capital around even the most narrow passion points,” he said. “Feeling a sense of community is now just a click away, whether it's motivated by some irrational love of comic books, or cacti, or butterscotch pudding, or puggles, or crepe suzette, or lucky pennies, or pirate accents or whatever the hell else. Weirdos, unite!”

This, in turn, gives marketers the opportunity to tap into “narrow frequencies of interest where passions burn brightest.”

Further, Farhang said, “the smart brands are the ones trying to achieve intimacy at scale. That means targeting micro-communities and tapping into people's narrow interests.”

Per David Eichler, creative director of Decibel Blue Creative Marketing & PR, consumers with strong brand loyalty like, say, Dunkin’ Donuts fans, will know there's a holiday like National Coffee Day each year, which they will anticipate because they get a discount or freebie. (Note to coffee fans: It just so happens National Coffee Day is coming up on September 29.)

“There is probably also a sense of shared interest/community for those brand enthusiasts standing in line together,” he added.

Farhang agreed, saying this demonstrates a greater trend at play, which is “our unprecedented power to connect like-minded people who may have felt isolated or alone in previous generations.”

“Brands can help proliferate new communities,” he added. “And whether built upon an altruistic cause, an obscure taste or a goofball hobby, a sense of community is fundamental to the human experience. Suddenly National Cinnamon Raisin Bread Day doesn't sound so frivolous, right?”

Causes

And Randy Antin, vice president of marketing at marketing intelligence and analytics firm Jumpshot, pointed to causes like National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and days like Black Friday as spurring “the idea that these days could be designated for other purposes,” which is not unlike viral events like the Ice Bucket Challenge or the 22 Push-Up Challenge.

Any excuse

Stephen Boidock, director of marketing and business development at engagement agency Drumroll, however, said he finds daily holidays annoying as both a marketer and a consumer because so many brands use them as an excuse to interact with consumers.

“I typically judge the strength of a brand’s editorial calendar and strategic ingenuity by looking at how many times they post about these daily holidays,” Boidock said. “The more you mention, the lazier you appear.”

Unless, of course, there’s a legitimate connection as in the case of a burger joint on National Cheeseburger Day, he added.

Cultural change

To be sure, these alleged celebrations can reek of brand desperation and these so-called holidays may soon be forgotten by all but the biggest enthusiasts, but the fact remains that we are collectively anticipating Pi Day, May the Fourth and Black Friday – at least more than we used to. And so brands/marketers may very well have driven some cultural change here.

“It starts almost in some cases as an excuse for something to talk about and the people who get as excited about it as [they do about] Pirate Day, there’s a subculture and movement behind it,” Pineiro said. “It’s becoming this really essential thing for brands that need to talk [to consumers] and then it elevates beyond and [becomes] a part of culture.”

For Grigsby, the reality is marketers will likely oversaturate these opportunities, so they will continue to turn to lesser-known holidays as long as it is effective, but will abandon them thereafter.

And while Pepsi celebrated World Emoji Day this year in light of its Pepsimojis, it’s doubtful Pepsi will be celebrating five years from now. A brand like Avocados from Mexico, however, may celebrate National Guacamole Day for years to come, Grigsby said.

“Once it is oversaturated, it becomes noise,” Grigsby said. “We will find a balance at some point. I don’t know we’re there yet.”

But, overall, Grigsby said anything that forces marketers to identify how they can be closer to and add value to the consumer experience is fundamentally a good thing.

“How do we add value to what behaviors they are already doing – this is part of that same conversation as we try to shift to figure out native advertising or brand experiences or VR,” he said. “It all comes from the same place – we want to be part of the lifestyle and provide better experiences and products to get there and this is just part of that evolution of marketing and means we’re doing better work.”

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