Black Friday should not be a black and white choice between promotion and purpose

Black Friday is now an established event in the retail calendar. In 2017, Mintel estimated UK shoppers spent £4.2bn during Black Friday week (yes – no longer just a day – now a week or more), 13% up from 2016. Unsurprisingly given as a nation we are facing an uncertain 2019, it looks unlikely that 2018 will buck the trend. Research released by McKinsey this October showed that 77% are at least planning to look for bargains this year – with 30% saying they definitely plan to purchase.

Two competing approaches to growth

Black Friday has become a battleground between two competing approaches to growth.

Given shopper engagement with the event and how much we love finding a bargain, deciding to opt out is a gutsy decision for a retailer. Especially when it seems that each week sees a new headline about a well-known high street brand facing significant difficulties. In this context, it’s no surprise that retailers prioritise the short-term gain of attractive promotions to bring footfall into stores, traffic to websites and, hopefully, extra revenue and share from competitors.

But there is increasingly vocal opposition to this approach – catering to a sizeable minority of people who are either profess disinterest, or who actively avoid what can be viewed as a festival of excess consumerism (34% and 11% of respondents respectively according to a 2017 PwC survey). A way to tap into consumer desire for brands that share, and, act on their beliefs. Edelman’s 2017 Earned Brand Study says that 65% of consumers buy on the basis of belief and that 57% are buying or boycotting brands based on the brand position on a social or political issue.

For some brands then, Black Friday has provided an opportunity not for short-term revenues, but for longer term brand building by abstaining from the event in a way that demonstrates their underlying purpose.

The most celebrated example is US outdoors retailer REI’s “#optoutside” initiative. 2017 marked the third consecutive year of closing their doors and encouraging people to spend more time in the great outdoors instead of inside, shopping for more stuff… Similarly, French furniture brand Camif boycotted the event last year and encouraged employees to spend their new free time with associations that give furniture waste a second life. Closer to home, sustainable British furniture brand byAlex used Black Friday to launch a furniture repair service, promoting the circular economy.

Does it have to be purpose or promotion?

Clearly, sitting on the fence isn’t a workable strategy for Black Friday – retailers like M&S and Jigsaw have opted out in past years, but by not doing so in any “purposeful” way, missed both revenue and brand building opportunities. Others like Asda and Next flip-flop in and out.

At the same time, it’s harder and harder for brands to stand out as everyone is discounting – potentially leading to a race to the bottom, undermining trust in brands and their pricing.

Despite popularity, there’s increasing disillusionment with the quality of Black Friday deals. According to Mintel two-thirds of people questioned felt they “weren’t as good as they were made out to be” in 2017.

Could the winning approach be to combine the best of both worlds and mix in purpose to promotions? To take authentic positions and create cultural conversation in a way that adds to the immediate bottom line?

Some are already doing this.

Everlane, a US online fashion brand which champions transparency and ethical manufacturing, launched a Black Friday fund, donating all profits to provide healthy meals for employees in Vietnam. Patagonia opened up a pop-up repair shop in London and gave away 100% of their record-breaking $10million 2016 Black Friday profits to grassroots environmental groups. And while not offering any discounts, last year Lush released 14 600 limited edition orangutan soaps, with profits going to fund restoration of native forests in Sumatra.

So, take a moment to think – this Black Friday and beyond, could a little more purpose add a little more pizazz to promotions – helping you stand out, build your brand and attract loyal shoppers along the way?

Brendan Sturrock is a senior planner at Geometry UK

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