Holiday Marketing Amid Current Supply Chain Disruptions

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If there’s an unsung hero of the past 20+ months, it’s the American shopper. Consumers have continued to spend throughout the pandemic, setting holiday shopping records in 2020 and maintaining that robust buying through much of the current year as well. Now with the 2021 holidays in full swing, consumers are facing yet another challenge as supply chain issues threaten the availability of some must-have toys and other hot products expected to be given as gifts this year. 

Most Americans probably don’t grasp the intricacies of the modern supply chain, but they do understand that the pandemic continues to impact day-to-day living, including the availability of some items this holiday season. But those same consumers are also paying close attention to how brands react to the product shortages of 2021. That means companies need to be not only transparent about product availability over the coming weeks, but also seen as being in the consumer’s corner as they navigate what is likely to be a very frustrating path to purchase.

Brands must focus on giving shoppers tips and tools such as the importance of not waiting until the last minute to look for a hot item and ideas on when and where those must-have gifts might be available online or in a nearby brick-and-mortar store. Efforts should also be made early and often to establish proper expectations so shoppers can properly plan for the holidays.  

By helping consumers creatively think outside the box in the event of delayed shipping timelines or product shortage, brands can connect with their target audience on an entirely different level, in essence becoming a trusted partner in holiday shopping planning as opposed to just a provider of goods. Marketing and advertising will end up doing the vast majority of this heavy lifting, so it’s essential for everyone from the CMO on down to realize the role advertising will play in the holiday 2021 shopping season will be vastly different from anything done pre-pandemic.

Brands will likely need to have multiple sets of creative at the ready that can be swapped out in near real-time depending on product availability while also strategizing on how supply chain challenges may impact the types of messaging and channels they’ll be using. Channels such as broadcast TV that require locking ad buys in early are probably best suited for more generalized brand messaging, while channels such as digital and connected TV where ad inventory can be bought on exchanges are better for product-specific spots and promotions.

Advertising and website content can and should be used to educate consumers to consider an entire category as opposed to a specific product, so if one item is out of stock, the shopper can pick up something similar from the same brand. Consumers should come away from these engagements feeling like their favorite brands get them as human beings and understand that the holidays are as much about creating memories as they are about putting the right present under the tree. 

The Changed Holiday Consumer Mindset

Much of the focus these holidays is on how the pandemic and related issues are impacting the supply of goods. But marketers need to also keep in mind the consumer has been changed, in some cases dramatically, by the pandemic, too. 

The traditional path-to-purchase is built on the assumption there’s a product ready to be bought at the end of it. That may not be the case this year, so marketing strategies that worked in the past will have to be tweaked to reflect a new reality. Brands need to be relentless both in connecting with consumers and gathering even more information and intelligence, as shoppers in these uncertain times can quickly pivot in both their attitudes and their actions. 

The metrics and analytics that have driven campaigns in recent years will also have to be adjusted. Brands will need to evaluate data differently and understand that comparing holiday 2021 marketing performance with pre-pandemic Q4 measurements simply may not be possible given the supply chain disruptions.  

If there’s a silver lining to the current supply of product shortages, it may be that this year’s holiday shopping season could actually last longer as people give gift cards as presents in lieu of actual products. Campaigns can follow suit with product-specific ads and promotions aimed directly at the gift card holding consumer in January and February to let them know where that must-have item can finally be found. 

The American consumer continues to show surprising resilience, as well as an understanding of how and why this year’s holiday shopping season will be different. By using marketing to communicate transparently about potential shortages while at the same time helping shoppers either locate hard-to-find items or come up with alternative gift ideas, companies can overcome the current challenges and actually deepen their relationship with consumers, leaving them well-positioned for when the supply chain does return to something resembling normal.  

Lisa Marie Fortier is Senior VP, Consumer & Retail Lead at ENGINE Insights.