Since 1924, Macy's has commandeered Broadway for its own glory, creating its own treasure trove of Americana, from Felix the Cat (the first character balloon) to Olive Oyl (the first female to make it into the pantheon). Marketing Daily caught up with Amy Kule, just promoted to the role of executive producer of both the parade and the Fourth of July fireworks, to ask about what the parade lends to the Macy's brand.
Q: First things first. What's your favorite balloon?
A: It's the elf from 1947, and here's why. Most people don't know how expensive balloons are, and how they were constantly recycled back then -- a policeman would come back the next year as a fireman, for example, or an astronaut. I know that the elf used to be an ice cream cone -- if you look closely, you can see it!
Q: Is it tough balancing the parade's long history -- except for a two-year break during World War II, it's been running for 85 years -- with keeping it contemporary?
A: No. The goal of the parade is -- and always has been -- to talk to every one of our customers. Take the musical guests this year: There's Victoria Justice, Gladys Knight, Kylie Minogue, and Kanye West. Juanes, the Colombian star, will perform all in Spanish -- a first for the parade, and we're very proud of that. Dora the Explorer's float is bilingual. We're working hard to reach out to everyone.
That said, we're also very conscious of trying to add to our cool factor with special events. For example, for back-to-school, we did a promotion with Microsoft's Kinect that allowed teens to play the game in our stores, long before other consumers even got a look at it. Brands like Madonna's Material Girl and American Rag also help that. But even cynical teens love Santa, who plays such a big role in the parade.
Q: How does the parade sell the Macy's brand?
A: The parade isn't so much a commercial entity as an entertainment one. It's also something everyone knows. Even if you grew up in the Midwest, you knew about the parade -- you knew about "Miracle on 34th Street." It's helped us become a truly national brand. So that creates a rub-off for every other brand involved in the parade. The parade also sells New York -- for example, it's very often people's first taste of Broadway, and the performers from the show lead off the parade every year.
Q: Some people complain about commercialism in the puppets -- I remember being a little offended when Snuggle Bear made it in. And there's Ronald McDonald, the Energizer Bunny...
A: Every executive producer -- I'm only the seventh person to have this job in its 85-year history -- has a slightly different point of view. For me, in order to earn its right to be in the sky, the balloon has to be an immediately recognizable children's character. I'm not sure Snuggle Bear would pass the sniff test, but the Pillsbury Doughboy? People love him -- he is that cute, affable little guy.
Q: Who really makes the parade happen?
A: Well, we have a large event staff working all year round. But we couldn't do it without the volunteers -- 10,000 people come out to help us each year. Not just anyone can do it -- you need to have a Macy's employee vouch for you.