Counter-Programming Black Friday: This Year's Playbook

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, November 25, 2019
Marketers and brands who ignore Black Friday might as well be ignoring the nose on their face. Black Friday is now global and larger than ever, and it spreads across practically every category.

It's an unmissable moment in consumers’ lives that has moved far past a retail event. Reframing Black Friday as a moment to reinvent, redirect, ridicule and in some cases refute buying stuff is a viable, sometimes defining strategy for a brand.

Brands and marketers large and small are all contributing to a new playbook -- counter-programming Black Friday.

Here's our survey of the strategies we're seeing:

Dropping Out

REI as a marketer read the tea leaves early -- five years ago, to be exact -- in their decision to shut their stores on Black Friday and encourage shoppers and employees to enjoy the outdoors instead. #OptOutside has only become bigger and more important to the brand, and their timing couldn't be more apt with the current zeitgeist of climate change, overconsumption, Extinction Rebellion, and of course, Greta Thunberg.



REI has made it even bigger this year, with a 52-week plan of small steps that members can take to reduce their carbon footprint.

#OptOutside has become a watershed moment for the purpose of their brand. Brilliant stuff, but also a permanent decision -- one can NEVER do a Black Friday sale again after committing to this course of action.

Purpose and product win-win

For brands that have at their core a social purpose, the most logical strategy is to donate all or a portion of your sales to a cause that aligns with your brand. Patagonia is squarely in this category, as is Everlane and Alo Yoga.

For brands that already have donations built into their product, however, how do you dial it up for Black Friday?

Minimalist lifestyle brand Ugmonk's solution was to combine a 20% off promotion with tripling their usual donation of one meal-a-day to three-a-day through Rice Bowls, a non-profit that feeds orphan children in developing countries.

A variation of that strategy is to produce a custom product whose design and proceeds underscore the purpose of the brand. Lush Cosmetics is a good example -- in previous years they produced a custom Orangutan soap to benefit the Sumatran Orangutan Society.

Urgency, purpose and product win-win

AllBirds spins the above further and does a limited-edition set of shoes for Black Friday -- Rarebirds -- that sell out within days. They also hold workshops in store where customers can decorate their gift boxes with upcycled materials.

Third Love, the innovative bra and underwear DTC brand, has a policy of taking bras that have been returned by customers to and donating them to women in need. Like Ugmonk, they offered a discount during the Black Friday event and donated a bra for every bra sold. However, the added element was a telethon-like goal of 10,000 bras donated, so people could see their social impact during the event. 

A nod and a wink

The evolution of creative strategies around Black Friday bears a striking similarity to big TV events like the Super Bowl. It almost feels like the brief was “Let's talk about Black Friday without actually doing Black Friday.”

A strong case in point is the latest IHOP ad, "Stuck," that tames a mob of deal-crazed shoppers with the feel-good magic of IHOP's limited-time Elf on the Shelf Menu. The words Black Friday never come up.

And then there are the creative strategies that celebrate the holiday rituals. Chubbies, a DTC menswear brand, promoted their Schworts with a tagline "Ate the whole turkey. Need comfy shorts." You can imagine the accompanying visual.

You've been pranked

There aren't words to do justice to the lunacy that is the Cards Against Humanity 99% off Sale. It's the killer app of all Black Friday promotions, and it truly couldn't have been done by any other brand. It sells the game -- true -- but it's a promotion, a countdown sale, and the kind of absurd theatre that underscores the game's reason for being like nothing else.

It involves a faceless guy in a red full-body leotard, a genuine 17th-century Italian halberd, a generous helping of swears, and the lowest production values available anywhere. It's NSFW but unmissable, so plan your day accordingly.

To succeed in counter-programming Black Friday, then, it's clear that the brands that succeed do one thing extremely well: they understand the intersection between their customers, their product and Black Friday as a moment in their customers’ lives.

Let's see how their thinking evolves this coming Black Friday.

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