Black Friday remains big business, but its nature is changing and the most effective campaigns approach it from the angle of problem-solving – WARC’s Sam Peña-Taylor considers the options.

A couple of years ago, the notion of Black Friday was best captured in the mad-dash cage-match melees when stores opened their doors to a flood of customers and let bedlam commence –  all caught in the TV cameras’ gaze. It’s odd to think that all the other Black Fridays refer to disasters, human or financial.

The busiest shopping day of the year began to mean something else, generating huge fame in the process, as usually genteel folk were whipped up into a frenzy, fighting over paltry discounts. Whether transgression was baked-in or grew around the “shopping holiday” as it came to be known, Black Friday entered the culture and has never left. But the day is changing dramatically, under the force of disruption by better online options and decreasing footfall.  

With the rise of online shopping, the holiday broadened to include Cyber Monday, a phenomenon first observed in the mid-2000s, when online shoppers in the US drove a 26% increase in revenues year-on-year as people returned to work and high-speed internet connections, and started shopping there too.

E-commerce is now at the centre of what has become an ever-longer and increasingly online discount period. Last year, online transactions on the day rose 55% year-on-year in the UK. Meanwhile in the US, Adobe data showed online transactions growing 23% year-on-year. But it comes at the expense of the shops themselves, according to data sources that indicate a 1.7% decline in US foot traffic and a 5% decline in the UK.

So what’s worked? A journey through the last three years of WARC content yields a handful of campaigns that show how the holiday has changed and how it’s not just about Amazon.

Sport Chek: Taking your category back from Amazon

Canadian online retailer Sport Chek sought to compete with the e-commerce giant in a handful of key categories, working with agency Touché!.

What was clever about this case, a shortlisted entry to the WARC Media Awards, was the “goldmine of insights” the retailer found in users’ abandoned shopping carts. Dubbed “digital window shopping” by the brand, this new stream of data pointed, effectively, to the most desired items not only for those deliberating but for new consumers too.

This data then fed into the planning of both digital display and search advertising. Crossed with inventory data, the brand was able to stop advertising when inventory ran low.

“Amazon was beaten in key categories, with a fraction of its overall investment. There were over 78m bid changes over the short campaign duration.”

The Anti-Friday

Others rejected the idea altogether, and to great effect. In a Platinum Sabre Award winning case study from 2016, “REI, a purpose-driven outdoor retailer and the nation’s largest consumer co-operative, shocked the retail world by shutting its 143 stores on Black Friday, blacking out its website and paying all 12,000 employees to get outside with family and friends.”

As the top prize in a PR award series would suggest, the work, in collaboration with Edelman, capitalised on a high-focus moment to expound the company’s attitude to employee welfare, as well as the restorative effect that outdoor space can have. To cooped-up East-coasters, among whom the brand had poor recognition, much of this was new and refreshing and helped to broadcast both the brand and what was special about its co-op model.

What’s more, it sold: thanks to more than a full month of sustained media coverage, both sales and membership were up double digits over the previous year, defying broader trends in the sector; and job applications shot up more than 90%.

Playing off the negativity

In South Africa, QSR brand KFC built a campaign around the observation of negative sentiment around Black Friday-related campaigns. Knowing it wasn’t a brand traditionally associated with the day, KFC tried to better understand the problems people faced around the holiday through social listening.

Finding fans who were talking about Black Friday, the brand began responding to individuals with personalised posts and giving these people discount vouchers. For those complaining about missing out on the items they wanted, KFC went one further, creating a line of t-shirts that parodied the fashion and tech retailers which dominate the holiday.

“We remained the number-one South African QSR brand on social media (Africa Brand Index) with a positive 100 Net Sentiment throughout the day, which means we achieved our objective by turning a negative sentiment into a positive.”

Small Business Saturday

In a campaign suggestive of work that other payments companies would go on to emulate, American Express took an Effie Gold in 2017 for its success with a Small Business Saturday campaign. The company decided to claim the Saturday between Black Friday and Cyber Monday for small business owners, who in 2010 were still suffering the effects of the recession. Also notable is the brand’s long-term commitment to the idea and the long-term results it created.

Among consumers, the brand encouraged and threw marketing spend behind shopping local; for small businesses, the brand opened up access to digital marketing tools and advertising resources.

As the project grew, AmEx moved the holiday toward the business owners in an effort to shift ownership of the idea. The big result: from 2012-2015, small businesses saw a 195% uplift in spend, with overall spending totalling more than $50 billion.

Countering Black Fraud-day

Brazilians are deeply sceptical of Black Friday’s discounts – it’s a doubt that many e-commerce retailers encounter, but here it’s particularly strong. Comparison site Buscapé sought to counter this doubt with a massive campaign that took place across a vast array of both offline and online channels, identifying influencers who would shift the dial in the most-desired categories, and launching high-reach creative to show how the offers on the site were genuine – features like price comparison, warranty seal of real offers, price history, and purchasing protection.  

Adapting to the high take-up of mobile in the country, the campaign topped off with a Facebook Live broadcast – Black Friday Live, with the comedian Oscar Filho – which put out 24 hours of broadcast, pushing live offers.

The result was the best Black Friday in the site’s history, generating a 24% year-on-year growth in profit.

Ultimately, these campaigns explore many facets of Black Friday, but if any similarity is to be drawn between them it’s that consumers appear to respond to ideas that solve some kind of problem thrown up by the holiday itself, whether that be hassle, FOMO, indecision or lack of trust. Oddly, discounts and a public hungry for them has created Black Friday, but the finest work around it shows how discounts are no longer enough.