Black Friday Fatigue: How Retailers Can Harness Consumer Sentiment to Spark Powerful Moments of Change

By Richard Palmer, Head of Strategy, EMEA at  global digital consultancy Appnovation

As we emerge from a global pandemic, Black Friday’s image problem – already a sore point, even in the years before Covid-19 – is becoming more divisive.

On the one hand, the beleaguered retail sector needs a boost from the biggest shopping day of the year, with consumers also eager to celebrate the return of in-store shopping via a series of early deals and discounts.

Yet, in an age when brand-led purpose is more important than ever, no retailer should seize on the annual shopping frenzy without first reading the room.

The fact is, any approach to Black Friday is now a matter of nuance. With some of the UK’s biggest retail names refusing to take part this year and the biggest ever boycott planned by independent retailers, brands need to price in the potential cost of reputation that comes from any short-term boost.  Of course, that’s much easier said than done. Drawing on my recent strategy conversations with global brands, here are three key insights:

1. Focus on building connections and communities  

More than simply accepting or rejecting the event, however, Black Friday is a chance for emerging businesses to map their identity with a powerful counter-cultural statement.

Take the criticism that Black Friday is inherently “anti-people”. With low income families hit hardest by the pandemic’s lasting economic fallout, many people are struggling even without the frenzied pressure to buy. This is especially true since value isn’t even guaranteed: research from consumer champion publication Which? recently found that 90% of Black Friday products were available for the same price or cheaper earlier in the year.

Sustainable clothing brand Wawwa is one retailer looking to turn the tide. Last Black Friday weekend, it donated two items for any purchase made to local homeless shelters: an extension of its usual “1+1” initiative. Retailers could use a similar approach with different support groups.

Special deals can still play a role, but they need to be handled with awareness and care. For example, beauty company Deciem is currently hosting its annual “Slowvember” event, which offers “a journey into a new, gentle world” with 23% off everything.

The idea is to encourage fewer yet more deliberate purchases over the course of the entire month (rather than a hyper-frenzy in just one weekend). At the same time, it’s also pledging $125,000 via a community fund to organisations that impact Black lives.

Retailers might also think about starting a conversation on employee wellbeing in the midst of the shopping frenzy that Black Friday can encourage.

Adventure clothing brand REI has recognised this toll by shutting its stores and other offices on Black Friday, instead paying its employees to take a day off and encouraging them and the wider community to #optoutside instead of Black Friday shopping. How could you, as a brand, carve out similar dialogue to show appreciation for your team?

2. The environment is a concern that retailers can’t afford to ignore

With a massive 88% of consumers looking at brands for leadership in becoming more environmentally friendly and ethical (Futerra), and 50% willing to pay more for sustainable brands (Accenture), brands have all the impetus they need to interrogate their environmental impact.

Yet environmental transparency is far more than just a savvy marketing move.

Brands that don’t acknowledge the ecological impact of Black Friday now risk being part of the problem – especially since there are so many creative ways to do so. This Black Friday, for example, hair care product Faith in Nature will be partnering with Treesisters to plant a tree for every order consumers place.

In a similar vein, outdoor brand Patagonia, which has just won an Environmental Sustainability Award and which has a long history of resistance to Black Friday, last year donated a percentage of its sales on Black Friday to environmental causes while also promoting its secondhand initiative Worn Wear.

3. Aligning with consumer values provides the the momentum for positive change

We’re seeing the confluence of two intriguing trends, post-Covid: the appeal of Black Friday is waning at the same time as more shoppers are seeking out brands that align with their own set of values. Consumers are looking to and demanding more from brands around action to achieve meaningful change.

The crossover of these sentiments is the cue brands need to harness resistance to Black Friday, and also be curious about what it means. As well as taking the temperature of consumer opinion via surveys or social listening, brands need to listen carefully to what the data doesn’t say.

Customer sentiment may suggest they “can’t be bothered” with Black Friday, but why? And what purposeful actions are they looking for in place of mass discount? How important is it to them if a brand chooses to support local communities, small business or the environment above and beyond the bottom line – how do these causes make them feel? Our work with brands has taught me that behaviour is not always the best predictor of future behaviour, instead, it’s the underlying values and motivations that should intrigue us. Only by digging beneath the surface can brands and retailers deeply understand what it is that their customers truly value – and then craft a campaign accordingly.

The race for Black Friday spending may be more frenetic than ever this season, but businesses of all sizes have an opportunity to change direction. This isn’t about virtue-signaling but instead creating a closer connection with consumers. By identifying what matters most to them, brands lay the groundwork for lasting brand affinity and positive change.

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