In the American holiday season just past, I received reams of ritualized holiday e-mails from brands large and small. The tone of each, a sanitized smiley face of generalities, was as noxious as it was ineffective.

That’s because, of all the reasons I might think to buy something else from Brand X, Y or Z, receiving a generic holiday wish doesn’t even make it into the top 100,000. After all, if I purchase a set of speakers from Best Buy, it’s because I need a pair of speakers, not a pair of Best Buys.

The same applies to similarly personality-devoid greetings from dozens of other brands. Sure, when viewed from 30,000 feet, the idea of sending customers a holiday greeting makes sense. But the moment you zoom in closer, a warning bell ought to go off.

In a misguided attempt to offer a personalized greeting—with my name on it, and everything—brands I interacted with throughout 2013 sent me something analogous to a Hallmark card instead. Now, even if the CEOs of major retailers might think to send such greetings to family and friends, keep in mind, they’re not asking Uncle Charlie for repeat business.

Unwelcome thanks.
Holiday greetings, as such, aren’t motivating in the least. That’s because they’re so transparently shallow that they breakdown the relationship a brand has fought hard to establish. It’s a relationship based on a mutually beneficial transaction. The only reason customers like Brand X is that Brand X delivers a useful product—regardless of whether the problem it solves is as real as donuts or as imaginary as my “weight loss plan.”

An emotionally void and flagrantly insincere holiday card, on the other hand, is useless. If a brand wants to show its appreciation, it would be better off if it gave me across-the-board discounts from here on out. The way I see it, after I’ve paid for my 15,000th bottle of Snapple, the company has already made good on its investment—and can afford to lower its margins for me and everyone else in the 15K community.

What price retention?
Of course, the bean counters in the room will consider my proposal “costly.” But it’s not as if hiring an ad agency to create a holiday greeting platform year after year is “cheap.” That is, unless you embarrass yourself by contracting out to a cut-rate e-mail vendor whose only real expertise involves chewing your ear off about “best practices” and up-selling you to Mars.

Rewarding people with something tied directly to the transactional relationship that made them your high-value customers makes a lot more sense. It also avoids the whole sticky business of tracking what holiday each customer celebrates. Because therein lies the most counterproductive aspect of the holiday greeting playbook.

Nobody celebrates “the holidays.”

Stick to the script, by saying something real.
The phrase “Happy Holidays” is phony, meaningless, and gets more offensive every year. In fact, the longer we inhabit this planet, the clearer it becomes that the path to world unity has nothing to do with cultural homogenization.

Not that there’s any need to get so lofty about it. The point is, the moment you say “the holidays,” I know you’re not talking to me. That’s the moment I tune you out—because you’ve broken our implied contract: I give you attention when you give me value.

The same goes, ultimately, for all ritualized statements of appreciation. Especially, that is, when delivered in the intimate environs of social space. Remember that talking to someone on Facebook or Instagram is talking to them in the same space they share their “personal selves” with people they actually care about, transactions aside.

In that context “Thank You For Your Business” no longer sounds like idiomatic English, while the more elaborate phrase:

 “We Appreciate Your Patronage and Look Forward to Serving You in 2014”

…sounds like greetings transmitted by an alien starship on its way in from the Cat’s Eye Nebula.

Again, the basic impulse is sound: People running a business want to grow their relationships with people subsumed under the label “valued customers.” But just as you can’t get your garden to flourish in AstroTurf, your messaging platform—at all times of the year—needs to grow naturally out of real communication: one-to-one, value-driven and directly related to why your customers keep coming back.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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