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6 Iconic Holiday Marketing Campaigns to Inspire You

It’s that time of year again. The weather’s getting cooler. Families are looking ahead to make plans for the holiday. Before we know it, the Christmas tree will be up in the living room as Mariah Carey’s holiday album plays in the background. As a business owner, you know what this means: it’s time to kick off your marketing campaign for the holiday season soon.

What better way to help you gain inspiration for your business’s holiday marketing than to look at some of the best seasonal campaigns from other brands? We’ve compiled a list for you. Keep reading below to get inspired by 6 noteworthy campaigns, plus takeaways for each that you can apply to your own marketing.

1. Starbucks holiday cups

For many coffee aficionados across the globe, a simple red cup with a familiar green logo signals it’s time to officially usher in the holiday season. Each year Starbucks debuts its holiday drink specials with a new, Instagram-worthy cup design for the season. We all know a peppermint mocha tastes that much better when it’s sipped from a bright red cup with a fun seasonal design, especially when that design only lasts for a limited time.

Starbucks’ holiday cups first emerged in 1997 and the campaign still generates a ton of buzz today. Starbucks fans flock to social media to share their cups. On Instagram alone, #StarbucksRedCups has tens of thousands of posts and #StarbucksCups has nearly half a million posts. Communities formed online around these cups and a fan even created a website dedicated to counting down to the cups’ annual release.

It’s simple: people love the holiday cups, so Starbucks increases their sales during this season. While the cups have had their fair share of “controversies” on social media over the years, they’ve remained a well-known and highly anticipated part of the holiday season for many.

Three tiers of Starbucks holiday coffee cups stacked showing different designs

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What’s the takeaway?

  1. Starbucks takes advantage of a limited-time offer to create a sense of urgency around their holiday drinks. Customers know the red cups only appear for a few months each year and the design is different each time. If they don’t get a red cup this season, they’ll never be able to get their favorite holiday drink with that design again. Not wanting to miss out can be a highly motivating incentive to buy.

  2. Since the campaign is repeated each year, fans have come to expect it. Red cups are now a regular (and special) part of people’s holiday season. And the time of year serves as a trigger to remind fans about the cups’ upcoming arrival. In their minds, wintertime = red cups … among many other things. Having an associated trigger that occurs regularly is a great way to encourage product memorability.

  3. The holiday cups spark an enormous amount of user-generated content. Many people aren’t wanting to just get a cup — they also want to share about it on social media. The cup is fun, it’s well designed, and fans want to talk about it. User-generated content is a fantastic source of social proof for any brand.

2. REI and #OptOutside

While many brands gear up for the mad rush of Black Friday shopping, REI does the opposite. They shut down.

Each year on Black Friday since 2015, REI closes their stores and stops processing online purchases. Their goal is to invite people to “choose outdoors over consumption” and “be part of creating a more inclusive outdoor culture.”

Instead of ramping up to meet consumer expectations on the busiest shopping day of the year, the brand has chosen to take a stand and opt out of the Black Friday craze, inviting their audience to do the same. REI employees get a paid day off of work. And in the campaign’s first year, more than 150 other companies joined them by closing their doors on Black Friday, while hundreds of state parks opened up for free.

Taking such a countercultural approach to Black Friday got people talking. The hashtag #OptOutside has nearly 18 million posts on Instagram alone. 6 million people have pledged to #OptOutside since the campaign launched. The brand created a microsite for the campaign (now a landing page on their website), encouraged employees to share their stories on Medium or social media, and formed partnerships with hundreds of businesses, along with state and federal parks. The campaign continues to generate a bunch of media and social impressions for the brand each year. All while championing a cause that’s close to the heart of the brand.

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What’s the takeaway?

  1. REI stayed authentic to who they are as a brand. Part of the campaign’s success is due to how it stays true to the brand’s longtime values. REI knows exactly what their brand stands for and, even more, they know who their audience is. The campaign is fueled by empathy for their customers, who would rather be hiking than waiting in long shopping lines. Authentic, empathetic marketing is a meaningful method for brands to connect with audiences who share their values.

  2. The fact that REI took such a strong stand on the biggest shopping day of the year makes the campaign stand out in stark contrast to other brands. It defies expectations. And it does so in a way that both inspires and resonates with REI’s audience. Sometimes standing out in a crowded market means a brand needs to go against the grain in a significant and thoughtful way.

  3. REI employed a powerful use of story with this campaign. What was once a one-time PR stunt is now a movement. Each year the brand invites their audience into the story, so it’s no longer just REI’s campaign. Their audience now sees it as our movement. Our cause. Our story. The campaign is effective marketing … without marketing as we typically expect it. Inviting an audience into a larger story has many benefits for both the brand and its customers.

3. Hershey’s Kisses commercial

Is it really wintertime until you’ve seen this Hershey’s commercial at least once? Probably not. This ad featuring Hershey’s Kisses playing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” like a handbell choir is Hershey’s longest running commercial. It’s been on the air every holiday season since 1989 and the general concept hasn’t changed much throughout the years. It wasn’t until 2020 that a new version of the ad was released, putting a different spin on the original commercial (but it received plenty of backlash for changing the beloved original).

The original ad is short and sweet. It has a certain sense of whimsy. Somehow it encompasses the whole feeling of the holiday season without speaking a single word aloud. It’s nostalgic and endearing, all in one. Not too bad for a 15-second ad, right?

Watch the video

What’s the takeaway?

  1. Hershey’s embraced tradition with this commercial. Instead of trying to produce something entirely new each year to outdo the previous year’s ad campaign, they created something timeless and stuck with it for years. Between the candy, the choice of Christmas carol, and the ad’s overall aesthetic, it’s a campaign that has endured the test of time. It’s proof that choosing something classic can be an effective route to connect with an audience.

  2. Along with being timeless, the ad is certainly simple as well. There are no words. The background is plain. The only things in the ad are the Kisses themselves, plus the music the Kisses are “playing.” An ad doesn’t need to have all of the bells and whistles to be effective. Sometimes the right kind of simplicity is all you need.

4. Cadbury Creme Egg commercial

This is another example of a commercial that’s lived on for years. Although its corresponding holiday doesn’t occur during the winter, it still offers plenty of learning points when it comes to planning your end-of-year holiday marketing campaigns.

In the 1980s, Cadbury Creme Eggs released a version of this commercial featuring various animals wearing bunny ears and “trying out” for the role of the clucking Cadbury bunny. The brand airs a short version of this ad every year before Easter and it’s become a memorable part of springtime for many viewers.

In recent years, the brand made some updates to the commercial — most recently hosting actual tryouts to declare a winning “real-life” animal who’s then featured in the next commercial. Even with some updates over the years, the core of the commercial hasn’t changed. It’s still cute and endearing. And it delivers a little burst of nostalgia each spring for adults who remember watching it during their childhood.

Watch the video

What’s the takeaway?

  1. Cadbury makes good use of humor in this ad campaign. It’s not every day you see a pig wearing bunny ears and clucking like a chicken. And the voiceover plays up the humor with its commentary on each tryout. Infusing the right kind of humor in marketing can be a solid strategy for making emotional connections with an audience and creating a memorable campaign.

  2. This ad is another example from Hershey Company (who produces Cadbury Creme Eggs in the US) of a timeless campaign. Just like the Hershey’s Kisses commercial, some version of this Cadbury commercial has been running for decades. For many viewers, it has yet to get old. It’s further proof that choosing something classic can work just as well (if not better in some cases) than following trends.

  3. Cadbury revamped the ad campaign with a personal touch in recent years by inviting their audience to enter their own animal in an actual tryout, where the winner would be featured in the next commercial. They received more than 12,000 entries and 30,000 votes to select a winner. The revamp was clearly a huge success. Adding a personal touch to a marketing campaign and inviting an audience to get involved by putting the spotlight on them can be a great way to generate more interest.

5. Spotify Wrapped

This one isn’t exactly a holiday campaign. But it does happen around December each year and there’s a ton that other brands can learn from it, so it’s worth including in this list.

Spotify Wrapped started as “Year In Music” back in 2015 and was officially renamed “Wrapped” in 2017. It’s a data-driven campaign that gives Spotify listeners an inside look at their own listening trends over the past year in a fun, visual format.

The campaign has evolved over the years and is now available right within the Spotify mobile app. It’s an interactive way for Spotify listeners to relive and rediscover their last year of music. The feature displays personal listening stats including top songs, favorite artists, preferred genres, minutes spent listening, and more. The stats are in a colorful, story-like format, which are easily shareable to social media.

The campaign doesn’t end with just the Wrapped stories feature. The brand has also expanded it across other formats including billboards featuring well-known artists and Spotify Premium users. They’ve sent Wrapped puzzles to fans, created individualized Wrapped microsites, and explored partnerships with other brands. Plus, listeners receive custom playlists curated just for them based on their listening habits so they can both enjoy their favorite tunes and explore new music. Similar to how Starbucks red cups indicate the holiday season for coffee drinkers, Spotify Wrapped signals the end of another year for music listeners around the globe.

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What’s the takeaway?

  1. It’s no secret listeners love Spotify Wrapped. One key thing that Wrapped gets right is that it’s personal. People love to learn about themselves — the hours they spend listening to music throughout the course of a year tells a story that’s unique to each listener. People want to know what their story says about them, which is exactly what Wrapped gives them in a visually-pleasing format. Who knew data could feel so personal? It goes to show we should never underestimate the power of personal touch in marketing.

  2. When something feels this personal and special, it’s natural for people to want to share it. Spotify’s made the Wrapped experience extremely shareable. It’s easy for listeners to post their Wrapped to Instagram stories or share about it on Twitter. Each time a user shares it with their social circles, it’s free advertising for Spotify. A shareable campaign gains a wider audience.

  3. The shareability of Wrapped creates a huge sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) for non-Spotify users. As the end of another year rolls around and Spotify listeners look forward to seeing their Wrapped, others feel left out. The campaign creates a sense of “insiders” versus “outsiders.” And no one wants to feel as though they’re the odd one out. FOMO marketing gets people to take action so they too can be an insider and not miss out.

6. Christmas in July

This is a retail trend that’s been adopted by countless brands over the years. It’s been said the first Christmas in July was celebrated during the summer of 1933 by a camp in North Carolina. Shortly after, a movie titled Christmas in July came out in 1940. And nowadays when we think of Christmas in July, we picture hitting our favorite stores in search of the best sales.

For retailers, the timing of Christmas in July makes sense. There aren’t many gift-giving holidays during the spring and summer months, so hosting a month-long celebration is a chance for retailers to boost their sales in an otherwise slower period. It also encourages customers to get a headstart on their holiday shopping so they can score good deals on their purchases. Plus, for those living in warmer climates, simply calling to mind the chilly winter months is a nice break from the heat of summer.

What’s the takeaway?

The main takeaway of Christmas in July is considering the timing of your campaigns. In a saturated market, it can be difficult to gain traction during a season when many other brands are flooding customers with their own campaigns all at the same time.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t make an extra push to market your business during the holiday season — that’s a decision best made by your brand. But maybe you consider pulling back slightly from your usual holiday marketing promotions and instead put that focus towards pushing a larger campaign during a less crowded time of year. That could be July. Or it could be any other time of year that makes sense for your brand and your audience. You might get a better bang for your marketing budget buck by launching a campaign outside of peak-cost seasons.

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