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Friday, 2 December 2011

Thanksgiving as a Branding Platform: The Macy's Parade


If there is one iconic event that cuts across social and cultural divides in America, it is the Thanksgiving holiday. Urban (well, not so urban) legend informs us that the tradition hearkens back to 1621 when the first settlement of Pilgrims in New England, having fled the reign of James I back in England, held a ceremony in the late autumn in Plymouth (New Colony, not the English port) to give thanks for their harvest.

It wasn't until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thankskgiving as a national holiday, to take place on the 4th Thursday of November. At some point the turkey and cranberry growers checked in, such that the traditional Thanksigving dinner requires both to meet the culinary threshold (one report is that 40 million of the birds were sold last week). That is, more or less, the take away for the holiday by every primary school student in America, as this Kat, when he was a mere kitten, fought over the choice roles in the inevitable all-school assembly on the eve of the holiday.

But there is another side, unabashedly commercial, that is no less part and parcel of the holiday, and its inonic expression is the Thanksgiving Day Macy Parade in Manhattan. It is this parade that provides the backdrop to a fascinating example of modern retail branding strategy (I will resist comments about "Black Friday", being the traditional start of the Christmas holiday buying season the day after Thanksgiving, other than to challenge readers to provide the reason for the name, no internet peeking allowed).

In 1924, the Macy's store sponsored the first such parade, motivated by a combination of civil and business considerations. By way of background, the flagship Macy's store on 34th Street in New York City is said to be the largest retail site in the world, with over 1 million square feet of floorspace. It is reported to be the second most-visited location in New York City by tourists, topped only by the Statue of Liberty. As the Emma Lazarus poem enshrined on the site proclaims: "Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-toss'd to me". And then back to the ferry and to the cab--"Get me to Macy's".

Over the years, the parade became a highlight not only of festivities in New York City but, with the advent of television, a central feature of national Thanksigiving TV fare. This Kat rememembers getting up early so he could watch the parade in glorious black and white. In impressive fashion, the parade achieved widespread national reach over the then-dominant communications medium. Even if one never had been in New York, Macy's became synonymous with the retail experience. When and if we would ever make it to New York City, it was our dream to visit the Macy's store at Herald Square.

Seen in this light, the parade certainly was a branding success. The problem was, however, that there was a disconnect between the national reach of the Macy's brand, encapsulated, indeed, created, in part by the parade, and the absence of Macy's-branded stores in many places outside New York. On its face, this would appear to be a woeful under-exploitation of the potential commercial value of the parade-driven brand. The solution: find a way to make the Macy's brand national not just over the airways, but on the retail ground as well.


As a result, in 2006, the decision was taken to re-brand various regional retail brands under its control, including Famous-Barr, Filene's, Foley's, Hecht's, The Jones Store, L. S. Ayres, Marshall Field's, Meier & Frank, and Kaufmann's and Strawbridge's, with most of them rebranded as Macy's (a few were rebranded under the Bloomingdale name). In a single stroke, the company reasoned, it could achieve retail reach for the brand on the ground commensurate with the brand recognition of Macy's, fuelled in no small part by the Thanksgiving parade.

So how has the rebranding campaign fared? It seems to depend on the particular store involved. This is because, pushing back against the national reach of the Macy's brand, certain local stores had created decades-long goodwill in their own store brands. The prime example was Marshall Field's, the iconic store on State and Randolph in Chicago. In a classic textbook example of how a successful brand creates an emotive bond between it and its customers, there was great resistence to replacing the Marshall Field's brand with the Macy's name. All things being equal, many customers there seemed to feel betrayed by the change of name. The Macy's parade may be a nation-wide event, but the ties to the local retail brand are sometimes even stronger. Thus, while Macy's seems to view the rebranding strategy as a success, it is not unequivocally so. National brand recognition, no matter how strong, does not always necesssarily trump local reputation.

This Kat has only one thing yet to do -- finding a link to last week's Macy's Parade. Some traditions die hard, if at all.

More on Thanksgiving here

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