Holidays on Thin Ice: Brands' Greetings Get Scrutinized


Not everyone agrees. A telephone survey by Rasmussen Reports found that 72 percent of Americans prefer the use of the phrase Merry Christmas, compared to 22 percent who chose Happy Holidays.

But Al DiGuido, CEO of Zeta Interactive, a New York-based digital marketing agency that works with clients like Sony and US Airways, said marketers may be “overthinking” the debate. Whether or not consumers celebrate Christmas, there are all kinds of “unpaid, brand reinforcers out there,” like holiday lights and Santa Clauses, he said, so even if not expressed, the notion of Christmas is present, and marketers can benefit from that.

“If they don’t do so, they’re minimizing their ability to associate with Christmas by saying Happy Holidays instead,” he said, adding that such a strategy may result in a loss of brand perception and sales.

For companies like Sears Holdings, which owns Sears and Kmart, the decision is even simpler. “We have always used Merry Christmas in some form of [holiday] advertising,” company rep Kimberly Freely said. “We’ve always endeavored to make our stores festive while respecting that our customers believe in many different [traditions].” Best Buy, on the other hand, went one step beyond, wishing Muslim consumers who celebrate a day of sacrifice after Thanksgiving a “Happy Eid al-Adha” in circulars promoting Turkey Day sales. Best Buy’s outreach won it some kudos from U.S. Muslims, but, judging by the company’s message board, it may have lost a few right-leaning consumers.

“Not only has Best Buy not announced Thanksgiving so as not to offend anyone, but they announced a Muslim holiday. I won’t step foot into their stores until they announce Merry Christmas,” wrote user “chetchet” on the company’s forum. Best Buy CMO Barry Judge wrote on his blog that Happy Holidays was the preferred means of holiday greeting until “our customers and employees told us otherwise.”

Just what impact the AFA’s boycott will have on holiday sales is another matter. YouGov’s Brandindex, which measures consumers’ daily brand perceptions, for instance, found that “nice” retailers did rise moderately in buzz (a score of 26.7 on Nov. 16 versus 30.6 on Nov. 30), though those on the “naughty” list mostly stayed where they were (20.4 and 19.9 on the same dates, respectively). Even Gap, whose scores dropped significantly in the days immediately following the boycott, settled back at 15, not far from its initial score of 15.9 on Nov. 16.

And besides, said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University pop culture professor, consumers aren’t all that worried. “The whole notion that there is this concentrated war against Christmas is absurd,” he said, adding that “the state of Christmas in the U.S. is doing just fine. If anything, Christmas seems to be winning more territory. It’s now taken over October.”