Holiday Traditions Go Viral

NEW YORK As consumer budgets tighten and retailers brace for a rough shopping season, brands are looking to tap into holiday traditions by adding viral twists to make their promotions work harder.

UPS is one brand taking such an approach via a viral campaign that kicked off last week. With a small budget, digital shop T3 took a page from the playbook of OfficeMax’s “Elf Yourself” to create, an homage to the holiday tradition of pawning off unwanted gifts on someone else. At the site, visitors can upload a photo of an unwanted gift or choose one from UPS’ gallery, and then regift it.

The campaign is meant to raise awareness of UPS at a time when DHL has left the domestic shipping business, said Chris Wooster, group creative director at T3, Austin, Texas. 

“We wanted to find some touchstones for the holidays that everyone shares. Everyone has had the regift. We all have closets full of them,” Wooster said. “We didn’t have to explain [regifting] to everyone. The less you have to set the stage, the more successful these things can be.”

“Elf Yourself,” which OfficeMax has built into a holiday franchise, made a comeback this year in a new version. OfficeMax dropped its agencies in favor of a media partnership with comedy site JibJab to broaden the effort with new capabilities. The app allows users to put photos of themselves, family and friends on dancing elves. Last year, the site drew more than 193 million visitors. “It’s become the cyber Rudolf,” said Bob Thacker, svp, marketing, OfficeMax. “It’s become a Christmas tradition.”

The Elf franchise has spawned plenty of imitators in the upload-your-face Web viral genre. Virgin Mobile last week debuted, a site where visitors can send a holiday e-card featuring their face on a holiday cookie. Meanwhile, digital photo display maker Ceiva has created, where visitors can upload a photo that appears in a video with Santa Claus showing off the Ceiva monitor.

Brands are even trying to capitalize on holiday traditions they’ve created themselves. Lexus has a site,, which plays into its “December to Remember” campaign that encourages consumers to give loved ones luxury cars. On the site, users can upload their face onto an animated character with a Lexus to be sent to a well-heeled giver.

Some marketers are taking their campaigns off microsites and onto social networks. UPS, for example, is inviting consumers to regift through Facebook. Facebook distribution is “gravy” for the UPS campaign, said Wooster, citing the network’s recent layout changes that downplay the role of applications. That makes wide reach harder to achieve, he said.

“If we built this a year ago, there would have been a heavy application side of Facebook rather than the microsite,” Wooster said.

PayPal is readying a Facebook-only push. It has filmed over half a dozen celebrities to encourage users to pass along a virtual fruitcake, the bane of many over the season. Users receiving the fruitcake are instructed to send it on to 10 friends. They can then track the fruitcake’s path. The push is meant to play up PayPal’s role in charitable giving.