How the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Ballooned Into a Cherished Holiday Tradition

The 93-year-old 'retinue of clowns and freaks' grew into an event that rivals the Super Bowl

A Felix the Cat balloon and other parade floats and balloons are led down Broadway during the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Getty Images

On Friday, Nov. 28, 1924, The New York Times carried an item on page 15 about Santa Claus making an early seasonal appearance: “With a retinue of clowns, freaks, animals and floats, the bewhiskered man in red … arrived at 9 o’clock yesterday morning.” The story, measuring just a few column inches, was a throwaway. Only in retrospect is it clear what a seminal event was in the offing: The modest procession floating down Broadway on that chilly Thursday morning was the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Courtesy of Macy’s

The publicity folks at Macy’s tell us that the parade is “the nation’s most cherished holiday tradition”—which, if that’s an exaggeration, isn’t much of one. It is true, for instance, that 98.2 million people watched the Super Bowl this year. But 50 million people tune in to watch the Macy’s parade on NBC. (For younger viewers who don’t know what a TV set is, Verizon does a 360-degree livestream on YouTube, which adds plenty more.)

And while the NFL stuffed over 70,000 fans into Mercedes-Benz Stadium to watch the big game in 2019, a whopping 3.5 million people turn up on the streets of New York to watch Macy’s event. (Since a football game follows the parade broadcast anyway, Macy’s formula is about as all-American an institution as exists anywhere.)

Macy's first parade in 1924 was more about Christmas and featured animals borrowed by the Central Park Zoo. Radio City's famous Rockettes joined the retinue in 1957. Brands that gain admission to the parade lineup work with Macy's in-house designers on a float.
Sources: Courtesy of Macy's; Getty Images

“What they’ve done,” observed David Srere, co-CEO of brand strategy firm Siegel+Gale, “is enmeshed themselves with a holiday that very, very few people have problems with. It’s food, family and football. There’s no religion and no politics—so that is a great thing.”

It’s also, of course, a great marketing thing. Not only does the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade amalgamate the Macy’s brand with a cherished holiday, its long and clunky name prompts a good many people to just call it the Macy’s Day Parade. And that, said the event’s executive producer Susan Tercero, “shows you the power of the brand.”

But while Tercero concedes that Macy’s is “in a unique position” to control so valuable a property, she’s quick to add, “It didn’t start as a marketing tool.”

In fact, in 1924, it was simply called the Christmas Parade, a way for the store’s immigrant employees to bring the old-world tradition of holiday processions to America. That first march down the avenue consisted of only three floats, four bands and a few animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. Only over time did the event mature into a prized branding tool—and not just for Macy’s.

The character balloons in today’s parade—among them Ronald McDonald, Pikachu and SpongeBob—are some of the largest pieces of branding floating around out there. Tom Turkey has since become the parade's oldest float. But Snoopy has made the most appearances. New to the balloon roster for 2019 is Green Eggs and Ham.
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Apart from the famous character balloons (see sidebar), this year’s event will feature 26 floats paid for by the likes of Coach, Cracker Barrel, Entenmann’s and Lego. The parade has an official truck (Dodge Ram), an official airline (Delta) and—since New York is cold outside in November—an official underwear (Under Armour).

Indeed, it might seem like there’s no downside for Macy’s—until you consider the predicament the retailer itself is in. Hunted by Amazon and hounded by the decline of the shopping mall, Macy’s might be sitting on a legendary parade, but Srere wonders if the parade’s equity might not be more valuable than that of Macy’s itself. “I’d be hard-pressed to articulate to you what their value proposition is,” he added.

But the jury’s still out on the future of the department store and, meanwhile, Melissa Gonzalez, CEO of retail strategy firm Lion’esque Group, points out that the parade gives America something that social media has been taking away: a real-world, tactile feeling of community. “We want that connection,” she said. “The Macy’s parade ties into that.”

This story first appeared in the Nov. 18, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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