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Branding spookiness: tricks, treats and frighteningly scary marketing tactics

By Paul Hewer - Posted on 31 October 2014

Paul Hewer, Director of Research within the Department of Marketing, explores ways in which brands use holidays to generate awareness and engagement with customers.

With the clocks going back and the nights drawing in, we start to inhabit a twilight zone of creepy crawlies, spooky offerings and things that go bump in the night. Halloween has become one of those ritualised festivals, increasingly hard to stay apart from, much like Christmas and even Valentine's Day in the calendar of ritual events marking how we structure our lives in time and space. So I find myself preparing the pumpkin, stocking up on the sweets and painting the kids' faces for spooky school discos and guising. All Hallows' eve is soon upon us, a liminal moment when we welcome monsters, ghouls, skeletons and witches on our streets and open our doors to scary fiends to ward off the darkness and keep the spirits at bay.

It’s not surprising then that brands want an over-sized slice of this market for spookiness and all things that offer a dose of branded scariness. Terms like ‘news-jacking’ and ‘trend-jacking’ have been used in marketing, to refer to how brands seek to take advantage of topical news stories to attract customers to their product or service.  ‘Holiday-jacking’ is perhaps a less commonly used phrase, but the practice amongst businesses is just as prevalent.  It refers to businesses using public holidays to increase customer awareness and engagement with their brand.

With an estimated 65% of the UK population dressing up come October 31st, Halloween provides a prime opportunity for businesses to target a wider audience.  The word ‘Halloween’ can generate an impressive 506m searches a year online. Humour, escapism and spookiness lend brands the opportunity to get creative, promote user-generated content and produce marketing collateral with the potential to go ‘viral’.

Businesses must, however, be careful not to scare their customers away.  Seasonal marketing campaigns must link back to the brand’s core identity or else run the risk of marketplace failure. When we look at another mainstream celebration, Christmas, we conjure up universally pleasing images of homely delights, exchanging presents and coming together with friends and family. Companies can always find a way to position their brand to align with these concepts of warmth and giving. However, when we consider Halloween, the mischievous holiday, marketers need to tread carefully, giving a little more thought on how to achieve a strategic fit between their brand’s personality and the cultural spirit of Halloween.  If a creative and intelligent cultural approach is not adopted, customers will see through the disguise and discard the thinly veiled attempt at value-making.  Here are a few holiday-jacking marketing tactics that worked in their blending of spookiness and brand resonance:

Pepsi in Coca-Cola costume: Pepsi played a risky move by featuring a competitor in its advert - but one that worked - by playfully poking at the long-standing competition between Pepsi and Coke.  The ad went viral within a few hours, prompting thousands of shares and retweets.  Dressing up the brand for the occasion worked a treat.

Rice Krispies Scares Vendor Prank: The popular cereal brand set up a haunted vending machine distributing free Rice Krispie Squares in two new seasonal flavours: ‘Malloween’ and ‘Totally Shocklately’.  Unsuspecting victims’ jumpy reactions were captured on a hidden camera as they reached in to the vending machine to find a hand reaching back.  Rice Krispies took a two-pronged approach to holiday-jacking, not only creating new Halloween-themed flavours but also by using a scary way to promote (spook) them to action.

Topshop Trick or Tweet: In 2012 Topshop used social media to engage customers, asking them to tweet the brand a picture of their favourite Halloween look or style tip with the hashtag #TrickorTweet.  The best tweet of each day won a £100 giftcard to spend in-store.  The brand stayed true to its identity by taking a fashion-oriented approach which captured its customers’ interest and effectively generated increased social media engagement on the back of the Halloween celebrations.

Brands must stay relevant and contemporary.  Easy to say but much harder to action given the cluttered landscape of contemporary marketing. Positioning the brand in terms of the calendar of rituals and practices is then one way for a brand to stay fresh and find the holy grail of everyday resonance. Here brands must embed and locate themselves with those rituals and festivals by becoming one with the theatre and drama of such performances. Adding a twist of branded Halloween spookiness might be just the ticket for marketplace success.

It reminds me of an old film tune: ‘If there's something strange in your neighbourhood, who ya going to call…'

Have any Halloween brand campaigns grabbed your attention this year? Let us know in the comments below…

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