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Holidays on Thin Ice: Brands' Greetings Get Scrutinized

Merry Christmas. Or should that be Happy Holidays? For marketers, deciding the choice of a greeting this season would tax even the wisest of men.

Evoke Christmas and you may alienate some consumers. Don’t say it, and you’ll incur the wrath of the Christian right as Best Buy, Kroger and Victoria’s Secret have learned this year. The finger-pointer in this case is the American Family Association, which considers greetings like Happy Holidays and other variations not to be enough. Its threat comes in the form of a consumer-led sales boycott and petition—a movement it has launched for the past four years—against companies that use the phrase Merry Christmas sparingly or not at all.

This year’s offenders include Barnes & Noble, Staples and Dick’s Sporting Goods. Macy’s, Walmart, Sears and Lowes are among those being recognized as “Christmas-friendly” since they use the word.

In the middle of the pack are companies like Starbucks, Toys ‘R Us and Whole Foods, whose Christmas efforts are deemed “marginal” or not enough. The AFA has posted a list of who’s “naughty or nice” on its Web site. (Gap and its Old Navy and Banana Republic brands were singled out early in the season, but the AFA withdrew its boycott after the retailer ran a Christmas-themed ad.)

The AFA’s charge is unusual in the sense that marketers often get called out for something they put in the advertising, said Stephen Hoch, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “It’s just comical,” he said of the boycott, as “the standard criticism of retailers during Christmas is that they’re exploiting it.”

The AFA, however, is sticking by its claims. Randy Sharp, a special projects director at the Tupelo, Miss., group, said it isn’t singling out advertisers for using other forms of holiday expressions over Christmas. The problem, he said, arises when “you lump us in with other pagan holidays, like the Winter Solstice. That is where companies offend us because in choosing to be politically correct and not offend anyone by being generic, they’re offending the greater segment of people.”

The tussle, indeed, represents the fine line marketers face in beckoning consumers to their stores this season. The National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, predicts a 1 percent drop in holiday sales this year to $437.6 billion. And the last thing companies want to do is to insult consumers who would otherwise step foot in their stores.

Besides, “there are a whole bunch of different holidays that all occur in December—for religious and nonreligious people. No one owns December the last time I checked,” Hoch said.

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.”

— Nielsen Business Media