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Marketing lessons from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade

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The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is the perfect way to kick off the holiday season. Each and every year, families across the US gather to witness the spectacular event—whether they are watching it in the comfort of their own homes or standing on the streets of New York City to experience it. 

At its inception in 1924, the first parade in the park was a Christmas-themed parade featuring animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo as the main feature. As the parade evolved into the one we all know and love today, helium balloons walked the streets of New York City while thousands of volunteers held them down. The parade includes performances by the Rockettes, Al Rocker, as well as other well-known performers, with Santa Claus closing out the celebration by sitting in his famous red chair and waving to passersby on both sides of him, kicking off the Christmas season

I’ve always loved the parade, but maybe that’s just the marketing nerd in me. This year I joined the estimated 3 million spectators watching the event in New York, here are a few things marketers can learn from the float choices, performances, and influencers.

Marketing is subtle.

One of the reasons why Macy’s Parade is so revered and loved is because it doesn’t feel like marketing. It’s full of floats and balloons, showmanship, and warmth, but if you look deep enough, you’ll find subtle promotions. Consumers don’t mind good advertising and marketing as long as it isn’t presented as such. Messages are not the first thing consumers want; they want to feel value and an experience.

Brand safety is strong.

Each person selected for the parade is carefully considered. If you look back, it will probably be hard to find a controversial person who appeared in the parade. Macy’s brand safety approach is taken seriously and the company chooses performers and brands that are viewed as role models and wholesome. Choosing influencers or brand partners who support the ideals and values of your brand is important since everything they post, say, and do will be visible.

Consistency is key.

Every year, you know what to expect when you turn on the television or line up to watch the parade. As celebrities wave from floats, thousands of people will maneuver large balloons through the streets. Live performances will also be provided by your favorite musicians. There will be performances by high school bands, a cancan by the Rockettes, and a preview of Broadway shows. There is a consistent tradition behind the parade’s events. That tradition is what brings people together every year to watch Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Spice things up to stay relevant.

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade keeps things consistent, but they’re always adding and removing items to stay fresh. To engage people of all ages, they constantly add new content, like floats to mimic a new television show or helium balloons from a popular movie. While new content is added, like Olaf from Disney’s Frozen, the parade’s traditional elements are kept, including the 1968 Snoopy who has floated in the parade over 40 times. The tradition and relevancy incorporated into every parade allows people who have been watching for years to relate just as those enjoying it for the first time. 

Take an original idea and make it iconic.

Macy’s wasn’t the first department store to host a parade during the Christmas shopping season. Philadelphia’s Gimbel Brothers department store created the first one in 1920. Four years later, both Macy’s and the J.L. Hudson Co. department store launched their holiday season parades. It’s hard to come up with original ideas. You don’t need to spend all your time trying to create something no one has ever done before. Look for inspiration and take the opportunity to improve it.

Right time, different perspective.

In spite of the name, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has very little to do with the holiday of Thanksgiving. In reality, it’s really about the shopping season leading up to Christmas and all the gift-giving opportunities that come with it. The floats, balloons, and songs all revolve around the upcoming holiday season. In fact, the event was initially called Macy’s Christmas Parade. As a business, Macy’s isn’t focused on Thanksgiving. The timing of Thanksgiving is important to Macy’s, about a month or so before the gift exchanges start. It’s all about timing.

Socialize with your audience.

Macy’s engages its audience with its social media accounts before and during the parade. From previews of the attractions and performers to live updates on the day of the event, Macy’s does a great job of taking its social channels into the middle of the event. Take a cue from Macy’s and invite your audience members to your account or brand whenever you engage them on social channels. To do that, you need to do more than like or repost. Personalize it. Make it fun or valuable for them to share. Follow up with personalized content that they can interact with further.

Start small, scale humble.

Macy’s didn’t put on an elaborate event in 1924. A total of 50 people were involved in the parade, which covered only two blocks. However, that was enough to captivate tens of thousands along the 6-mile course. While the media barely covered the event, the audience was captivated and Macy’s was quick to announce a few weeks later that the parade would return the next year. Almost 30 years later, when the parade made its television debut, Macy’s gained national attention and attracted millions more viewers becoming the spectacle that we all know and love today.

Jasmine Esmaili
Marketing Designer at Quora
Jasmine is a Mannhatan-based graphic designer and marketing professional with expertise in defining and creating a seamless visual language as an extension of a brand.
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