This time of year, how can brands with a global reach celebrate the holidays without offending or alienating their customer base? With so many different religious and cultural identities, it’s not an easy task. Some companies will take the cautious approach and default to a “catch-all,” while others will be move cavalier and only promote the holidays of their choosing. Even once a path is chosen, there’s the added complexity of timing and how early holiday promotions are appropriate.

Right or wrong, any strategy can leave something to be desired when looked at from a multicultural point of view. Because of the importance, let’s take a moment to view the issue through the eyes of the customers and examine what several brands are doing about it.

The cultural communication exchange goes two ways between companies and the world. Businesses are not only projecting themselves outward, but they are also reflecting assumptions about the customers as well. The marketing decisions are made and adapted over time. With enough data, it becomes easier for organizations to guesstimate which promotions will resonate, given historical, demographic and psychographic information. However, with growing data sets, guesstimating has intrinsic weaknesses as it’s impossible to know the customers’ cultural and religious preferences. Social networks and customer profiles simply don’t provide enough actionable information.Someday “big data” may be able to fill the gap, but for now, there just isn’t enough to work with.

In spite of these challenges, businesses march forward with their assumptions about the holidays. They aim for the middle with promotions like “Black Friday on Thanksgiving, Christmas this, New Years that…”

From the perspective of a customer, this standard can be very problematic for two reasons. While cultural holidays are easy to target based on location, religious holidays transverse borders and mixheterogeneously. There’s also the problem of the idealistic bastardization of celebrations by using them to sell products months in advanced.

Let’s take Christmas for example…

It should come as no surprise that many brands are targeting Christmas this time of the year.   In the United States alone, approximately 90% of people celebrate Christmas either religiously or culturally. It makes sense for consumer facing companies to be running Christmas-centric promotions now as they’ll hit the nail on the head 9 times out of 10. But where does that leave the other 10%? Are they a long-tail worth pursuing or just a marketing write-off? Should businesses revert to holiday catch-alls and leave nothing to chance, or take the risk of insulting a few to please the masses?

There may be no right answer, but some brands are doing it poorly, while some are setting a good example. Walmart caught a lot of flack  this year for starting “Black Friday” on Thanksgiving and both Best Buy and Abercrombie ran promotions around Christmas starting in early November.  Instead of revering holidays as a time for congregation and celebration, companies are trying to leverage the holiday spirit to sell products and services months in advanced. The holiday season may be the best time of year to sell product, but whatever happened to a genuine show of appreciation towards customers for their business? There ought to be a consumer line in the sand regarding what’s acceptable. The fact of the matter is that most marketing is narrowly shortsighted and focused on sales for this month rather than customers for life. At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before Christmas sales start 12 months in advanced in a year-round holiday bonanza.

Thankfully, one company found a clever way to circumvent both the cultural and the timing issue.

Stella Artois, a Belgian Beer brewery, recently started a social, mutli-cultural Facebook promotion that leaves the holiday of choice to the customers. Their campaign is an amazingly simple solution to the problem of identification among consumers, while also utilizing social media components. They artfully highlight the brand while focusing on the message of sharing goodwill with one another.  They chose not to discriminate holidays and they gave the power of timing to the collective social mind. By offering customization, they broke down the very walls that holiday promotions tend to have. Christmas may be the gold standard, but customization is King Midas.

You can expect to see more companies follow suit.

Originially Posted at Mr Ryan Connors Blog