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Why Message Trumps Math

November 2016’s crucial takeaway: Story matters

By Ed Lynes

Black Friday. Small Business Saturday. Cyber Monday. Giving Tuesday. America is finally (almost) through the contrived events that mark the commencement of the holiday shopping season. Black Friday, in particular, holds a special place in public imagination as the fabled day that retailers nationwide become profitable: going from being in the red, to the black.

Ignoring for a moment that such a fabled transition is unlikely to happen for many of the nation’s retailers this year at all, it’s important to note that — like all good things in marketing — this connotation was a story invented by retailers to engage the shopping audience. Black Friday began in Woden’s hometown of Philadelphia, but originally with a negative connotation: in the 1950s it was used to describe the chaos of Center City the day after Thanksgiving. It was not until the 1980s that retailers inverted the concept into something positive, and an American tradition of consumerism was born.

Bad news for retailers this year: Black Friday store traffic is down, again.

Many people cite the continued migration to online shopping as the driver of the decline. Retail analysts have another theory: Consumer expectations for discounting, and sales beginning earlier each year, have made the Black Friday offer just another deal.

Continued consumer disinterest in Black Friday comes at the end of an entire month that has said clearly to business: Story matters more, now than ever.

Earlier this month, Woden was engaged in a strategy session with a client around its holiday sales strategy. The client is consumer facing, does business globally, and has a user base of nearly 200,000 customers. It had settled on an aggressive price promotion, and wanted to drive the conversation with Woden around the details of targeting and email list segmentation.

Thankfully, we convinced the client to take a step back and consider: What’s the story we’re trying to tell?

Aggressive price promotions, even if well targeted, would have made our client blend in with every other piece of marketing over the past few weeks. And if we could claim prescience about Black Friday 2016, it was only because the limits of data were on full display the second Tuesday of this same month: Election Day.

Earlier this fall, huge amounts of digital ink were spilled touting the superiority of Hillary Clinton’s data and turnout operation. Renowned numbers man Nate Silver raved about her use of voter data to target her field operation. Politico profiled the staffer who would win Clinton the election: director of analytics Elan Kriegel.

The Trump campaign’s direct marketing operation appeared more crude. Some even suspected it wasn’t designed to get him elected president, but rather to be levered in the coming years for a business operation. The truth is that for all of the ugliness that went on in the campaign, Team Trump invested more in message, where Team Clinton focused on the tactics of reaching the right people.

Woden didn’t quite have the confidence in Trump to place any bets on his election, but we have been pointing out the effectiveness of his message for some time. First, in contrast to his earlier primary rivals, and then on the event of his nomination. Whether you support the Trump message or not, it’s undeniable it resonated with a wide swath of the American public and helped him overcome a data operation that should have left him at a disadvantage (to say nothing of his other missteps).

Getting in front of the right audience is the fairly easy part of marketing. The powerful tools afforded to us via Facebook’s advertising platform, Google Analytics, and thousands of other vendors make it a straightforward exercise to collect data, refine it, and make the right tactical decisions in marketing. Being data-driven requires expertise, but you can be confident that with the right quant, you’ll get the correct answer.

Messaging continues to befuddle even those organizations with the largest resources. And that’s important, because it doesn’t matter if you’re in front of the right people if you’re not telling the story they want to hear.

The reporting on Clinton and Trump’s respective data operations was accurate. But, it made the same mistake as retail marketing departments leading up to Black Friday: In worshipping at the altar of big data and the vaunted A/B test, they overlooked the critical fact that emotion is what sells. Democrats knew Clinton was running, they just didn’t feel invested in her message enough to go convert into a vote.

Twenty years ago, the hot gift of the holiday season wasn’t heavily discounted, and it didn’t require flawless ad targeting to become a phenomenon. All it needed was the genuine, emotional connection that comes from a tickle and a laugh — the Tickle Me Elmo.

As [inventor Ron] Dubren told the Chicago Tribune in the midst of the craze, “It’s true there had been dolls that laughed before. But it was the way I defined it. It was a doll that giggled when you tickled it, and when you tickled it more, it giggled more.”

Or, as then-Tyco exec Neil Friedman told Success, “When you played with it the first time, it brought a smile to everyone’s faces. It was a magical surprise.”

The sheer joy of watching a child play with Tickle Me Elmo unlocked a powerful story for gift-givers. In purchasing the toy, they could do more than just give a gift — they could truly give happiness. Most people don’t recall that Sesame Street was immensely unpopular at the time — no doubt a more data-driven operation would have considered “Laughing Beanie Babies” as a superior option for the 1996 holidays. But it was the emotional connection parents felt to their memories of Sesame Street, and their ability to be the hero to their children, that drove the toy’s success.

Back in 2016, we still have another month of non-stop advertising before the respite that January will bring. Data-driven discounting strategies will continue to badger us going forward: from mattress sales around President’s Day to summer getaways. For those pulling the trigger on these large ad spends, keep the data people around. But before you dive into the campaign they’ve planned, pause and ask first whether you’re telling the story your audience wants to hear.

A marginal investment in message can pay more dividends than the most advanced data operation in the world. Isn’t it time to make marketing great again?

Ed Lynes is a founding partner at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, let Woden help. Download our free StorytellingBlueprint, or send us an email at to discuss how we can help tell your story.