In the aftermath of Black Friday, you’re likely to find articles on the best-performing holiday campaigns. This year, the most talked-about wasn’t the one that drew the most shoppers into its stores: it encouraged them to stay out—outside, that is. Outdoor apparel retailer REI closed its stores on Black Friday and ran the anti-shopping campaign #OptOutside, encouraging people to stay outdoors with their friends and family instead of spending the day chasing retail bargains. So on a weekend when most U.S. retailers will make up to a quarter of their annual sales, what would make such a crazy idea worth it? For a brand that champions environmental stewardship, with the mission statement “a life lived outside is a life well lived,” REI’s campaign aligned its holiday marketing strategy closely with these values.

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The result? REI’s buyers stayed out of stores, but they stayed online to talk about the campaign. REI was the second highest-performing campaign around Black Friday. (We analyzed social media sentiment around holiday campaigns using Percolate’s new Enterprise Listening feature.)

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REI’s success comes down to a few pillars of marketing science.

It won with distinctiveness, not differentiation

There’s a clear difference between distinctive and differentiated for brands. Differentiation marks the “reason to buy” for a customer, but research shows that customers don’t perceive much difference between brands in the same category. It would have been harder for REI to try and differentiate itself from other outdoor brands, like NorthFace or Timberland, by offering its customers product-driven reasons to buy. Instead, it built its brand on Black Friday with distinctive REI brand elements that will serve to reinforce customer memory in the future.

The #OptOutside tagline immediately made REI stand out from its competitors on a day when most other brands were sending them the exact opposite message. Over time, distinctiveness builds brand prevalence, which allows the majority of consumers to associate REI’s outdoor-friendly campaigns with its brand. Inspired by the traction the campaign gained, REI is beginning a campaign come January, centered exclusively around opting outdoors. (pictured from the REI website below)

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It triggered an emotional response in consumers

The same marketing science shows that consumers are not likely to buy a brand’s product because they consider it “different”, but rather because the brand has triggered some kind of emotional response. REI triggered that response when it encouraged people not to do what they typically associated with the day after Thanksgiving — shop like crazy — and instead spend the time hiking or biking. Every consumer may not have responded positively — surely there were some gasps from the diehard outdoor junkie hoping to score a bargain jacket — but the response it elicited is sure to remain in consumers’ memories.

It didn’t leave employer branding out of the mix

By closing its stores for Black Friday and paying its 12,000 employees to take the day off, REI demonstrated that brand management during the holidays doesn’t have to look like a 60 percent off everything campaign. Managing brand reputation from the outside in looks somewhat like what REI did: a bold move to signal it cares about how not just the world, but its employees, perceive it as an employer. An employer branding move like this makes people more likely to apply to a company with a good reputation.

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It makes us ask: Is Black Friday no longer about in-store sales?

REI saw its online traffic increase by almost 30 percent on Black Friday. Statistically, retailers that closed their stores on Black Friday performed better this year than their leading competitors. This is no coincidence, as more people are choosing to stay in and do their holiday shopping online.

REI closing its stores on Black Friday reflects a quiet shift away from the single-day, flash sale mentality that has typically occupied shoppers’ and retailers’ minds. So if it’s not about Black Friday sales, what are top-of-mind for brands seeking to win from capturing consumer attention during the holidays? If we’re using REI’s success as any indicator, it’s unique marketing that builds brand salience — and that’s what contributes to making a brand mentally available at the moment of purchase.

If your customers know you because of your marketing, you’ve won at distinctiveness. Holiday campaigns are tough to win, but turning the holidays on their head doesn’t hurt.

Gathering sentiment around big campaigns — and using it to inform your marketing strategy — comes down to social listening. Percolate’s Enterprise Listening Platform enables your brand to track audience sentiment and engagement around your own brand and your competitors. Request a demo today.