Spring is the New Christmas as Brands Prep for the Return of Roaring ’20s Consumerism

Industry bets big on marketing as Americans move from ‘hesitancy to hope’

By Adrianne Pasquarelli | Ad Age | March 2, 2021

“Put more Spring in your step,” Jet Blue Airways urged in an email last week to travelers ready to loosen their budgets after a long lockdown.

The same might be said for brands.

Spring is the new Christmas for marketers preparing to unleash media spending in anticipation of an explosive sales uptick as the weather warms and consumers rush to resume their everyday lives. From retailers to airlines and hospitality, special-occasion brands and media vendors, the marketing industry is looking to spring, typically a time of rebirth and renewal, to reconnect with customers eager to get out and spend as COVID-19 vaccines roll out and the threat of the coronavirus diminishes.

Consumer sentiment is switching from “hesitation to hope,” as Marriott International’s Brian Povinelli, senior VP, brand loyalty and portfolio marketing puts it. That’s fueling an anticipated spending surge from consumers releasing their pent-up shopping demand—which marketers are looking to help along.

“Spring is this next big moment to capture attention,” says Lindsey Slaby, founder of Sunday Dinner. Marketers are “looking at plans, [saying] ‘Where can we spend money this year that we’ll have people’s attention and excitement?’”

The National Retail Federation is forecasting the highest growth in retail spending in 17 years—a jump between 6.5% and 8.2% to as much as $4.4 trillion this year. Much of the growth may come from high-income households. In a recent survey conducted late last month by Ad Age-Harris Poll, 30% of households making $100,000 or more a year said they’ll spend more this spring compared to last; the majority of this group said the vaccine rollout has influenced this decision.

And shopping will extend beyond ecommerce to brick-and-mortar stores as well as consumers get comfortable again with in-person experiences. Some 62% of consumers say they plan to shop in stores this spring at least once a week, the Ad Age-Harris Poll found.

“It’s been many, many years since we saw consumers and retailers engaged at this level,” said Matthew Shay, NRF CEO and president, on a recent call with reporters. “We feel very confident.”

So confident, in fact that some chief marketing officers are planning their biggest advertising pushes ever in the coming months. The CMO Council found that a whopping 65% of members recently surveyed expect to increase marketing spend this year; only 10% will reduce budgets and roughly a quarter do not plan to make any changes. The push spans several categories as brands try to make up for the lost sales of 2020.

Media, too, is beginning to see green shoots: One major media brand said it is already seeing “very strong marketplace” across all categories for spring ad buys on broadcast TV.

Return to the Roaring ’20s

The spring surge is so strong, in fact, that some are making comparisons with the Roaring ’20s. “We are expecting that when we are starting to emerge from COVID, starting in the spring, we will see this incredible social renaissance,” says Angie Hellman, senior VP of brand and customer strategy at online clothing retailer Rent the Runway. “We are expecting this return to the Roaring ’20s—life’s pleasures, predictions in hedonism and indulgence.”

Rent the Runway says its customer base is already ditching their sweatpants; in the first half of February before Valentine’s Day, the company saw a 25% increase for special occasion or night-out attire compared with the same period last year.

The prediction has some historical roots. A century ago, following the upheaval and deaths of the 1918 flu pandemic, many consumers returned to spending lavishly, which led to the period of mass consumption known as the Roaring ’20s.

It was “an era of glamour,” says Christopher McKnight Nichols, associate professor at the School of History, Philosophy and Religion at Oregon State University, noting the dancing, parties and glitz that led to critiques like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. “Now we joke who needs high heels and ballgowns, but there’s some appeal to that.”

Such spending helped create the rise in the type of advertising we know today, says Nichols, and fueled the rise of the modern ad agency.

After uncertainty, brands ready to spend

It’s not just the promise of vaccines fueling this optimism; marketers are now ready to restore cutbacks put in place during a time of political upheaval. While several marketers did spend over the holidays on campaigns and promotions, a number sat out the election and inauguration rather than risk getting pulled into polarizing news cycles following the Capitol riots.

“So many things happened with the inauguration and the insurrection and now it feels like spring is a time for rebirth and renewal from a marketing perspective—we’re all going to prey on open wallets,” says Slaby.

Agencies are also seeing clients return to spending. Krystle Loyland, CEO and co-founder of Austin-based Preacher, says the agency is busy with new work coming in April, May and June as budgets seem to be returning. She said clients that typically would make annual budget decisions in the third or fourth quarter were waiting to see how things turned out with the new administration and the vaccine.

“Clients seem to have ambition and money now, though not timelines. They are looking at ‘How can we get out by spring and early summer?’” says Loyland. “Everybody, like us, is optimistically making some bets and wanting to be out there as quick as possible.”

Marketers are also looking to switch up their agency relationships as they ramp up plans for the rest of the year. One holding company representative reports a “second RFP season” following the usual season of September through December, and says its agencies have seen more invitations to pitch and a surge in activity since the beginning of January than in any previous year.

Another sign that consumers are limbering up: they are moving back into the cities, according to Feather, a four-year-old provider of rental furniture, which is in growth mode and is planning a robust marketing rollout to increase awareness. During COVID-19, as many consumers left their urban residences to temporarily live in the suburbs, Feather pulled back its advertising, investing only in lower funnel-type marketing.

Now, the company is seeing people “itching” to return to cities and wants to be ready with marketing, according to Jinal Shah, VP of marketing and growth at Feather. The company’s products are available in a handful of cities across the U.S., but Feather will increase that rollout to additional cities this spring.

“We are seeing as a business signs of movement picking up and expect to see continued movement within and across cities as people start making post-vaccine decisions,” she says. To that end, Feather will make a push in late April or early May with its largest campaign to date, including its first foray into linear and streaming TV, along with direct mail and potentially programmatic out-of-home.

“Last year was about test-and-learn, figuring out what works and what doesn’t work,” says Shah. “This year is about scaling on what we know works.”

Spring brings new connection opportunities

Retailers are upping marketing. Macy’s will focus on fashion and personal style expression in its spring marketing, a spokeswoman says. Kohl’s is also planning a spring campaign, which the Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin-based retailer typically airs; however, this year’s 30-second spot debuted during the Golden Globes, a first for the chain.

Called “Spring with all you’ve got,” the commercial, created with Yard NYC with music from John Batiste, shows a young girl who chalks a hopscotch board on her front walk to entice passersby and a grumpy-looking mailman. While the spot doesn’t show anyone in masks, people are still socially distant so the video appears relevant in both COVID and COVID-free time periods.

“The point was to have it in an outdoor setting with people enjoying spring weather,” says Greg Revelle, chief marketing officer of Kohl’s, noting pent-up demand from shoppers. “It’s more optimistic, more energetic—we feel that’s where the consumer is right now.”

Wedding industry marketers are feeling the spring fling. The Knot Worldwide says its vendors have recently seen an uptick in activity as couples begin to plan their spring and summer nuptials. Dhanusha Sivajee, CMO of the Knot, said 93% of the brand’s professionals have connected with potential new clients in February, while 80% closed new business during the month.

“The signs we are seeing indicate a surge in wedding planning activity from couples and vendors,” she says.

That’s one reason why Rent the Runway, which typically spends big on advertising over the holiday season, is expecting spring to be its major marketing moment. The New York-based company anticipates increasing spend by over 20% versus pre-COVID levels in the spring and summer timeframe, according to a spokeswoman. Hellman notes that she’s hoping the early uptick in February of special occasion dress will be a bellwether for the rest of the year. Yet the company is not rushing into national campaigns, particularly as the pandemic risk remains high in parts of the country.

“We are being strategic about taking a more regional approach to showing up as a brand and driving demand,” she says, noting that in fall as COVID rates continue to decline “we will start to do more national marketing.”

Travel brands are not immune to the sweeping optimism—or they are at least planning that their customers are not. In recent weeks, many consumers have started planning trips for spring break or summer after a vacation-less 2020. According to the Ad Age-Harris Poll, 34% of Americans plan to travel out of town this spring, while 35% plan to do so this summer.

Mariott’s Povinelli says that 80% of U.S. consumers are planning one or more trips. In its marketing, Marriott will be focusing on “travelers’ desire to explore locally, regionally and even globally where possible,” he says, noting that the hotelier “will lean into evolving customer needs such as longer stays and larger spaces [like suites, homes and villas], more leisure travel and even travel with pets with our messaging.”

Southwest Airlines recently rolled out a destination-centric campaign focused on Telluride, Colorado, a spokeswoman says, which involved paid media support as well as custom content. She says such a focused approach will “inspire current and future customers,” and notes that points of differentiation, such as free bags and ski gear, will also be featured in promotions.

Expect more channel experimentation

Yet reaching consumers, still shell-shocked from the pandemic’s toll over the last 12 months, will not simply be a matter of increasing media buys, experts say. Many companies are experimenting with new channels of marketing to see what sticks and resonates. Since it targets a younger, more millennial audience, Rent the Runway is exploring TikTok, says Hellman, who adds that the brand will also invest more in Pinterest and even direct mail, since more shoppers are still at home. Similarly, Kohl’s is also looking to experiment with social media partners by doing more with Snapchat and Pinterest this spring, according to Revelle.

“Right now, every brand is figuring out how to either retain their newly won customers or gain back lost ones,” says Mark Penn, chairman and CEO of MDC Partners. “The race is on, and meanwhile, consumers have fundamentally changed—they’re simply not going back to pre-COVID brand expectations.” He notes a push from brands looking for deepened digital experiences and new ways to approach performance media.

Sunday Dinner’s Slaby says that many consumers are restless and tired of seeing the same kinds of ads on their laptops and phones.

“We are missing that rich texture of how to bring the brand to life in new ways,” she says. “Spring and summer, and as we get into the holiday next year, experiential marketing and things like that should kick off in a fun and innovative way—we’re just not there yet.”

Read the full story at Ad Age.