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It’s that time of year when we scramble to rank the bests and worsts of the last 12 months. We also begin defining our New Year’s resolutions, in hopes we’ll end up on a “best of” list next time around. In the spirit of the holiday, I decided to share my top three holiday marketing stunts of 2013. These customer-driven marketing innovations inspire me to reach higher, designing digital experiences that connect and delight. I hope you find some inspiration in them as well.

1. WestJet Christmas

WestJet Airlines delivered a Christmas miracle to 250 unsuspecting customers in early December. When passengers checked in, they encountered a digital kiosk live streaming Santa Claus. Decked in WestJet blue, Santa asked travelers what they wanted for Christmas. It could have ended there. Instead, WestJet employees rushed to purchase each item on Santa’s list. When they landed, passengers were shocked to find wrapped and personalized gifts at baggage claim.

WestJet captured the stunt from start to finish and made a 5-minute video for its popular YouTube channel. It went viral, amassing 31.9 million views in a week. People all over the world watched a young woman cheer for her free flight home for the holidays, and another cry as she unwrapped her digital camera.

Why It Worked

WestJet didn’t make a flashy video for the sake of going viral. The company started with a one-to-one experience for real customers and then made that experience available to a wider audience.

The engagement went deep. You can see the pride on WestJet employees’ faces as the gifts are unveiled. The company also wove a Twitter contest into the campaign: If you tweeted the video, you were entered for a chance to win free airfare for two. And, “If the chance to win flights isn’t enough motivation,” they wrote, “we’re also going to give Christmas flights to a family in need if our video hits 200,000 views.”

The comments on the WestJet blog post read like effusive Christmas cards:

“This brought tears to my eyes. What an awesome idea to put smiles on the faces of all their passengers. WestJet really cares about people, and that is why they are so loved.”

“I’m already a loyal guest of yours, and you keep giving me reasons to tell everyone I know why you are amazing. This is incredible!”

Takeaway

Inspire pride in your brand, and customers will share your message for you. The video led viewers to associate deep emotions—such as joy and connectedness—with the airline, and to want to identify as loyal customers.

This is the second year WestJet executed an experiential campaign, and they’ve maintained an active social presence to support the brand’s community. This year’s creative “stunt” was much more, stemming from an ongoing program of customer-driven engagement.

2. Beyoncé’s Secret Album Launch

Beyoncé’s big holiday surprise was more than a single: she released 14 songs and 17 music videos at once. Her self-titled album dropped without any talk show rounds, press junkets, early leaks, or blogger speculation. It sold 991 thousand copies in its first 10 days—and kept selling—becoming 2013’s best-selling album by a female artist.

Why It Worked

A secret launch would be a bad idea for an emerging artist. As the reigning queen of pop, however, Beyoncé could use the strategy to nurture deep commitment from her fan base. The surprise release was about going above and beyond the expectations of her followers and adding unique value to her fifth studio album.

Beyoncé wanted “to speak directly to [her] fans” without the usual intermediaries. This kind of direct connection from artist to consumer is powerful. People feel special, noticed, and cared for when a performer bypasses the buzz and gives them what they want.

Takeaway

Consumers seek longer, deeper relationships with brands and content. Beyoncé gave fans an extended conversation, allowing them to experience the entire arc of an album rather than doling out songs piecemeal. Although marketing and media have largely abandoned length and depth for tweets and sound bites, the pop artist reminds us that superfans emerge when we dig deep and deliver quality. In a crowded market, brands often focus their energy on acquisition. Save some energy for building loyalty, and you can extend the conversation with your customers.

3. Amazon’s Drone Attack

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos revealed Prime Air, the company’s new test program featuring “octocopters” that promise to deliver packages to customers’ doorsteps within 30 minutes. The announcement was made just in time for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, helping Amazon cut through the din of retailers practically screaming their promotions and discounts.

Delivery by Amazon drone isn’t yet a reality, but the concept was enough to capture consumers’ imaginations over the Thanksgiving weekend. Even controversy and criticism helped Amazon make top news outlets and invade the blogosphere, gave Bezos a spot on 60 Minutes, and inspired countless conversations over pumpkin pie.

Why It Worked

Bezos added a futuristic, sci-fi element to his brand to get people talking. Yet Prime Air is grounded in enough reality to be taken seriously. Drones were already topical, after all.

The concept of ultra-quick drone delivery aligns with Amazon’s branding. The company differentiates with fast delivery and even faster access when products are in stock at brick-and-mortar locations. Amazon is about buying anything you want or need with one click and seeing it on your doorstep within two days. The octocopters enhance the company’s image of remarkable and exclusive convenience.

Takeaway

You don’t hear many B2C companies talk about roadmaps. But Amazon brought customers in on their vision, aspiration, and ideals. When the announcement came, we all pictured drones landing quietly on our front stoops or driveways—and that’s an image we won’t soon forget. What’s more, the announcement came not from an anonymous press release, but directly from the company’s CEO. Having Bezos pull back the curtain himself made it all the more meaningful.

Customer-Driven Marketing Inspiration for 2014

These three marketing efforts were built on existing customer engagement. There are no shortcuts. Even the most creative viral stunt can’t replace consistent and valuable brand interactions. These examples place the customer front and center, speaking to their desires, needs, and emotions. They create a sense of connection that stands out in our often disconnected digital lives.

This is by no means a complete list. There are many other stellar examples of holiday marketing. What do you think were the most dazzling marketing feats of the 2013 holiday season? Share your additions in the comments below.

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