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Christmas In July? Media Planners Gear Up For Biggest Holiday Season Yet.

As the country reopens, Americans are more likely making plans for the Fourth of July right now than Christmas or Chanukah. But marketers are very much focusing on the holiday shopping season as pent-up consumer demand has them bracing for what’s likely to be the biggest holiday season yet.

“Consumers are planning on going full-on, like full all-in for this upcoming holiday season,” Hetal Patel, Executive VP of Smart Audio Intelligence at iHeartMedia, told marketers during the audio giant’s "Sleigh The Holidays" webinar Wednesday. “They plan to buy more gifts, travel more and celebrate the holidays more than ever.”

As Americans shake off pandemic shackles, retail spending could hit $4.3 billion in 2021, drawing on money consumers socked away during the lockdown. The U.S. personal saving rate is 90% higher than in 2019.

But just because Americans are resuming pre-COVID activities, doesn't mean the new habits they developed during the past year, like shopping online, will suddenly evaporate. According to research presented during the webinar, 83% of consumers shopped online in 2020 and 75% say they will continue to do that for the holidays.

Shopping local, another behavior that became more pronounced during the pandemic, is also expected to be a factor this holiday season. “We’ve all witnessed the impact the pandemic has had on local businesses and we have a strong urge to support local businesses and that’s very evident in the consumer research that we are seeing,” Patel said. More than eight in ten (82%) of consumers says they will spend more to support local businesses this year’s compared to 60% in 2020, according to iHeart research conducted by a third party vendor.

It’s a trend that plays in radio’s favor since three in four consumers (75%) say radio is the most recent form of media they experience before shopping and six in ten say they bought a product after hearing a radio ad.

Marketing The Christmas Format

The mid-year period is the time when stations that own the Christmas format in their market start pitching ad campaigns for the holiday season when their ratings typically double their normal monthly averages. With 85 stations that make the holiday flip each year, iHeart is already telling its holiday story. Jon Zellner, President of Programming Operations, said the Christmas format brings millions more listeners to AC and some classic hits stations. “Everyone from the age of 6 to 80 is singing along to the same songs in the car. This is mass appeal radio and this is why we see the audience increases that we’ve seen over the years,” he told the webinar audience. As programmers who have mastered the art of building the complete Christmas format package have found, its more than just the music. “Our stations truly reflect all things Christmas in their local communities,” said Zellner, and that includes audio snippets of children saying what they want Santa to bring them, parents reflecting on their favorite Christmas memories and holiday greetings from members of the military stationed overseas. “It’s the one time in the year that these brands really become around-the-clock, must-listen radio stations.”

Building New Habits

After consumers being trapped in their homes last year, iHeart Chief Marketing Officer Gayle Troberman said the 2021 holiday season will be bigger than ever. And that brings both good and bad news for brands. “The good news is consumers are going to be ready to spend like never before,” Troberman told marketers. “We’ve all been through a hellacious year and this is a year when we’re all going to indulge a little.” On the flip side, the playbook that marketers used in the past “got blown up” by all the behavioral changes and supply chain disruptions that COVID triggered. “We’re just at the cusp of starting to rebuild our new habits,” said Troberman. “This is an opportunity as consumers start new habits that you’re part of that habitual new pattern of behavior and you can become the brand and the go-to for them as they reset.”

Bringing a brand perspective to the content marketing webinar was Caty Burgess Senior VP, Marketing & Media Strategies for The CW, a frequent partner for iHeart’s tentpole music events. Asked why audio works for the network, Burgess offered this testimonial: “When people are done with having been on their devices all day long, sometimes they want to get more entertainment or information but they can’t stand looking at a screen anymore. [Audio is] is a really great way to get messaging across about our shows at a time when people are a little burned out and we can maybe coax them back to a screen to watch TV later that night.”

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