Consumers want to be related to and feel understood. Having empathy has helped brands excel this year. It will be particularly effective during the holiday season.

Megha Parikh, vice president and strategy director at 22squared

Alicia Damiano, vice president and brand strategy director at 22squared

Analysts are actively attempting to predict how consumers will handle 2020’s post-election, mid-pandemic holiday season.

This year will be markedly different than any other the retail industry has ever experienced. And yet, the questions being asked and answered by retail strategists, experts, and analysts alike have somehow (insert confused, shrugging emoji here) remained the same.

A quick Google search and you’ll see recommendations and strategies that work about: “Where will people shop? How much will they spend? How can we get them to spend more? What will celebrations look like?” and so on. Seeing people ask all these seemingly “normal” questions and forming recommendations in a year that has been anything but had us admittedly perplexed.


In such an unpredictable and challenging year like 2020, shouldn’t we be digging deeper, asking better, more personal questions? Ones that will help us understand what will impact when people plan, what they spend, and how they celebrate? Ones that prove that we, as brands, get it?

So, in addition to asking questions that lead to more traditional retail and marketing strategies, let’s also ask a few that will help make brands think and behave more human-like. Brands that do will help provide the very thing people are craving most this holiday season—empathy.

Having empathy has helped brands excel this year and will be particularly differentiating during the holiday season. After all, people generally do not want to be sold to. They want to be related to and feel understood. Retail brands will have to develop new, unconventional strategies to set themselves apart and provide meaningful messaging and utility to customers forced to evolve their habits, traditions, and expectations for the holidays.

And the way to get there is by asking new questions that will lead to more empathetic strategies and innovations this holiday season. Here are three questions to get you started:

Will this holiday season create extra weight for our increasingly heavy mental loads? Even in a typical year, people consider the holidays to be super stressful. There’s the financial burden of buying gifts and the perceived societal pressure to make it all so “perfect.” During a year with an ongoing pandemic, even routine activities, like grocery shopping, is perceived as more harrowing during the holidays.


How might brands help lighten the crushing weight of the season? 

When brands think from a human experience standpoint, they can develop enormously helpful ways to help alleviate stress and preserve our most limited resource: time. Consider the Domino’s Paving for Pizza initiative or Chick-Fil-A’s Mom Valet service as examples of alleviating the mental load when people need it the most. Or create ways to make the holidays much more turnkey.

  • Create customizable or premade kits for meals, decor, even gifts
  • Display grab-and-go meals or even grab-and-go gifts
  • Build unique subscription services for everything from meals to gifts, to even holiday decorations
  • Make quizzes that result in personalized gifting profiles for friends and family
  • And, of course, provide options for contactless delivery and pickup

Will people even be able to connect and gather with family and friends meaningfully? 

51% of Americans don’t expect to spend Christmas with family this year, with almost 60% of Americans do not anticipate traveling this year either. Seeing that we’re already a nation fraught with isolation and loneliness, having to limit social interactions, avoid travel, and distance ourselves from others this holiday season will most certainly pour salt on a gaping wound.

How can brands build connections this holiday season? By creating tangible ways for connections to happen.

  • Make the traditional gathering experience digital. Help customers feel like they have been transported somewhere interesting or familiar (a good example is Snapchat’s Augmented Reality lenses).
  • Promote digital, shareable experiences (cooking classes families can take virtually, wine tastings), or shareable menus that people can cook together in unison or with groups of friends, similar to Netflix watch parties.
  • Host or create digital cookie- and gift-exchange programs.

Will people even be up for experiencing the joy and magic of the holiday season this year?

It’s human nature to look back upon a closing year through the “peak-end” rule (meaning we only remember the intensely positive or negative moments, or the “peaks,” and the final moments of an experience, or the “end”).

As 2020 ends, people will have memories clouded by loss and challenges this holiday season. How might brands create new and memorable “peaks” that highlight the moments of comfort, happiness, normalcy?

  • Help people to reflect on all the good that happened during the year, either alone or with others, through prompts, questions, or challenges (like this 30-day branded Happiness Challenge).
  • Go easy on the over-aspirational content this year (we’re looking at you big red bow on the luxury car ad) and instead showcase realistic, humble, yet happy moments people can relate to and see themselves in.
  • Put the lens of joy and levity on communications and engagement strategies to lighten the end to a reasonably heavy year (like ESPN did with the return of football).

Look, it’s been a rough year and the holidays are upon us. As 2020 ends, consumers craving, some normalcy need brands to step up and save the holidays. With the political climate, the pandemic, the economy, health concerns, everyone has lots on their minds already. Brands that can prove they get this and embrace more empathetic, human-like strategies will most certainly win this holiday season. Because helping real people when they need it most, it ultimately helps business.

22squared is a creative agency. Its services include brand strategy, communication and content strategy, data and analytics, influencer marketing, search performance and web design.