Chloé Gee

The rise of the mushy-gushy marketing empire

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock since early to mid-January, I’m sure you’ve seen the slow onslaught of pink and red hearts beginning to overrun your local everything. That’s right, the mushy-gushy, lovesick holiday of Valentine’s Day is upon us. Ugh. Half-Priced Chocolate Day (aka Feb. 15) can’t get here soon enough!

I’m not bitter, I swear! But as a single lady in her late 20s whose mother won’t stop soliciting random (typically good-looking, thanks mom!) men for blind dates, Cupid’s nauseating celebration of romance isn’t my favorite day of the year.

Before you get all grumpy with my cynic-minded view, just hang on a second. While it’s true I’m not a die-hard Valentine’s Day fiend, as a marketing expert I’ll tell you that I think Valentine’s Day is brilliant.

But first, a brief history

So, if you aren’t familiar with the origins of Valentine’s Day, buckle up because it’s going to get weird here for a second. (Stick with me, I promise we’re going to talk about marketing in a bit.)

The earliest origins of this widely celebrated holiday are traced back to a very interesting festival in ancient Rome (6th century, B.C.) that involved a lot of nudity, animal sacrifices, random matchmaking, and some other sketchy things that’ll make you say, “Wow, they liked to party.”

Anyway, the rituals of Lupercalia were held annually on Feb. 15 and were thought to ward off evil spirits and infertility. With the spread of Christianity, the festival eventually lost most of its popularity over time.

Fast forward to the 3rd century A.D. for the next most common piece of the legend surrounding Valentine’s Day. Rome was being ruled by Emperor Claudius II, who outlawed marriage for young men in his empire in an effort to make them better soldiers. A priest named Valentine began performing marriage ceremonies in secret for young couples before he was caught and sentenced to death. It is said that while he was imprisoned, he fell in love with a young girl. Before he was executed, he wrote what is believed to be the first valentine, where he signed his farewell letter “From your Valentine.”

A couple centuries later, the pagan celebration of Lupercalia was eliminated by Pope Gelasius I and replaced with a celebration in the name of martyr Saint Valentine on Feb. 14. The day wouldn’t be associated with romance until the Middle Ages, where it’s speculated a connection was made between the beginning of birds’ mating season and the Saint’s day.

Bonus fact: You might be wondering where Cupid falls into this mix. Guess what? No one really knows! He’s the Roman god of love, so it’s assumed there was some overlap at one point. Honestly though… he’s annoying. Stop shooting people with your unsolicited love arrows!

So, when did it really explode into a money-making machine?

Written Valentine’s letters and cards began gaining popularity around the 15th century and became a more common tradition in the 17th century.

The trend officially made its way to the United States in 1847, when Esther Howard received an intricately decorative love note from England (where the Industrial Revolution had been in full effect for a cool minute) that inspired her to begin making fancy valentines. In 1849, Esther’s brother left for a sales trip with a dozen sample valentines and returned with $5,000 worth of orders!

From there the fire spread rapidly. Candy manufacturers, greeting card companies, and eventually jewelry stores all jumped at the opportunity to market their products as the key to eternal love. Hallmark first began offering Valentine’s Day cards in 1913, and the rest followed.

This year, approximately 145 million Valentine’s Day cards will be exchanged, not including packaged children’s valentines. (We won’t even talk about how many of those get passed around elementary schools… or how many germs get passed around at school either.)

If you think that’s staggering, just wait. Americans are expected to spend $20.7 billion on Valentine’s Day in 2019, to a tune of a whopping $160 per person on average. How are they going to spend it?

Here’s a breakdown according to the National Retail Federation. Americans are expected to spend:

  • $3.9 billion on jewelry
  • $3.5 billion on an evening out
  • $2.1 billion on clothing
  • $1.9 billion on flowers
  • $1.8 billion on candy
  • $1.3 billion on gift cards
  • $933 million on greeting cards.

All those dollar signs are a result of one gal’s smart idea that paved the way for an unparalleled and recurring marketing campaign. Whether you love it or love to hate it, Valentine’s Day isn’t just stimulating relationships across our country—it’s also helping stimulate our economy and businesses every year. That, my friends, is brilliant.

How do I get in Cupid’s corner?

What can marketing experts and business owners take away from the evolution of Valentine’s Day? Emotional connections are one of the most powerful tools in the marketing mix. In fact, studies have proven that emotional ads work best. If you’re wanting to implement a strategy for next Valentine’s Day, think about how you can market your products or services as an act of love. Need some inspiration? Here are a few ideas:

  • Celebrate other forms of love in your campaign. Extend the Valentine’s Day messaging to include family, friends, pets, and couples alike. Galentine’s Day events for the ladies are also very popular.
  • Associate your products with the holiday, even if they’re non-traditional.
  • Are you a nonprofit? Hold a fundraiser! “Do you love our product/mission/cause? Donate!”
  • Create a fun contest and/or a hashtag to get people engaged. In 2018, Dunkin Donuts had a “love contest” where users told about how their love Runs on Dunkin.
  • Host a Valentine’s Day event that displays your love for your customers.
  • More traditional but always effective: offer discounts.
  • Don’t forget the single people – like me!

Be sure to incorporate a Valentine’s Day theme into your social media strategy, as 47 percent of shoppers use social networks as their main sources of inspiration. That’s certainly supported by the social share spike that occurs around the holiday.

The evolution of Valentine’s Day is interesting from both a historical standpoint and a marketing perspective. Whatever your view on the holiday, take some time to build those emotional connections and share the love with your customers, staff, and every one in between.

Seriously though, love may be in the air this week, but so is the flu. Wash your hands. 🙂

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