The Importance of Seasonality and the Myths That Surround It.
Updated: Nov 12, 2020
Collectively we marketers circulate many stories about the seasonality of our businesses. Some are probably genuine and some are likely exaggerated and some, sadly, are complete myths. I’d like to suggest you pause for a moment and really examine the data and nature of your business before perpetuating seasonality myths.
In the beginning there was no winter and no fall. Then, so the myth goes, Persephone, was abducted down into the underworld by Hades. Under the sort of agreement only Greek Gods could make, Zeus brokered a deal, Persephone was wed to Hades, but allowed to go back to be with her mother, above land, for half the year. And so one of the great explanations of seasonality was born.
In a similar manner marketing departments and sales teams have made up stories about the seasonality of their business. They have poured millions of dollars of media behind this seasonality to such an extent that no one can recognize what consumer demand is driven by the seasonality and what is driven by the heightened levels of marketing.
As national marketers we often look for seasonality as if it’s going to be uniform across the country. Local or regional marketers generally have a better grasp. For a start the very foundation of much of the seasonality – the weather – is so very different state to state and city to city in the US and in many other large, long or mountainous countries. These weather patterns affect the seasonality of all sorts of other things. So it’s important that we consider seasonality factors not just on a national scale but geographically too.
Compare for a moment the rainfall and temperature patterns in Miami and San Francisco. Very different, no? If the weather isn't the same, why would we expect any seasonality in our marketing to be even similar?
You can see why Mark Twain supposedly said: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”
Some businesses are so obviously seasonal. Some basic examples jump out: (in spring) seeds, lawn products, BBQs, swimming pool equipment (in summer) suntan lotion and swimming costumes (in autumn) leaf blowers (in winter) snow blowers, warm socks and hot cocoa. Of course geography plays a role here. In the south of the US we use a lot of suntan cream in the winter and many people have their pools working year-round. And we never need wooly socks. So be aware, product demand seasonality, like seasonality itself, isn’t the same everywhere; timing will change according to geography.
While many of these screamingly obvious factors play their part for intrinsically seasonal products, some factors affect the sales, and consumer demand, of things that don’t, on the face of it, seem to have much seasonality: Savings Accounts, Credit Cards, Diet & Exercise Plans, Cell Phones, TV’s, Furniture, Bleach, Hand Sanitizer.
It’s difficult to determine the true seasonality of your business unless you have a constant and even year round media plan and a baseline benchmark. That’s something that’s very difficult to pull off. And what’s more, many other things change from year to year that’ll have affected your sales that will cloud the full effects of seasonality. Things like product innovations, price increases or reductions, competitive products, advertising spend, unusual weather and pandemics all play major roles.
My point is seasonality isn’t just about traditional notions of time of year predicated on weather – though that has a lot to do with it. There are many other factors – some hidden – that you should consider when building marketing plans.
Things that affect market seasonality.
This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but if you run through them in relation to your category, product, service or business you might find that some of them could be having more of an effect than you had thought and there could be an opportunity to increase sales – or at least more efficiently use your marketing dollars at the right time of year for the best R.O.I.
The first group involve the seasonality of life changes. Today we can use other digital marketing tools to identify when people are about to make one of these changes – and we’ll talk a bit about that a bit. But seasonality will help determine the best months to run broad media like TV, Radio and Print.
When People Get married.
Weddings for sure have some seasonality to them and it depends a lot on where you are in the country – or which country you’re in. So if you’re in the wedding business – flower arrangements, wedding planner, wedding cakes and registries – you know of course when the busiest times are. But then there’s a lot of related business that are affected here too.
Honeymoons are key if you’re in the travel business. Cruises, airlines and hotels love newlyweds. Newlyweds also tend to make some other decisions. For example they might finally go onto the same cell phone plan. They might also consider cancelling one of their plans. Another thing newlyweds start to do is bundle. They are likely to finally combine and bundle some things that they have been putting off like their car insurance, their home insurance, their cell phone their TV streaming plans and so on.
So while marriage may seem like a great opportunity for marketers it’s also a high risk loyalty situation for them too. Of course there are a lot of ways to identify impending marriage dates for people. They tend to start using online gift registry sites and using indicative search terms – not necessarily your search terms. If you’re a car insurance company and your loyal customer starts searching for “Honeymoons in Cancun” you might want to take some action and talk to them.
If weddings and marriage affect your business you better get to know the seasonality (and days of the week even). Couples in the South avoid the sweltering summer months. Couples in the North prefer September and October. There’s a good, succinct article at https://priceonomics.com/whats-the-most-popular-time-of-year-to-get-married/ with data attributed to the Knot.com about wedding seasons by region.
When Folks Move House
What about Moving? Did you know that in New York City everyone used to move on the same day – May 1st. This tradition began in colonial times and lasted until the 1940’s. February 1st was known as ‘Rent Day’ and landlords had to give notice to tenants as to what their rent would be on May 1st. Tenancy contracts would expire and renew on that day so everyone used that one day as the day to move if they wished.
Moving isn’t that simple to understand today. However, since so many people have asked landlords to release them from contracts as a result of The Covid 19 virus around the same time and since contracts tend to be annual you might guess that the seasonality of moving may change considerably. If people flood back into vacant apartments at about the same time the moving cycle could well look more like it did in the early part of the last century with much more moving happening at around the same anniversary of the re-opening.
Meantime moving tends to be higher in the summer months in the north yet flatter in the south. House purchases too play a key role here as does the school year since parents prefer not to move their kids between schools during the academic year if they can help it.
Moving trends are vital for many businesses since recent movers spend a lot of money on their homes improving them and getting them the way they like. That’s the main reason why new movers mailing lists a so valuable. But be careful. Today people make a lot of purchase decisions before they actually move.
Time was when people would sort out a TV provider before they moved into a house and figured out an internet provider after. Today a great many people sort out the internet provider first before they move in. For many, TV can wait since, if you have the internet, you can stream whatever you need – at least for a while.
Data companies can identify your customers or potential customers who have put their houses on the market – so you’ll know that they are at risk.
After people move it may take them a little while to figure out what else they need to do. Many people change cell phone provider a few months after they just moved. Any ideas? The reason is simple really: they find that they only get good reception with their current provider at the back of the house or by the front door and their guest visitors, with other plans, show them the kind of reception they get with other service providers. Envy and necessity leads to switching.
When People Have Babies
In the US there isn’t a lot of seasonal variation in births throughout the year. Each month broadly has between 8% and 10% of the births. Nationally, February is the lowest month and August is the highest month.
If you squint you can see that some states have some variations from the National Averages. Puerto Rico and Vermont have two of the most noticeable variations from the national norm. Maybe it has something to do with hurricane seasons maybe hunting season. If the regional variations affects your businesses it’s probably worth further a deeper dive investigation.
Birth rates obviously affect sales of cribs, baby shower balloons and the like, but broadly speaking, while it’s a phenomenal life change – and determines people increased spend on some goods and services – it’s not that seasonal the scale just makes it look that way.
When Kids Go Back to School
Back to school is less of a season and more of an event. It’s a buying season in readiness for the academic school year. It’s important to know that it varies by state quite a lot. So much so, apparently, that kids in Washington State who finish high school go to school the equivalent of a whole year longer than neighboring kids in Oregon.
As a Brit living in the US I found the whole back to school sale a bit odd for a long time. I understood why stores should advertise pencils and backpacks. But once I got the whole idea that it included university college students it makes more sense. This particular group are going through a major life changes and moving at the same time. They need everything from desk lamps to bedding to new cell phones and computers. It’s major. It affects many businesses in some way.
When People Buy Gifts
People buy gifts for all sort of occasions. Yet they are pretty much associated with a specific day rather than a season. The Holiday Season around Christmas and Kwanza and Hanukah is the most obvious. You’ll probably have figured out how your sales are affected by this time of year. What’s more you’ll probably have exhausted most opportunities to leverage “The Holidays”. You’ll have noticed that with the speed of delivery for online products the buying season is getting later and later each year. Yet the current slowing of big purchase delivery times may make this 2020 season’s buying period earlier once again. Google has a good article here about this 2020 retail online season and how they see habits changing this year.
As we’ve seen, people get married at different times so there’s the same seasonality in wedding anniversaries. (Just mentioning it in case you happen to make anniversary specific gifts.)
Birthdays, as we discussed, are hardly seasonal – they’re pretty spread out - at least in the US.
Valentine’s Day is big for many marketers. You can see the increase interest in gift ideas
This chart combines searches for “Gifts for Her” and “Gifts for Him”. Interestingly, women are twice as likely as men to search for gift ideas for this important occasion. I leave that up to someone else to hypothesize why. I’m not going there.
When People Go Outside
Lots of fair-weather activities are associated with summer. Once again we must be mindful of the geography. What’s nice hot weather in the north can be stifling in the south. The most popular time to play golf in Florida is from Jan to March. It’s also the most expensive time of year to play (in case you’re planning a trip).
When People Spring Clean, Tidy and Paint
A quick glance at the editorial calendar of any number of home oriented magazines will immediately tell you when it’s time for a tidy. Spring of course. There’s a good few products that rely on this annual human desire to clean and throw shit out and re-box calling it things like categorization.
Here’s a few more that are less expected
When People Are Optimistic [Or Pessimistic] – New Year, the Economy, Pandemic
Of course if people believe they are doing well financially they’re more likely to make a big purchase. If they see themselves doing well for the next few years they will be more likely to enter into a lease or payment-over-time, larger-than-normal purchase.
The New Year also holds a lot of great potential. People are making all sorts of resolutions – to get fit, to diet, to exercise, to sort out their finances, to cut back on unnecessary expenses, to have more fun, to travel more. This phenomenon has many knock on effects. The American Express Card was seen by many around the world as a travel card with as much weight as a passport. AmEx found that in the New Year all sorts of people saw the New Year as the year they would travel and need an AmEx card. Early-year mailing performed better than any other time of year.
Some ethnographies generally have a more optimistic outlook than others so your target market can be a major factor here. For example, in the US, research consistently shows that Hispanics have the highest optimism scores generally.
When the category traditionally has sales events or unveils new products
I won’t spend much time on this because it’s generally determined by the specific industry. The auto industry’s traditional Summer Sales Events around the new model releases and the cruise lines autumn events to get people locked in for the next season. But if you’re in such an industry beware that loyal consumers have been trained to wait for these events and you’ll want to be ready.
When people have lots of money (paydays, IRS refund checks bonuses) or less money (around or just after the holidays)
Some people who get bonuses or (as in many Latin American Countries) a 13th month of salary (which amounts to the same thing in my book) could be happy to spend some money at the end of the year. While many of us feel much poorer around the holidays, Lexus spend heavily on Winter Events - I guess their customers don't have the same financial concerns.
Naturally we tend to think about affluent people getting bonuses. Yet in the United States people who have paid taxes all year can get sizable refunds or rebates when they do their taxes – this is just money people have overpaid during the year to the Government. Many people who are likely to get a refund will do their taxes early. Knowing when the Government starts sending out the refunds can be critical if you’re targeting people at a moment they feel flush.
Another great myth that continues is that Cyber Monday will be a great day to sell stuff on the internet. This myth began, as most will know, when few people had good internet access at home and waited until the Monday after Black Friday to go to the office, log on and buy stuff. That worked for a few years until most people got broadband internet at home and office employees were discouraged from doing their shopping on company time.
Cyber Monday is an expensive time to advertise on Google, Facebook, TV, Print and Radio because of the competitive bids. This year online sales are expected to last from Black Friday until at least January.
That’s not to say people aren’t shopping on Cyber Monday. They are, but only because they think they’ll get a good deal. And people who buy on sale may not be your best customers.
OK so Cyber Monday is a marketing myth that has largely morphed from being a selling period (the week after black Friday – for holiday online shopping) driven by access to being a selling day driven by the marketing and media hype.
Wrapping it up
Does your company over-exaggerate seasonality? Or have you just not recognized the opportunities seasonality offers? The chances are your business is affected by multiple seasonality issues.
I urge marketers to ask themselves regularly – every year, every planning session – what seasonality they are taking into effect. It can constantly be changing. One event can change everything.
In September 2017, the 13th named storm of the Atlantic season, a Category 5 Hurricane, Maria, blasted parts of Dominica, St Croix and Puerto Rico. In the week that followed many of Puerto Rico’s residents had abandoned their contracts for services their devastated homes no longer needed. Many changed service providers later that year or at the beginning of the next when their homes were repaired and they once again had electricity. If you were, for example, a TV provider offering 2 year contracts, well, you can imagine what needs to be built into your marketing plans as all those contracts begin to expire around the same time – around April 2019.
Analyze what seasonality factors affect your industry. And keep an eye on anything that might affect it. The current global pandemic will likely have some knock on effects reaching out to every industry. Right now you’re probably still dealing with the here and now, but soon enough, hopefully, you’ll be looking back at the now to figure out how it affected seasonality or changed the seasonality of your business.
Most clients and companies spend more marketing dollars, pounds, yen and pesos at times of the year they believe are the most seasonally important. There are two consequences of this:
1. After a year or two it becomes impossible to tell what is the result of the increase marketing spend and what is the result of the customer seasonality demand increase.
2. Many times the sales, or customers acquired during these periods, do not produce the best customers.
Re-examining seasonality can pay big returns on investment.
If you want to connect with us at WhiteStripe and discuss the seasonality of your business, or any other part of your marketing plan, please go to WhiteStripe.org. We’d be pleased to help.
You might also want to check this site out: The Impact of Seasonality: 5 Tips For A Successful Seasonal Marketing Campaign at https://www.invespcro.com/blog/seasonal-marketing-campaign/