Marketers Get Bold This Valentine’s Day

From splash paint to cow dates, brands try to entice.
Ad Age
Ad Age
February 10th 2021Feb 10, 2021

Normally, a Valentine’s Day occurring in the middle of a long holiday weekend—this year, it is the day before President’s Day on Monday, Feb. 15—would be a boon to marketers, who could shower customers with a range of heart-filled getaways and food possibilities. But nothing is normal in the age of coronavirus. This year, brands are scrambling to be as creative as possible and offer memorable experiences, even though social distance guidelines and travel restrictions remain in place.

“To really have the first pandemic Valentine’s Day, while all these regulations are still in place, brings about new modes of thinking and creating experiences that are immersive,” says Monika Kochhar, CEO of SmartGift, an online gifting platform. “There’s creativity and innovation at their all-time peak.”

Cupid is certainly appearing for brands not usually known for their romance—either through virtual or in-person experiences, or quirky products. Lowe’s, the home improvement retailer, recently unveiled a Valentine’s Day initiative that invites 50 couples across the country to enjoy a special dinner and painting activity at its stores. And “marriage is on the menu” at Dunkin’, which is using its drive-through as a wedding venue. Meanwhile, Stonyfield Organic, the dairy company, is offering animal-loving fans a “Date With a Cow,” and Uber Eats and Amex are releasing a gold-dusted fried chicken sandwich with messages on the buns.

“It is one of those things everyone is looking for something to celebrate—the days can get pretty monotonous,” says Kristen Maxwell Cooper, editor in chief of The Knot, the wedding resource. “We will see couples try to make Valentine’s Day extra special by ordering in or making a big dinner together. I would expect gifting to increase as we’ve seen a lot of people gifting more because they can’t be together in person.”

Yet despite brands laying on the charm, spending overall for the holiday is expected to decrease as travel is on the wane and less-expensive virtual events are replacing many in-person offerings of prior years. Consumers are expected to spend $164.76 on average, a 16% decline over last year’s pre-pandemic record, according to the National Retail Federation.

Many of those who are investing are planning to stay home due to COVID-19 concerns and do their shopping digitally. Some 46% of consumers plan to celebrate Valentine’s Day without leaving their house, while 53% expect to buy gifts online, according to a recent survey by Numerator, a data and technology company.

“Technology has democratized viewership and participation in new media has made everything more accessible,” says Kochhar. “Marketers have a whole new job now.”

That job includes providing a memorable virtual experience that rivals an in-person night out. Stonyfield is hoping consumers will be unable to resist its Valentine’s Day package, which taps into “cow hugging,” a form of self-care and healing due to the proximity of the cow’s warm temperature and large size. Customers can schedule a 15-minute Zoom with a Stonyfield farm cow and also receive yogurt, milk chocolate and a stuffed cow.

“Certainly 2020 was a stressful year for many, but 2021 doesn’t seem to be letting up on stressful times either. So while many can’t travel around to see a cow due to pandemic restrictions, Stonyfield is bringing you this wellness trend virtually,” the company wrote in a release.

Whole Foods is also tapping into virtual romance by offering cooking classes for couples at home. The three-part series will highlight Whole Foods’ in-house brands and include appearances by comedians Tabitha Brown, Heather McMahan and Matt Bellassai.

Lowe’s is trying to inject some “Lowemance” into those consumers who might not consider the aisles of home improvement stores to be as romance-laden as others. Couples who are able to snag a reservation will have a toast and dinner, then a “menu” of paint options from Sherwin Williams for a splash painting they can create and take home as a souvenir. The experience will be socially distanced, according to Marisa Thalberg, exec VP and chief brand and marketing officer of the Mooresville, N.C.-based company.

“Anyone can go to a restaurant, but this is a little different,” she says. “The unexpected nature is what makes it fun.”

Similarly, Dunkin’, which says it has seen many of its customers create their own Dunkin’-branded wedding merchandise over the years, is taking Valentine’s Day to a new level with its Drive-Thru Wedding Contest. Select couples will be able to get married this way, while they and others can also buy Dunkin’ wedding merchandise in a new temporary online shop.

Marketers are hoping one-of-a-kind products will entice consumers to spend. For example, the chicken sandwich from Uber Eats and Amex isn’t ordinary—its buns will be stamped with conversation heart messages like “XOXO” and “Be Mine,” for those who love romance as much as they love fried chicken.

Kraft Mac & Cheese and its Canadian agency Rethink created a pink, candy-flavored version for Valentine’s Day. Consumers can apply for a shot at receiving one of the 1,000 boxes created for the promotion.

Baskin-Robbins has released a Box of Chocolates Cake that is more than it appears—the cake is shaped like a box of candy but is made of ice cream and milk chocolates.

Indeed, this year, brand offerings are like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get. 

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