As 14 February approaches, I can’t help wishing the annual festival of love could be more all-embracing. Not in a physical sense (although I do dream of the day when hugging is no longer a health hazard). I'd just love our industry’s approach to Valentine's Day to include all kinds of love and relationships among all kinds of people.
Take M&S’s Love Sausage, for instance. With more column inches than most sausages can dream of, it was loved by some for its cheeky charm but derided by others as almost comically uncool. Were you a fan of its convenience and creativity? Or do you demand scratch-cooking as an act of love from your partner? More importantly, is your personal response blinding you to what consumers beyond our marketing bubble think? The Empathy Delusion and The Aspiration Window, both by Andrew Tenzer and Ian Murray, show just how far our industry tends to overestimate our understanding of mainstream consumers, and how out of touch with them we often are.
There are broader questions that marketers and adland still overlook too often. Like how does a heart-shaped sausage feel if your beloved is Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist? Or one of the growing number of mainstream consumers who simply chooses a plant-based diet?
Before using Valentine's Day as a marketing or advertising opportunity, I believe brand owners should ask themselves two questions:
- Does your brand have a right to be operating in this area? Is your product or service genuinely relevant, or are you hi-jacking a cultural event and offering nothing of value?
- Assuming you do have a right to play here, how can you help your customers celebrate Valentine's Day in a way that’s truly meaningful and valuable to them – especially those who are generally excluded from the dominant cultural narratives? Because even if you don’t agree that our industry has a responsibility to represent the full diversity of modern Britain, the recent Feeling Seen study by System1, ITV and DECA demonstrates that doing so is good for business.
The most obvious watch-out around Valentine’s Day is how brands reflect romantic relationships.
Valentine's Day stems from Lupercalia, a pagan fertility festival where women were slapped with a sacrificial goat’s blood-dipped hide, before bachelors pulled women’s names from an urn to determine who they’d pair with. But that’s no reason to imply that "being chosen" is still a key success measure for women; nor to exclude relationships across the LGBT+ spectrum; nor to position Valentine's Day as some kind of stalker’s heaven where rules of consent somehow don’t apply.
Brands can do more than simply avoid these obvious pitfalls. They could use Valentine’s Day to celebrate love and relationships beyond the romantic/sexual too. Like Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope celebrating the power of sisterhood through "Galentine's Day". (Side note: if you’re channelling Galentine’s, remember it’s not a consolation prize for wall-flower women who remain unpicked.)
If your brand has a male target audience, how about using Valentine’s Day as an antidote to the way society still socialises men and boys to avoid expressing vulnerability? Bearing in mind suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45, helping men express their love and support for each other on "Palentine’s Day" could be a hugely positive action.
My bereaved Mum still sent Valentine’s Day cards to Dad, which makes me crave a day dedicated to those who have left us too, like Día de Muertos. Considering more than half a million people pass away in the UK in an average year, and one child in every average UK class has lost a parent or sibling, could Valentine’s Day help us honour lost loved ones too?
For a B2B brand, could Valentine’s Day be a time to help people celebrate their teammates, Ted Lasso-style? If your brand is highly trusted and about protection, could you use that trust to do something significant (and I mean something significant, not empty virtue-signalling) to help the 1.5 million people whose loved one perpetrates domestic abuse?
Showing love and respect for the people who buy and use our brands means creating something they will genuinely value. But we can only do that if we make the effort to properly understand them.
Claiming “love is blind” is not enough. As Maya Angelou reminded us, “We are only as blind as we want to be.”
Lori Meakin is founder of independent creative agency Joint