Christmas arrives earlier every year, judging by the time decorations are hung up in-store, and even the most jaded marketing Scrooge would be foolish to ignore the festive cheer; according to credit-card company Maestro, British punters spent an average of £813 making merry last year.
While no brand can afford to miss out on its share of Christmas spending, neither can any business miss out on the opportunity to cement good relations with staff, suppliers and customers; the festive season is an ideal time to thank somebody for a job well done or for business received - which means the incentives industry is much in demand.
Yash Chadha, managing director of merchandise supplier B2B Initiatives, says 40% of his sales come in the last quarter. 'We do lots of work in the drinks industry, encouraging pubs to stock up on particular products for Christmas. Last year we ran a promotion for Baileys, giving away Sex and the City videos, which supported its sponsorship of the show.'
The frenzy of campaigns around this time can make it difficult to cut through to sales staff, according to Phil Romans, chief executive of channel marketing agency Meerkat Culture. 'We came across a call centre where there were 35 different incentive programmes (aimed at staff) running at once,' he says.
Romans explains that to stand out, incentive activity needs to grab the attention of staff from the start. Meerkat Culture has devised a programme called 'Mind, body and soul' for Coca-Cola Enterprises' (CCE) festive push. The campaign is aimed at telesales staff on some of CCE's biggest accounts, including Matthew Clark, Carlsberg, Coors and Scottish Courage. The work encourages the drinks companies to sell CCE's products in a package with their own brands to the on-trade. Rather than giving the usual PowerPoint-assisted briefing, the agency drafted in West End actors to deliver the half-hour brief as a musical, complete with knowing references to real staff members.
Hitting sales targets is rewarded with a Christmas hamper - though the targets are cumulative, so the more sales, the more products from the hamper are won, from a jar of brandy butter to a bottle of wine. This means everyone should get something, rather than simply rewarding those that hit the top target. 'Staff need to buy into the programme straight away,' says Romans. 'If they don't hit their targets at the beginning, they know they won't get the rewards, so they just switch off.'
Tracy Aslam, head of incentive business at Kingfisher Gift Vouchers, believes it is vital for departments that are especially busy over the Christmas period, such as call centres, to keep staff focused. 'These organisations run incentives all year, but at Christmas they might need an extra push,' she says. 'We run an event using our voucher vortex - a wind tunnel containing vouchers that people can grab. We can also take in a Santa's sack with the top 10 toys or run a store event.'
Chris Hartley, general manager at Argos Rewards, says the novelty factor can boost a campaign's effectiveness. 'Every brand and retailer will be offering some kind of Christmas promotion. Those that are successful in capturing attention are those with the most imaginative or tailored approach.'
Richard Kirk, chief executive of Projectlink Motivation, believes keeping staff engaged is particularly important around Christmas, because absenteeism, which costs the UK £11bn a year, is a particular problem in December.
'A lot of people disappear to go shopping and you have to do something to keep them at work,' he says. 'We have run campaigns where staff have attendance cards they have to get stamped. If they miss a day, they lose half of the reward.'
Employees often use the New Year to consider their career options, so making staff feel valued at this time makes sense, adds Katherine Francey, head of Harrods corporate service. 'Christmas can be a good time to reflect on how the company has done throughout the year, rather than particular people.' She recommends that all staff are rewarded in a similar way, but that levels of reward can differ. 'Different levels of hampers can be given to staff according to their rank or importance.'
Kirk says the dangers of simply giving everybody a gift as a thank you is that it is taken as a given and has no motivating effect. 'It needs to be seen as part of a programme of reward and recognition throughout the year or it has no meaning. Christmas is a good time to say thank you, but it just one of many.'
Andrew Johnson, sales and marketing director of The Virgin Voucher, agrees.
'Ideally, a Christmas incentive should form part of an overall incentive calendar designed to stimulate activity at key trading times throughout the year.'
Katy Lefevre, marketing manager at Thomas Cook Vouchers, also believes Christmas can be the culmination of a year of activity. 'Many people book holidays in January, so travel voucher programmes are successful if they aim toward Christmas.'
For some organisations, a complex scheme is too much, and they may want to simply say a festive 'thanks'. John Bohan, account manager at John Lewis Corporate, claims many businesses are looking for a quick and easy solution at Christmas, hence the enduring popularity of hampers, wine and flowers. 'At any other time of the year businesses might want to talk to us about incentives and additional support, but at Christmas they simply want an off-the-shelf, rapid-response solution.'
Like the customer arena, interest in staff incentives is building earlier.
'We've been getting calls from September when the kids go back to school. Last year we were running low on items from late November and ran out of stock on some products completely,' says Bohan.
However, companies must tread a fine line between offering a powerful incentive and the reality of delivery. 'You get increased interest if a prize is an item in short supply. But don't promise if you can't deliver,' warns B2B Initiatives' Chadha.
Andrea Born, head of business incentives at House of Fraser, says that the essence of a successful campaign is unchanged. 'Careful planning is as true for running a Christmas incentive scheme as it is for running a scheme at any time of the year.'
Thinking ahead, it appears, is the difference between translating the festive cheer onto the bottom line and watching other people make merry.
Supplier: Projectlink Motivation
Objective: To boost sales and enhance loyalty among 3663's free-trade clients in the lead-up to Christmas.
Campaign: For catering supplier 3663, the run-up to Christmas is one of most important trading periods and it is crucial that clients with discretionary budgets maintain their spend. The company sets threshold spends for those that have signed up to the scheme. Clients gain points for buying selected items to a predetermined level; those that meet the spend level are rewarded with Supercheques, a reward currency that can be exchanged for a range of high-street or experience vouchers.
Supplier: John Lewis Corporate
Objective: To drive an increase in sales of all Neff kitchen appliances in Jewson showrooms.
Campaign: Jewson Kitchen Showroom managers are incentivised to sell more Neff products, such as ovens, extractor fans and fridges. Managers achieving set Neff sales targets before the closing date of 31 November 2005 win a luxury John Lewis hamper in time to enjoy it over the Christmas break. The scheme also empowers all staff involved in the strategy; Neff's own area business managers are also eligible for the John Lewis hamper if the top Jewson branches in their area achieve their sales target objectives.
Supplier: Kingfisher Gift Vouchers
Objective: Keeping in touch with the company's retired staff.
Campaign: GSK is committed to the wellbeing of retired staff; 23,000 are members of its retired staff association in 50 branches around the country. These branches organise a range of social activities, such as outings and dinners. Some members who feel they are too young for active involvement with the association or too frail are called 'Keep in touch' members and Christmas is a key opportunity to maintain contact. The company send members a Christmas card each year with a £10 gift voucher and a diary.
Supplier: B2B Initiatives
Objective: To promote Jai Kudo frames across Europe during a traditionally quiet trading time.
Campaign: Designer spectacle-frame manufacturer Jai Kudo is targeting resellers in 10 European countries with a sales drive that runs from the end of November to the end of January next year. The company ran the same promotion successfully last Christmas. The activity offers optometrists and opticians the opportunity to collect one of 30 different products. If sellers are successful in boosting frame sales over the period, they can choose from merchandise ranging up to an LCD TV worth £500.
SLUG AND LETTUCE
Promoter: Red Bull
Objective: To boost sales during the Christmas period.
Objective: Red Bull is aiming to boost its appeal in the 50-strong Slug and Lettuce estate during the party season with the introduction of cocktails. The brand is sponsoring two skiing trips to Austria as prizes for the staff who sell the most drinks. The winners will also get the chance to visit the Red Bull factory. Slug and Lettuce marketing manager Nicola Acreman says the company prefers to run incentives that are not cash-related. 'We want activity that sits well with food as we will be having a lot of Christmas parties. The season starts in late November for us.'
POOLIA PARKER BRIDGE
Supplier: Spirit Integrated Communication
Objective: To keep Poolia Parker Bridge front of mind during the Christmas period with companies that want to recruit staff.
Objective: Poolia Parker Bridge recruits temporary and permanent staff for finance, accounting, banking and office-support roles. The company is looking to Christmas as a brand-building opportunity by sending out a chocolate Advent calendar to key contacts and business prospects. As well as acting as a reminder of the consultancy, the calendar also contains useful information such as the last Christmas posting dates for first- and second-class letters.