Why we fail at gift giving (but keep trying).

Behold, the holiday season!  A time equally filled with joy… and riddled with anxiety.  While the stress associated with the holidays can go to endless depths, for the more privileged among us, the question “What should I give?” is anxiety-inducing enough.

In some ways, gift-giving can be likened to a marketer’s experience developing a new product. While a marketer’s end goal is profit, both the marketer and gift-giver are determined to deliver their target recipient an item or experience that they’d love and didn’t know they needed (AKA ‘surprise and delight’).  Marketers (often) do research on their target via surveys, interviews, social listening, focus groups, and/or ethnographies.  The gift-giver’s research is the many interactions they’ve had with the recipient throughout their relationship. But despite having years of insight, it can still be so hard to find that perfect gift!

Inevitably, a significant (or other word that starts with ‘s’ 😉 load more time and resources are going to be spent on the gift than the actual value that that individual will get from it.  There. I said it.  Note* Please do NOT use this as an excuse to forgo gift giving if you have not yet discussed that arrangement with your loved ones.  One gift I do not enjoy is hate mail.

We make up for that gap by saying ‘It’s the thought that counts.’  And maybe some people really mean it.  Or maybe you did succeed at finding that one, amazing gift that the recipient didn’t know that they needed or wanted.  But don’t feel bad, that seldom happens in life and in product launches.  I don’t have any precise statistics around what percentage of holiday gifts fall flat (think about your own experience!), but I can tell you that 70-90% of product launches fail.  Granted, product launch failures can be for a number of reasons, but the top reason tends to be lack of consumer adoption – people simply didn’t want it.

I come from a family of shoppers.  We shop for ourselves.  “I bought this thing for myself, you can pay me back for it and wrap it.” Boom. Done.  There’s absolutely no surprise, yet at least some delight – I guess one out of two ain’t bad?  But sometimes people just don’t know what they want!  So we have to guess.  Wouldn’t it be lovely if all consumers were like, I really wish you could make this exact thing…and on top of that, they meant exactly what they said (that’s another topic for another day…).

Once I was really excited about the gift I planned to give. My dad is a creative guy, and he had an invention idea that he had been toying with for a little while.  So I learned how to use 3D design software and created a prototype using the 3D printer at our local library.  I didn’t try to estimate what it cost me in my time, but it cost no more than $1 to print.  But the look of surprise and delight on my dad’s face when he opened it is something I will never, ever forget.

This is why we give gifts to loved ones – to achieve that nirvana of the delight and surprise that helps your loved one know that you appreciate and ‘get’ them.  As marketers, we try to do the same with the personas we have identified and researched.  Ultimately there is some element of guesswork involved, but there is nothing like the euphoria of hitting the nail on the head to deliver that item or service somebody never realized they needed.  It’s not easy – which is why it rarely happens – but all of those misses are worth the hit.

With that, I wish you the best of luck with your gift-giving efforts this year, and a very happy holiday season.

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