This week sees every travel company (and the media) talk about ‘Blue Monday.’ The story goes that based on a ‘scientific formula’, the third Monday of January is the most depressing day of the year for us all (and by the same analysis, around 21-23rd June is the least depressing – only another 150+ days to go people. We can do this).
How ‘Blue Monday’ came about is an interesting story featuring influencer marketing, PR, pseudoscience and persuasion, but it can also help us frame how we should talk to our customers during the coming challenging times. So, if you’re not too depressed (add a shot of Jameson to your coffee, that’ll sort you out), read on.
Who was Dr. Cliff Arnall?
Research Blue Monday and very quickly Cliff will pop up. His name is synonymous with the magic ‘scientific’ formula that gave us Blue Monday. In reality it was all a marketing and PR stunt for a UK based travel channel and company (now defunct) called Sky Travel. They wanted a way to stimulate conversation and encourage holiday bookings in January, and so they initiated a campaign that would get needed media coverage and conversation going. This was in 2005, pre-social media click-bait, so still very much relying on traditional media channels and PR. As a commercial concept, Blue Monday is actually not that old.
So back to Cliff. Influencer marketing is a very visible entity today, but of course, it has always existed. When Michael Jackson or Beyonce shot those Pepsi ads, influencer marketing was alive and well. When the dentist in the white coat tells you to use a certain toothpaste in a YouTube commercial, the subconscious cue you receive as a consumer is that “the person in the white coat knows best. I should buy that.” Afterall, they are an expert.
Can I Buy Your Opinion?
So, Sky Travel hire the PR firm Porter Novelli and task them to create relevant conversation that would lead to holiday bookings. The PR firm reportedly deliver a largely pre-written press release (as you do, you’re a PR firm after all) to a number of academics along with a financial offer to those who would put their name to this ‘Blue Monday’ concept. Nothing says ‘this is true’ more than having a few doctorate academics listed on your press release. Today, as consumers, we know influencers are being paid for their shameless promotion, but academics are above such things, except Cliff.
To be fair, the concept itself is sound. There are a number of factors that make January pretty depressing in the northern hemisphere. However, it was the pseudoscience of making a formula, identifying a specific day based on this formula and calling it ‘psychology’ was the mistake. But the media loved it, a qualified psychologist backed it, and here we are, 18 years later, and it is still an annual conversation. But let’s look at the components of the ‘formula’.
First, we have WEATHER. The mornings are still dark, the days still short. The weather is generally cold and wet with grey skies (certainly in the UK where the concept was invented). Summer holidays on a beach seem very far away. We all suffer from a touch of Seasonal Affective Disorder at this time of year, and without the sparkle of Christmas to distract us, it starts to bring us down in January.
Next is DEBT and PAY. You just got your December credit card bill around now (usually 3rd week in January for most) and it is much higher than you predicted or expected. Did you really spend that much? Your January pay day isn’t until next week or the months end, and thus your accumulated debt sits uncomfortably with you. It is enough to depress anyone a little.
Next is the TIME SINCE CHRISTMAS and the fact that by now most of us have already fallen off the wagon with our NEW YEARS RESOLUTIONS. The Christmas decorations are down and put away, no more coloured lights, we are back to the dull routines. We also feel shame in not being able to keep to the resolutions we set only 3 weeks ago. The magic has given way to misery.
Lastly, we have MOTIVATION and the NEED TO TAKE ACTION. Motivational levels are low, the Christmas seasonal sugar overdose has left our bodies, this years Covid resurgence and the winter flu lowering our collective energy levels. Also the agency to motivate ourselves to take corrective action, to get back on the resolutions wagon, to make positive change is also low. It is possibly back to the weather again. We just don’t seem to have the motivational mojo.
Now there is nothing wrong with any of those factors above really. You could probably add some more. WORK is missing for example. Facing into another year, perhaps the excitement has already passed and you realise it is going to be more of the same or your workload is heavier than you expected. HEALTH is also missing, January being peak flu season, generally we don’t feel at our best. But, as someone who enjoys maths, for me the fun is in the completely bonkers formula.
The Maths Does Not Add Up
Of course, it makes no sense. The formula adds, multiplies, and divides random factors with no common units of expression. How do you add weather and debt? How do we express ‘grey dreary weather’ in units in this formula, and if we did agree on a measurement, it would be different to the Time or Debt measurements. But with the psychologist Dr. Cliff on board, it all seemed legit.
To be fair, poor Cliff has spent his time since trying to somewhat distance himself from his light-hearted formula (it was just supposed to be a bit of fun). However, his fellow academics ripped it apart for the psychological pseudoscience it is, with the University releasing a statement “Cardiff University (would like) to point out that Cliff Arnall . . . was a former part-time tutor at the university but left in February.” Basically, ‘he is not one of ours’. As he had used their university name within his press release, clearly there was some embarrassment about the non-scientific nature of the proposition. But the media love a bit of misery, so Blue Monday just kept growing, science or no science.
In 2018, Cliff even partnered with (read ‘was paid by’) Virgin Holidays to reposition Blue Monday as a ‘time for positive change in your life’ and to get away from all the negativity, with #StopBlueMonday trending on Twitter, even promoted by Cliff himself. Mind you, that was after he’d partnered with (again, ahem, paid by) Walls Ice Cream to identify the happiest day of the year, in June, using another random nonsense formula.
But no matter the formula or the shady influencer PR history of Blue Monday, it is still a valid moment to consider that, as brand owners, we should be doing everything we can to make our customers feel good.
We are heading into a tough year for consumerism. Inflation, cost of living crisis, and supply chain pressures resulting in stock issues, are all bearing down on us. Consumers are looking for value. Sometimes that will be competitive pricing but it can also be security, safety, brand/tribal belonging, or digital convenience. Most importantly it brings opportunity and that opportunity comes in two forms.
Create an Emotional Bond with your customer
The first is in a deeper emotional connection with your customer. During the 2020/21 pandemic, society was scared. I have many previous posts about the psychology of the lockdown and sheltering, the Captive Economy, and the psychology of survival and recovery. When we are stressed as humans, we tend to attach ourselves to something else, something stable.
As an uncertain year bears down on consumers, be the brand that makes them feel good. Make them smile, make them laugh, make them feel special. Lift their spirits. Every brand should appoint a Customer Experience Happiness Director this year, their job to create ‘moments that matter’ with customers. Moments that emotionally connect with customers.
Go through your Customer Journey and map every moment. How can you make them smile here? How can you surprise or delight them, give them more than they expect? What can you do to make them ‘feel’? Push past the transactional nature of your business and make 2023 a relationship building year.
Put on Your Wet Tyres
And I did say there were two opportunities. If the first is customer-led, the second is about you personally. I use this Ayrton Senna quote a lot.
Crisis always brings opportunity. Those that are ready for it, that are excited by it, that have recruited well, have built agile teams, and created a company culture of risk, innovation and creativity, are ready for the rain and the opportunity it brings. Crisis brings challenge but it also brings opportunity. Connecting with customers during times of crisis can deliver deeper emotional bonds.
Forget about Cliff’s formula. Your formula for success is a belief that you, your team and your brand can make a real difference in the lives of your customers. 2023 is the year to bring that vision to life.
Lastly, for those of you looking to counteract those Blue Monday feelings, might I suggest the following formula of my own. C + W + N + S. Chocolate + Wine + Netflix + Sleep/Sex. Enough of all those should sort you out.
Ken Hughes remains one of the top booked speakers on Customer Experience, Consumerism, and the Psychology of Relationship. Learn more about his keynotes and how he can inspire your team here.
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