Why the Elf on the Shelf Failed at Marketing


I know.  I know.  You see the elf everywhere and you think, “this is a HUGE marketing success!”  But, hear me out.  It could have been done better.

As a parent of three, I appreciate the Elf on the Shelf legend.  It’s a nice little addition to Christmas.  Keeping kids on their toes through a long December is not a bad thing.

But, I am a little tired of going to stores (And this is a regular occurrence.) and seeing the Elf on the Shelf displayed everywhere.  Literally – EVERYwhere.  And, I find myself having to explain why this guy is different from Elfie that comes to our house every night from the North Pole.

Ultimately, I see this constant conversation at the store between parents and kids as a threat to the credibility of the legend as a whole.  And, you might be thinking, “the elf will be around forever!”  But, I am just not so sure.  If there is a persistent threat to the legend’s credibility, I think some parents will eventually just say “bah, I am not getting involved with that hokie stuff that I constantly have to defend.”  So, the parent explains to little Johnny that it’s just a toy – not something real … “that’s why we as a family don’t play along”.  Then, little Johnny goes back to school and tells everyone how ridiculous their little elves are.  And, it’s over.

So, how can this be stopped before it’s too late?

Let’s start by going back to the origins of the elf.

As you probably know, the Elf on the Shelf started out as a book before it became a marketing engine.  Carol Aebersold and daughter Chanda Bell wrote this children’s book back in 2005.  The book sales soared and units began to ship online.  Our Elfie first came to visit during the days of the online purchase.

A company called Creatively Classic Activities and Books produces the elf.  The book and box shipments blew up.  It became one of the fastest growing companies in America.  And, like all growing companies, they looked for additional avenues for expansion.  So, they started selling in stores.  It was at this point that they lost control over their customers.

The elf got off to a great start.  But, at this is the point in the game, my path would have diverged.  Here is what I would have done differently:

  • Don’t sell in stores
  • Continue to sell online
  • OWN the customer
  • Market more on the backend

Why would I own the customer?  By selling online, you have a huge advantage:  you know who your customers are and you are guaranteed a marketing channel for using email and direct mail to sell all kinds of elf products.

Right now, if you buy it in a store, the elf is a one time purchase.  That’s it.  One book, a DVD and one little freakishly smiling guy.  That’s all you get.

But, what do you get if you sell direct?  There are many possibilities.  Here are just a few:

  1. You get to protect the legend.  And, you don’t have to continually face your target audience (parents) with that problem of having to explain the elf discrepancy in every store you go into.  Essentially, you don’t piss off your customers.  And, that’s usually a good thing.
  2. Look at all of the potential marketing possibilities.
    1. Every year, you could put out new books and movies to further the legend.  And, you could direct market those direct to the customer.
    2. You could sell “idea books” – clever ideas for the elf.
    3. You could sell “idea kits”.  I know this probably isn’t you.  But, a lot of people would pay to have idea kits sent for displaying the elf.  They could actually mail you a kit with a “scene” for the elf.
    4. Over time, you could even introduce other characters into the legend and market those.
    5. Once you own the customer, you can market all kinds of kids products on the backend.  You know ages of kids.  You know the gender.  This has the potential for a super-charged kid marketing engine.

The possibilities are endless, but it starts with owning the customer.

If the Elf on the Shelf had stayed direct, this legend would have continued to expand forever.  Plus, they would not have run the greed risk of imploding the legend.  Keep it on the down low.  Keep it cool.  After all, the legend has one thing going for it:  peer pressure.  When little Johnny comes home asking Mommy and Daddy why they don’t have an elf, of course, Mom and Dad are going to make sure Johnny has an elf come visit.  And, the diligent parents would, of course, go online to make that happen.  And, that would keep the legend intact for generations to come.

Kill the store sales.  Save the legend.  Make more money.



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