In this episode of Lehigh University’s College of Business ilLUminate podcast, we are speaking with Danny Zane about his research examining how consumers respond to special day-themed sales promotions, such as those linked to the upcoming Pi Day on March 14th.

Zane is an assistant professor of marketing who studies consumer behavior. His research interests include inference making, self-perceptions, and ethical decision-making.

He spoke with Jack Croft, host of the ilLUminate podcast. Listen to the podcast here and subscribe and download Lehigh Business on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

Below is an edited excerpt from that conversation. Read the complete podcast transcript. For more information, watch Danny Zane’s Lehigh Business video, This is My Research: Consumer Inferences About Special Day-Themed Promos.

Jack Croft: It's hard to believe that it's almost Pi Day 2022 already. For those of our listeners whose mouths are already watering Homer Simpson-style at the thought of their favorite pie, could you briefly explain Pi Day's origins and how it fits into the broader category of non-traditional holidays that you and your co-authors examined in a recent study?

Daniel Zane: Sure. I'll note that I was actually eating cherry pie last night. So I guess all this thinking about my research on Pi Day must have gotten to me. [laughter] We named this paper—“Promoting Pi Day” is the front end of our title, a kind of cute one. Like you mentioned, it's on March 14th, and it's an annual celebration of the mathematical sign pi [3.14, the constant number for the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter]. It was founded in 1988 by a physicist, and then … the celebration sort of erupted to the point that, in 2009, it actually became an official national holiday when the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to do that.

I'm not an expert on the history of these non-traditional holidays, but as a consumer behavior researcher, I can tell you that there are a lot of these non-traditional holidays coming into the limelight because marketers are now trying to capitalize on them. Of course, we're familiar with traditional holidays like Christmas and 4th of July, and all the sales that are attached to them. But now we, as consumers, are coming to learn about these non-traditional holidays, or what I label in my research as special days, because marketers are starting to leverage them to their advantage. To define these in the context of marketing, special days are these holidays that are not historically or traditionally linked to sales or marketing events—days like Pi Day, National Dog Day, National Swimsuit Day, National Go Barefoot Day.

Croft: Let's talk about some of the key findings. The traditional holidays would seem to have, well, tradition, for one thing, going for them, and all of the memories, and the history, … which I would have thought heading into this would not be a small advantage compared to the new, probably more narrowly focused special days. Yet your study found that people reacted more positively to sales promotions associated with special days than with traditional holidays, which might seem, and does to me, seem counterintuitive. So what did your study find that's driving that response from consumers?

Zane: I don't disagree with you, Jack, that perhaps this is counterintuitive. And I'll just preface, before I go into my argument as to why I think this is happening, that it's probably not in all cases. There's always what we call boundary conditions around these effects that we study. I imagine that there are times where these traditional holidays might indeed garner a more favorable response compared to other types. But within the context of our research, at least, I think there's actually many layers to the finding that consumers react more positively to these sales promotions associated with these special days compared to those associated with more traditional holidays.

Consumers likely habituate to sales around traditional holidays over time. So we might just stop paying attention to them because we see them year after year. We might stop getting excited by them. Sometimes, actually, we know that traditional promotions can actually generate negative feelings about the firm, because consumers think that marketers are just trying to persuade us to spend money. So we have these thoughts about marketers, and question their intentions. And that can turn us off in cases.

But specifically, we found that special day-themed promotions also lead customers to think about the marketer behind the promotion, but actually in a much different way. We found that consumers actually think about how the marketer who created this special day-themed promotion was creative in providing a way to celebrate the special day. In essence, what we're seeing is that consumers seem to be rewarding these marketers for their creativity by being more likely to use a special day discount to make a purchase from that company, which I think is pretty cool to see.

Croft: Let's talk a little bit about how you conducted the study, or the experiment.

Zane: In our studies, we randomly showed each participant one of two versions of a promotion and then assessed their intentions to use that promotion to make a purchase. So, for example, in one experiment, we found that consumers report being significantly more likely to make a purchase from a company when they're offered a National Picnic Day sale compared to when they're offered the same discount, but one that's framed as an annual one-day sale. And in another study, we actually partnered with a firm, and we found that … customers of this firm … who received a 25% discount via email in celebration of the day that the company adopted their mascot dog were actually almost twice as likely to click a link in that email to go shop on the company's website compared to those who received an equivalent discount, but one that didn't mention this special day around their dog mascot.

Croft: What do you see as the main takeaways for leaders and managers of companies who may be interested in adopting special day-themed promotions of some type?

Zane: In general, I think adding special day-themed promotions onto their promotional calendar seems to have quite a bit of promise, based on what we found. And even companies that might not have a straightforward connection with a national special day I think can leverage their customer data to create perhaps even more intimate special days celebrating things like the anniversary of that customer's first purchase, or something related. We, of course, didn't research all of the nuances of this framework. But at the current, I could say that the simple formula seems to be that, to make these special day-themed promotions effective, these marketers should just remember that it needs to both seem original and appropriate to consumers. If they can keep those two dimensions in their minds and execute on them, I think that they have a pretty nice chance of perhaps boosting response to that promotion.

Croft: [On] the flip side, what, if anything, do you see as the main takeaways for consumers? I realize that this is primarily focused on the marketers' end of it, but is there anything that consumers should keep in mind as they get these emails and see these advertisements?

Zane: I think consumers can try to take our findings as an opportunity to reflect on whether they ever do spend more because of the savvy tactics of marketers. In the case of these special day-themed promotions, I'm not sure the average consumer recognizes they might actually use their dollars to reward a marketer for being creative. So this work can perhaps serve just as one illustration of the many hidden forces that shape our marketplace behaviors. Because, at the end of the day, a special day-themed sales promotion is just another marketing tactic, regardless of how fancy or how creative the people behind it appear to be.

Tags: retail
Daniel Zane

Daniel Zane

Daniel Zane, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the department of Marketing at Lehigh Business.