How to Use Gift Cards to Give an Experience This Holiday Season

It was my birthday recently (why thank you kindly for the well wishes!) and the night before official festivities were to take place my wife received a text from my sister asking for gift advice. Without looking up from her phone, she turned to me and asked for ideas to relay back. I rattled off a few of my favorite beers and ended with the caveat: “and if they don’t have those in stock you know I enjoy a good browse through the aisles.” What I didn’t put together until the next day when I opened my present to reveal a sleek little gift card (thanks sis!) was that what I had actually asked for was an experience.

With the overwhelming focus on millennials over the past few years, the term “experiences” has gotten a lot of play within the marketing and loyalty space. Numerous studies show that this key demographic holds an affinity for experiences, and often articles – like these from Forbes and Business.com – position this as a clash between the preference of material goods vs experiences, but that is not the full story. When reports quote that younger consumers “prefer” or “would rather spend money on” experiences it is misleading as this often paints the picture that these generations are primarily focused on accumulating cultural wealth instead of monetary wealth, flocking towards wildly unique happenings in an act of rebellion against consumerism.

This is false.

This type of presentation fails to acknowledge that you don’t need to mark your calendar and buy tickets to an event in order to have an “experience”.

Life is a constant experience.

And the goods we interact with in our daily lives have the potential to elevate each and every moment.  And that is what younger generations care about – creating memorable moments.

Yes, sometimes that means checking an item off the bucket list. Other times it could be hosting a backyard bonfire where laughs are shared a bit too loud and a bit too late into the night. Or simply capturing an image and sharing it with friends and family who will appreciate its contents. All are experiences.

And as I have been reminded recently by the gift card from my sister, merely the hunt for material goods can be a very enjoyable experience in of itself. A big reason for this is because when we purchase things, we imagine ourselves enjoying them in the most ideal of situations. It’s a similar phenomena as to why playing the lottery is actually worth it, even if you don’t win. We garner enjoyment from the thought of the experiences we will have in the future, allowing us to take greater pleasure in the now. So

So with the gift giving season nearly upon us, how do you ensure that the gift cards that you are giving will result in an experience not once, but twice for the end recipient? To take a deeper dive into the concept of having an experience, while prepping for an experience (where are Leo and Joseph Gordon-Levitt when you need them?) I want you to imagine yourself in 2 scenarios:

Scenario 1:

You open a birthday card with a decently funny punchline courtesy of Hallmark with a generically uplifting sentiment scribbled below from the sender, along with a $50 Target gift card.

Useful no doubt, but not very exciting or memorable. A likely scenario is that you slide the gift card into your wallet and forget about it until you are at the checkout aisle a month or two later (and let’s be honest, this isn’t even the first time you have been to Target since you received it – just the first time you actually remembered you had a gift card). It covers about half of your purchase and moves out of mind as soon as you pull out a credit card to cover the balance. There is no specific item that the gift card bought, it was essentially a great coupon. Furthermore – by the time it’s used you might not even remember who gave it to you (guilty).

Scenario 2:

You open a birthday card with a decently funny punchline courtesy of Hallmark, a $50 Target gift card, but this time a specifically tailored message from the gifter stating that they want you to use these funds to ‘revamp your board game collection’ for the next game night. Suddenly you aren’t just given a $50 catch-all, you are given a passport to adventure. (I realize not everyone will consider picking out a couple new board games as a “passport to adventure” but I do, so if you disagree simply replace the scenario with something you are passionate about.)

The key difference is that in Scenario 2 the presenter framed their gift in a particular manner, which in the case of a gift card causes 3 things to happen:

1. Clarity of focus. The focus has been shifted from the monetary value of the gift to the potential items that will be purchased which allows for a vision of the ideal state where those goods will be used. (i.e. the specific framing has created anticipation – one of the keys to a great experience).

2. Permission to spend irrationally. ‘Irrational’ might be a stretch but certainly the gifter has empowered the giftee to make a non-utilitarian decision. Let that sit. The delivery of the gift, not the gift itself, is what is impacts the end user’s ability to justify their spending behavior.

Scenarios 1 & 2 impart the same financial benefit, but because the second narrative includes commentary from the gifter stating: “I am giving a green light, nay a directive, to spend this on an activity of pleasure” there is an instant switch in the mental accounting of the recipient, stating that they can (and should) treat this pile of money differently than their usual expense budget. This is a vital piece of the puzzle.

3. Evoking a deeper emotional response. Gift cards are notorious for doing the opposite. But adding the personal touch of how the recipient could use the card improves the overall memory halo of the gift. No more forgetting who made your shopping adventure possible.

The bottom line? It is all about how the gift card is framed in the mind of the end user.

Prime the mind to pay attention to the experience that the gift card allows.

So this holiday season when you are checking names off the list, don’t feel bad by settling on a gift card. Quite the contrary! Know that based on how you present them, you have the potential to be giving millennials the thing they value most – an experience – regardless of the brand on the card.

 

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