What Mardi Gras Can Teach Us About Marketing
We have much to learn from the things that bring us joy in life. All of us have suffered loss over the past couple of years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it be the very real, irreplaceable loss of loved ones, or the less permanent but still difficult absence of those interactions and traditions we hold most dear—we have missed much. But that’s only made these things grow even larger.
One of the enduring joys in my life is Mardi Gras.
After being largely canceled in 2021 due to the pandemic, this year, enormous crowds have welcomed back Mardi Gras, the annual pre-Lenten celebration mostly observed on the northern Gulf Coast in the U.S.
I was born in Mobile, Alabama which—as the locals will remind anyone willing to listen—is the birthplace of Mardi Gras, a fact the Port City deserves to celebrate! In 1999 I moved about 150 miles west to attend college in New Orleans at Loyola University. New Orleans, of course, is the place most of the world associates with Mardi Gras, but I’ll dive in to this friendly “rivalry” a little more later.
In Mobile, my dad is in an old mystic organization, the Crewe of Columbus, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year. Each February of my childhood was spent staking claim to the “perfect spot” on the parade route, toting a repurposed shopping bag to collect scores of hard candy, MoonPies, beads, cups, doubloons and much more. In school we created miniature floats from old shoeboxes, and held our own parades (To date, this is as close as I’ve come to my dream of actually riding on a real float).
For those who have never experienced it, Mardi Gras is almost impossible to explain. You’ve probably been to a parade: Memorial Day, Christmas, Homecoming even. If not, perhaps you’ve seen one on TV on Thanksgiving Day. Once you’ve been to Mardi Gras, all other parades seem a tad anti-climactic.
When at Mardi Gras, it seems like you are fully in the moment. It’s because of that fact that this weekend, I started thinking about what Mardi Gras can teach us. Yes, even marketers.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. You may have a “serious” brand or message, sure. And we’re not saying marketing should be flippant or unserious. Certain messages and brands require particular tones. But is beating your potential customer over the head with doomsday scenarios likely to win over customers? Maybe not. Apple’s recent “9-1-1 what’s your emergency” ad has been described in various publications as “terrifying,” “chilling,” “riveting” and “eerie.” If you’ve seen it, you likely remember it (a win for any advertiser, sure). While I guess I’m glad to know my watch might help save me in a pickle, I’d much rather know the battery might actually last long enough to get to that point (not to mention the other day-to-day activities that might make spending $350-$500 on a smart watch worthwhile).
- Expect the unexpected. When it comes to Mardi Gras, you never know what you might see (And sorry to destroy a myth, but you’ll have to try if you want to find that one thing popular culture has somehow tied to the acquisition of beads). Weather fails, trucks and tractors stall out, axles break, horses decide they can’t take any more of the chaos… but the show must go on. Most of us move through our days doing our jobs, working through our lists without many curve balls. But they do come, and some break harder than others. In 2020, it came in the form of a global pandemic. And while COVID shut down the Mardi Gras party, canceling wasn’t an option for millions of people trying to make a living. We adjusted. Meetings moved to Zoom, restaurants pivoted to QR codes for menus and online ordering options, movie studios moved premieres to streaming services. And many more made much more difficult adjustments and sacrifices, such as healthcare workers. It pays to expect the rainy day.
- Be yourself. As mentioned earlier, Mardi Gras in the U.S. has two epicenters: New Orleans and Mobile, with their suburbs and a few other cities in the general vicinity getting in on the celebrations. New Orleanians are mostly indifferent when someone (usually from Mobile) points out that New Orleans is not home to the original Mardi Gras. It’s not that they don’t care (though they truly don’t care much, if at all), but New Orleanians have mastered the art of shrugging their shoulders and leaning in to who they are, shortcomings and all. They may not have been first, but they believe they perfected the celebration. For its part, Mobile Mardi Gras continues to attract thousands each year, and the product has only improved. But the inferiority complex still exists for some, as evidenced by a series of billboards from the Alabama Department of Tourism a few years ago. A clever idea that could have been used to attract new visitors, one of the primary goals seemed to be to troll Southern Louisiana, a group of people not likely to venture far from the annual traditions they enjoy. Lean into who you are. Celebrate what your brand does best. Everyone loves a good social media war over chicken sandwiches, but not all trolling is created equally.
- Embrace the unique. If you can, give your customer something they can’t get anywhere else, whether it be something concrete or an experience. The best Mardi Gras parades give people something to remember. In New Orleans, the Krewe of Muses throw prized, specially-decorated shoes, and Zulu is known for its painted coconuts. Many krewes also throw themed cups, doubloons, beads and more. On Mardi Gras Day in Mobile, you’ll find a float depicting Folly chasing Death around the Column of Life (this is something you really must see to appreciate). There’s a bunch of junk thrown from floats, but the personalized items are the ones people keep and inspire people to return to, year after year. Similarly, brands who figure out how to give their customers a product that’s different or can’t be replicated typically create buzz and find success. Wordle anyone?
Perhaps your return to those things you held dear is closer than you think. And while it may not involve beads and king cake, maybe getting to have those moments of collective celebration after such a long absence will remind you even more of how lucky we are to have an opportunity to enjoy it again, with a newfound appreciation. So…Laissez les bon temps rouler. Happy Mardi Gras, y’all.