My fellow Britons: Have we lost the true meaning of Black Friday?
Rob Coke, November 2016

The adoption of commercial trends from across the Atlantic is nothing new. But the pervasiveness of Black Friday isn’t just laughably dumb, it’s robbing the British of our true identity – as violent drunks. 

As I left for work this morning, my wonderful wife tore herself away from her phone to ask a question loaded with hidden meaning. “Do we need anything from Black Friday today?” My reply was an emphatic, “No!”

But as I walked to the station, my body buffeted by Storm Angus, my mind was pounded by wave after wave of doubt. ‘Do we need anything from Black Friday? Christmas is terrifyingly close and I haven’t thought of anything expensive enough to demonstrate the depth of love I have for my family. We can’t be foolish enough to think we’ll make it through a school holiday alive without a new games console, can we? And be honest – that ear hair trimmer isn’t going to buy itself.’ 

 

Insidious power

This is the insidious power of Black Friday. The power to sow seeds of materialist doubt in the most resolute minds in Britain. And who wouldn’t crumble? For years now, the biggest celebrations in the calendar have been adopted as opportunities to spend money: Valentine’s Day, Hallowe’en, Grandparents’ Day. Each glorious event forever associated in the mind with the need to buy more stuff.

Why should Black Friday be any different? It’s the day after Thanksgiving, for goodness’ sake! Who are you to tell me I shouldn’t be spending my working day hunting for deals? It’s nothing short of un-British to suggest that a normal working day which comes after another normal working day that means nothing to us whatsoever should be anything other than an excuse to buy cheap electrical goods. Haven’t you heard? We’ve had enough of ‘experts’!

 

Dubious origins

But this is the thing. It’s not for us at all. It has absolutely no relevance outside the US, and even there, its origins are highly dubious. Ignoring the claim that it’s related to slave trading – which the excellent Snopes has squarely debunked – there are three main theories into the birth of the name ‘Black Friday’.

1. It was seen as a dark day for employers, whose staff would take a sick day to bridge the gap between Thanksgiving Thursday and create a four-day weekend.

2. It was a negative term used by Philadelphia police to describe the traffic and mayhem caused by everyone heading downtown to do their shopping at the same time.

3. It was the point in the year where retailers start to make a profit, going from ‘in the red’ to ‘in the black’ in their sales ledgers.

So for Americans at least, that provides a clear reason to celebrate Black Friday – a day when everyone bunks off work to get stuck in traffic and line the pockets of department stores everywhere. What’s not to like?

In the UK though, there’s not even the pretence of anything behind it. It’s just an ever-growing cavalcade of deals to try and co-erce people into prising open their wallets in hope that, once open, they’ll get into the Christmas spirit and keep spending. And we’re diving in head-first – desperately grabbing ‘must-haves’ we don’t need for people that don’t care.

 

Damaging for brands

At a time when money is scarce, this is dangerous – but it’s also damaging for the brands themselves. A powerful brand is one that is distinct. Whether it’s one that’s well positioned and differentiated is increasingly up for debate, but one thing we can agree on is that a distinct brand should stand out from the rest.

In his excellent talks series, Mark Ritson makes the point that sales promotions weaken brands by commoditising them. If brand power is about creating a premium through scarcity and desirability, then mass availability at huge discounts will only diminish it. 

One beacon standing out amongst all of this is the ever-thoughtful Patagonia. True to their idea of Don’t buy this racket, they’re donating 100% of Black Friday sales to grassroots environmental groups. But few brands are principled or bold enough to do something like this, so they follow the crowd. Nobody wants to get left behind, so British brands are mindlessly jumping on the bandwagon, chasing a decreasing pot of money in a race to the bottom of the discount warehouse. 

 

Losing our identity

But do you know the worst thing about the UK’s adoption of Black Friday? We actually already have our own version here. Originally named by the emergency services, it’s the last Friday before Christmas, when everyone follows the tradition of packing up work and getting on the booze with reckless abandon. Professional and amateur drinkers, cheek-by-jowl, fist-to-face and face-on-pavement, causing carnage to high streets and A&E departments across this great nation.

So I ask this question of my fellow Britons: have we lost the true meaning of Black Friday?

 

To read more of Rob’s thinking, check out his posts on Medium or subscribe to our monthly newsletter.