Reinventing the Holidays: Thanksgiving in the US

reinventing the holidays

We’re pleased to share with you the second in a series of Reinventing the Holidays. The focus this time is on American Thanksgiving 2020 and beyond.

As a refresher, this series centers on a central question for consumers and brands alike: what does the 2020 holiday season hold? With so many risks, and so many parts of our lives transformed by COVID-19, how can we still make this time of year special?

Erica Ruyle, Senior Vice President of Qualitative Insights and myself, Liz Miller, Vice President of Business Development at Maru/Matchbox, teamed up to answer this through a holiday-by-holiday series, aimed at helping to build an understanding of how consumers feel, behave, and think as well as translate consumer expectations into impactful end-market implications.

These studies, which are run primarily through Maru/Matchbox’s Instant Qualitative platform, elicit a more holistic understanding from respondents using rich content sharing including video uploads and engaging moderation. By bringing together digital qualitative methodologies, expert moderation and AI-powered analysis tools we were really able to dive into how respondents feel, behave and think about Thanksgiving. We also ran a rapid quantitative study to help validate and size some of our qualitative findings on Thanksgiving trends.

Thanksgiving is, particularly when compared to Christmas, Hanukkah, and even Halloween, much more of a single event, single-day holiday. Traditionally the holiday has been celebrated by a large family Thanksgiving meal with turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie-driven menus, with recent years bringing an increase in adjacent “Friendsgivings” (non-Thanksgiving day gatherings, with similar menus, typically cooked by a group of friends).

While Thanksgiving does not have a gift-giving tradition, it is an important commercial milestone as the formalized kick-off for Christmas holiday shopping. Black Friday has become a season rather than a day, with Cyber Monday sales and even day-of-Thanksgiving sales expanding the holiday shopping kick-off.

The evidence was clear from our research: Thanksgiving is a holiday that centers around quality time with loved ones, and that usually happens over a shared meal. Over 80% of respondents have dinner with family or friends, and many respondents described the meal as the most important part of the day. Other activities like taking a walk after dinner or playing games together were described as fond memories and traditions they look forward to. Decorations, indoor and outside, were not a particularly prominent part of most respondents’ festivities, other than tablescapes designed around the main meal. Even so, most respondents described these as simple and traditional.

Food as a Central Tradition

Thanksgiving is, first and foremost, centered around a shared meal. Specific recipes and menus vary from family to family, but turkey reigns with 47% of respondents listing it as their favorite traditional Thanksgiving dish. A distant second, stuffing received 19% of votes, followed by sweet potatoes/yams at 8%, and mashed potatoes and green bean casserole tied at 7%.

Many respondents shared the special foods their families make, like unique casseroles (sweet potato and corn-based were mentioned frequently), unexpected pies such as coconut or lemon, or refreshing additions they’ve added to the menu to help balance the traditional meal’s heaviness, such as fresh fennel or cucumber salad.

COVID-19 Drives Changes

COVID-19 has caused many changes in plans this year, and Thanksgiving holiday gatherings will absolutely be impacted. 48% of respondents to our survey said they will still be celebrating, but with changes.

Respondents described feeling fearful of the virus risks, and worried about exposure during indoor gatherings, particularly with larger groups. While some have reduced the group size from previous years to celebrate only with their household, another respondent shared, “We will host it at my home with family, while social distancing and wearing masks while not eating.”

The changes to this year’s celebration will impact spending as well, with 42% of respondents reporting that they expect to spend less money than last year. 49% though, anticipate spending the same amount. Many described cooking for smaller groups as the impetus for smaller menus, focusing only on their favorites. There are some benefits (“maybe we’ll stay in our jammies all day!”), but overall, the sentiment was bittersweet and it was clear that despite feeling an urge to spend time with loved ones, most people thought that the risks of the virus would be impacting their behavior and would lead to cutting back on travel, gatherings, and celebrations overall.

One possibility is that the numbers of certain items purchased, such as turkeys, could be higher than ever with people having more single household celebrations, but there will likely be a call for smaller portions and smaller purchases since groups are so many fewer people than in years past.

Looking Ahead

Many respondents in our Instant Qualitative Platform study described a balance of blending traditions they inherited from their parents and grandparents, with new ideas and traditions they had developed in more recent years. Participants shared many feelings of loss and disappointment at the idea of not celebrating Thanksgiving fully this year.

Respondents described their eagerness to go back to their traditions next year, and several mentioned that they’ll likely celebrate more than ever once we have a COVID-19 vaccine and the virus risks have passed. Many look forward to having the next generation take over hosting, and to see their families grow in years to come, leading to bigger than ever gatherings.

5 Considerations and Recommendations for Brands:

  1. Convenience is Key: Convenience was important, even for the most traditional of cooks. “Cute packaging that made it easy and appealing to portion out leftovers to send home with people as we’re putting away the food would make it easier”, one host shared.
  2. Menu Management Support: Nearly all cooks described stress around menu management in some form or another. Support for managing grocery lists and for easily ordering a single item or two that you might have forgotten, or a digital grocery list designed based on the recipes you plan to use, were some of the suggestions. Facebook groups were mentioned as a key source for menu support and inspiration, and could be a good communication tool for brands trying to understand the needs of consumers in and around this food-centric holiday.
  3. Balancing Convenience and Homemade: While most cooks called for a need for convenience, and some specifically sang the praises of mixes and kits that speed up their prep work, others focused on the “natural, homemade” value of Thanksgiving, and are looking for ways to ease the cooking stress without sacrificing those values. “Thanksgiving cocktail kits!”, one respondent shared, might be an area where cooks are willing to flex a little bit and use a pre-made or partially pre-made solution.
  4. Transitional Décor: Respondents described the challenge of moving from Thanksgiving, rapidly into Christmas. They would like ideas and products from brands that allow them to not waste decorations, while still making a smooth move into the Christmas season. Pinterest came up frequently as a source for decoration inspiration, so brands could consider sharing ideas and content related to this need through the Pinterest platform.
  5. Keep Thanksgiving Day Sacred: Almost universally, respondents expressed how much they respect retailers and brands who close for the day of Thanksgiving and don’t push Christmas onto consumers until after Thanksgiving is over. One host shared, “I think especially this year when so many of us are yearning to be with family… it is important to remember those words, a day of giving thanks.”

Keep an eye out in the coming weeks for analysis on other upcoming holidays, and please share your feedback if you have thoughts on our Reinventing the Holidays series.

Curious about how your customers feel, behave and think? The tools used in this study are just part of the Maru/Matchbox toolkit backed by the power of our proprietary Maru/HUB technology. We help our clients uncover the story behind their data by looking at consumers through a multifaceted lens and closing the say/do gap.

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