Q & A

Q&A: How Macy's Is Updating the Thanksgiving Parade and July 4 Fireworks With Social Media, Personal Interactions

By Anna Sekula September 29, 2011, 8:30 AM EDT

Photo: Courtesy of Macy's Inc.

In October 2010, Macy's Parade & Entertainment Group named Amy Kule executive producer of its Thanksgiving Day Parade and July 4 Fireworks events. Kule, who started her career with Macy's in 1996 and worked on in-store events before joining the national special event team, took over the position from Robin Hall and in her first year in the role is finding new ways to refresh both events.

Perhaps her biggest project has been the Macy's “Great American Elf Adventure” initiative, a competition introduced as part of the lead-up to the Thanksgiving Day Parade, which allowed consumers to decorate and design an elf to be included in this year's parade. Blank vinyl elves were spread throughout the retailer's various locations, and consumers had to find them by decoding clues posted to Macy's Facebook page and Twitter account. For areas where Macy's didn't operate a store, Kule and her team hosted family-focused events. Macy's announced the Elf Adventure's winner, Keith Lapinig from Queens, New York, on September 14. His entry will be turned into a 34-foot-tall balloon.

We talked to Kule about the program, her first year on the job, and the challenge involved with updating iconic annual events.

Is it challenging to introduce new elements into what some people consider iconic components to the Macy's brand?
With the parade, you don't really want to change much, because there's a sense of tradition that needs to be maintained in what we do year to year and an expectation about what it is we do. But there are things you can change and things that you can add to, and certainly the elf program this year is one of those factors. Traditionally in the parade, before the Santa balloon comes out, it's led by three elves, and those elves were first developed in 1947, so they're iconic to the parade itself. This year I thought, “How can we change that up a bit and really jump into a little bit of newness and new media?”

A part of that was incorporating social media platforms. With Facebook and Twitter, plus the family-focused events in 10 cities for the program, how many different departments were involved?
Developing the online program really moves into another area of Macy's, and we have a whole department that works on the designing and planning of everything that has to do with social media and So it took a whole lot of people to get it off the ground and a whole lot more to execute. We have some special project folks who are working on it here, but the best thing about it is the smaller team that put it together was a combination of people from our operations team, our creative team, our marketing folks, our social media folks, and partnership marketing people. And rather than working in silos, those boundaries were broken down—everybody worked in areas they don't generally step into, and there was a crossing of lines, sharing of information, and partnership that went into it.

You also introduced a new component for the July 4 fireworks, taking over piers for a picnic. Tell me more about that concept.
We all grew up watching the Fourth of July in our hometown—everybody went to their town park, or if you lived by the water, you went to the ocean or the bay or the lake. Everybody would get together and put a picnic blanket on the ground, stare up at the sky, and eat food they brought or barbecued. That's really the tradition, and with those traditions fading away across the country, we do look at it as our civic duty to keep the parade and the fireworks going. When we're executing the single biggest fireworks display in America, my hope was to still maintain that hometown feel.

We gave out picnic blankets to everyone who came, had seven food trucks so people could enjoy Fourth of July fare as they would in their own hometown, had jugglers, face painters, balloon makers, a DJ, and arcade games. We brought the spirit of small-town America to big town New York and did our little twist on it.

Are there concepts and ideas from your previous positions that you draw from when devising new ways to augment the parade and fireworks events?
The events we have televised nationally are entertainment-based events, and whether you're entertaining on a local level in a store or on a national level on television, the idea is to talk specifically to the customer. What we do is so big on a national scale that my hope is to be able to bring it to the local consumer. Sometimes when you do something so big, it feels out of touch, but people who made the parade the parade and the fireworks the fireworks are the people that tune in. If we can talk specifically to as many people as possible on a personal level, to me that's really important.

Any plans for future parade and fireworks events?
I feel like it's a restart of my tenure with the parade and fireworks. I've been here for 15 years, and I've participated in both for 15 years and been a producer for 10, but I feel this new energy surging with a lot of new ideas of what can be done. I hope to spread that out for at least the next 15 years leading up to the 50th anniversary of the July 4 fireworks and the 100th year of the parade. There's lots of new elements and surprises that will certainly come out of the team that's in place, and all have a voice in what we do. We've got a fantastic head of the parade studio who is eager to try new things, and our creative director is always looking for new elements to add new layers and life to the parade.

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