I recently celebrated my 38th birthday, which was hard to fathom since from time to time I still shop at Forever 21. But surprisingly (or perhaps telling), Forever 21 was one of a few brands that I am a patron of that didn’t send birthday wishes or promotional savings to help me celebrate another trip around the sun.

I received birthday emails, mailers and even a few phone calls from brands ranging from Kohl’s and Barneys to Hilton and American Express. Even my local jeweler called to wish me a happy and healthy year ahead – a call I get every year and one of the reasons I still use them to replace watch batteries even though I know they charge more than most chain jewelry stores.

But not all birthday marketing is as successful, so I thought I’d use the experiences from my 38th birthday to dissect the surprising, smart and probably not-so-smart ways companies are trying to capitalize on our birthdays.

The Simply Smart

I’ll start with my jeweler – a small business, yes, but a Breakout Brand nonetheless. My family has only purchased one big-ticket item there, but they treated us like royalty during that first purchase, creating a fond memory and an emotional connection they strengthen each year with their birthday message. Without a doubt, my next jewelry purchase will be from them.

Next let’s look at Disney’s previous free admission to Disney World or Disneyland on your birthday promotion. Sadly, they stopped offering this promotion at the end of 2009. However, I know numerous families that started a birthday tradition while it was available, and those annual birthday trips continue to this day. But then again, who wouldn’t want to be in the happiest place on earth on their birthday?

That said, there are still a plethora of companies enticing customers to try their product or sign up for loyalty programs with the promise of free items on their birthday. My favorite has to be Ben and Jerry’s, where you get a free cone on both your birthday and half birthday when you join the company’s ChunkSpelunker email club.

The Self-Serving and Silly

The oddest, and least welcome birthday message, I received came from the financial institution I used for a home-equity loan. They will remain nameless lest they decide to raise my interest rate.

Not surprisingly, I found their very cookie-cutter Happy Birthday e-blast that used my climb toward my forties as a marketing ploy to sell retirement-oriented investments off-putting. The same goes for the pre-recorded phone call from my insurance agent.

Now perhaps if either of these communications had offered me something of value, like forgiving my loan (wink-wink), I would have found them less distasteful. But the bottom line is this: A current or potential customer’s birthday should be about them, not your brand. Otherwise it’s just more spam.

The Sharp and Surprising

I was not the recipient of the next two birthday messages. However, they still resonated with me when I heard about them.

The first was a hand-written post card sent to a colleague from his state representative wishing him a happy birthday and thanking him for his support. This colleague was by no means a big-ticket donor, or that active of a volunteer; just a constituent turning another year older. I don’t live in this local politician’s district, but either way he has my vote for classiest direct mail campaign.

The other stand-out birthday marketing tactic was an email sent to a friend from her real estate agent about a donation that had been made in her name to a local homeless charity in honor of her birthday. This one really hit home. (Pun intended.) Not only did this agent turn a happy occasion into something equally as positive, she also did so via philanthropy that truly aligned with the mission of her business thereby deepening the impact.

As the champion of Breakout Brands at rbb Communications, we are constantly counseling our clients on the value of creating personal connections with their customers. Done right, recognizing consumers’ birthdays raises awareness of your brand and breeds loyalty.

But marketers beware, today’s savvy consumers have little patience for prepackaged promotions with ulterior-motives, especially on their birthday.