Christmas adverts: have retailers become victims of their own success?

Christmas adverts retailers
Christmas ads are an opportunity for both short-term sales and long-term brand building, but the competition for attention during the festive season becomes more intense each year.

Whether you prefer your Christmas adverts to feature aliens, carrots or Santa with a Covid pass, for many of us, retailers’ Christmas ads are a green light to get the decorations down from the loft; the festive season can get started in earnest.

It hasn’t always been this way. John Lewis – traditionally held up as the pioneer of the Christmas ad campaign – first used its seasonal advertising to tell a story (rather than plugging product) in 2011, with The Long Wait.

The story, which featured a little boy impatiently waiting to give a gift to his parents on Christmas morning, moved a nation to tears with its tagline: “For gifts you can’t wait to give”.

It didn’t take long for others to follow suit, and it has been suggested that retailers have become victims of their own success as the continual need to outdo last year’s efforts (and of course each other), has seen festive ads snowball into a true cultural phenomenon.

Christmas adverts allow retailers to reach consumers in a different way, providing a platform for brands to spread a particular message, which can impact how consumers feel about the brand. Whether using nostalgia, sentiment or humour, encouraging consumers to engage with the adverts is essential, especially during the festive period where consumer spending is high.

Sainsbury’s famous seasonal campaign ‘1914’ was one of the most expensive Christmas ads of its time, but also one of the most profitable. According to reports, the retelling of the Christmas Day ceasefire in 1914 saw Sainsbury’s making a £24 profit on every £1 spent on the promotion.

This year’s adverts have already come under scrutiny for a number of reasons – there’s been a Covid-related boycott (Tesco), an accusation of musical plagiarism (John Lewis) and a question mark hanging over whether Hollywood star Tom Holland should have swapped Spiderman for Percy Pig (M&S) – but the real question is how effective they are.

As the managing director of Deloitte Digitals’ creative consultancy, ACNE London, Annie Gallimore believes that the Christmas period is a unique moment in the calendar for retailers.

“No brand wants to miss out on an opportunity to attract customers or show the rest of the marketing industry what they’re made of,” she explains.

“After the turbulence of the last 18 months, consumers have entered the festive season seeking bigger and better celebrations to make up for last year.

“Looking at the industry reviews, some commentators have found this year’s batch a little ‘safe and uninspiring’ and as always some media have questioned the ‘power of the Christmas ad’,” Annie continues. “But for brands, success will be measured in sales over the festive period.”

Christmas ads are an opportunity for both short-term sales and long-term brand building.

Over at market research company Kantar, Lynne Deason specialises in consumer testing for adverts, using facial recognition tech to track people’s emotional responses. Initial research from this year shows over a quarter of shoppers are planning to spend less this year, as they focus on the traditional meaning of Christmas. Have the ads released so far managed to capture that?

“Over a quarter of people plan to spend less this year than in 2020, compared with only 16 per cent looking to spend more,” Lynne reveals. “People are looking to embrace the more traditional meanings of Christmas and so the adverts that perform the best are likely to be the ones which reflect that.”

“Retailers need to decide if they are focusing on short-term sales or long-term growth,” she adds. “It’s great to be a bit controversial and risky at the time, but what does this say about your brand six months down the line? Those long-term brand associations are crucial.”

John Lewis Christmas advert
This year’s John Lewis Christmas advert was released a week earlier than normal.

Kantar’s research reveals that more than half of us say we love Christmas adverts, so marketers have a willing and enthusiastic audience, although Lynne believes that timing is also key if brands want to secure their share of the Christmas spend. And it’s a hard balancing act to master – as while 63 per cent of people think Christmas ads appear too early, 37 per cent have already started shopping by the time they air.

With Very launching its festive ad just after Halloween and the John Lewis advert dropping a week early this year, the timing of this year’s adverts was also key for Sam Hawkey, ceo of award-winning advertising agency AMV BBDO.

“A few factors are going on here,” he begins. “Firstly, building the frequency of your brand and creative over a longer period will help, but has its budget implications at one of the most expensive times of the year.

“Secondly, it plays a little to the media narratives around supply issues in lots of categories. This could be another reason to go early and create a ‘don’t miss out’ feeling when people are reading in the news that turkey might be off the menu this year.”

Retailers’ competition for attention during the festive season becomes more intense each year.

With adverts taking so many different approaches this year – whether they are going big and bold or taking us on an emotional, heartfelt journey – have any hit the spot for Sam?

“As a general rule, brands which went for feel-good entertainment are winning the day. 2021 has been as tough as 2020, and as Christmas’ cancelled’ last year, there is a buzz in the air for this one,” he says.

“So while there are some wonderful stories, like Amazon’s Kindness. The greatest gift‘, the public want to look forward, get excited rather than anxious and use this Christmas period as the pick-me-up we all need.”

As the head of planning at brand activation agency ZEAL Creative, Callum Saunders believes that the bigger question is what the traditional meaning of the season has become.

“After a challenging period, this year is a chance to make up for the ‘lost Christmas’ of 2021 and approach the season with even more hedonism than usual, something that Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda have captured really well in their efforts this year.

“It’s empirically proven that driving mental availability and saliency are key to brand growth, so in many respects, big budget Christmas ads are a sound strategic play,” he continues.

“Let’s not forget, this is a journey ‘from sofa to shelf’: shopper marketing and in-store retail activation are critical, from both retailers and brands.

So while the jury may still be out on whether investing millions in TV adverts really does help increase Christmas sales, it’s clear that hitting the right note with a Christmas campaign can strengthen a brands’ position and set a clear trajectory for good trading the following year.

Callum agrees. “Ultimately, success will be measured by how well these retailers perform over the critical commercial trading period. The proof is in the (Christmas) pudding.”

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