Have Christmas ads lost their flair?

Posted on December 22, 2021

Updated on March 13, 2023

3 min read time

Although Christmas marketing has been around since the 19th Century, the hype around festive advertising only came to the UK in 2007.


It was first made famous by high street stalwart, John Lewis - a brand that’s subsequently made itself synonymous with Christmas advertising through famous soundtracks, creative characterization, and captivating storylines. Who can forget the brand’s ever popular, Snowman of 2012?


In this blog, we interview Carol Reay, ex-advertising chief, member of WACL and ProQuo’s Chair, to find out her take on Christmas adverts.


Could they be losing relevancy?


And if so, how should brands be adapting strategies to align better with modern audiences?


Let’s get back to basics.


There are only two reasons to do Festive advertising:


  • To sell more stuff or
  • As a seasonal take on good will; giving back, saying thank you or attaching good will to your brand in some way.


But there is a great deal of noise to cut through at this time of year.


Advertising spaces are restricted. With fewer and fewer viewers watching TV live, many brands have lost out on opportunities to be streamed and are instead opting for sharing on digital and social media platforms. A 20-30 second spot on air might be 3 minutes long on YouTube.


This year, more than any other year, people are craving good news and happy stories. Because of this, festive advertising has started early – with many brands releasing adverts as early as the first week of November.


Competition is fierce. And in the UK, festive ads have become a category in their own right. When it comes to festive advertising, you aren’t just competing with your usual competition but are in fact competing against all other brands that are making ads at this time of year.


And as with all categories, you have to innovate to remain relevant and cut through. Advertising at this time cannot become expected and, if it has - as in John Lewis’ case – the brand will need to smash up its own mold and become the head-turner it used to be.


If John Lewis is the pinnacle, plenty of others follow their lead and are therefore, not innovating either. They are creating ads in silos. If we look at M&S, we can see their Christmas ad has been made for their brand and their category of food and clothing, but they haven’t considered the wider context. Consumers will see floods of ads for this category. So, what will make it stand out? Remember: the category they are operating in is Festive advertising at this time of year not food and clothing.


Are these ads memorable?


A simple test to gauge the effectiveness or longevity of these ads is to ask: could anyone else have made this ad?


Marks and Spencer and Boots have both fallen into the ‘interchangeable trap’ this year. They not only use the same basic advertising idea, but they also throw celebrities at the problem.


Marks & Spencer featured the famous voices of Tom Holland and Dawn French, without any strategic thinking as to how these personalities bolster or complement the brand.


Boots’ “Bags of Joy” advert, with Jenna Coleman gave fans some Dr Who magic but also left us wondering if it said anything more about the Boots brand than it would if the same ad had been used for any other retailer.


These brands are at risk of ticking boxes rather than doing anything authentic. Plenty of brands are doing what they believe they should be doing at this time of year. This includes, featuring diverse voices, and making ads inclusive to suit modern audience needs. Yet, if these measures aren’t authentic or related the company’s overarching brand principles, then no consumer is going to connect with the ad.


Relevance and branding


For an ad to have worked, people need to be able to attribute the memory of that advert to the brand themselves an hour, a week, even a month later.


Aldi have got this right this year. Their use of Marcus “Radishford” in a fresh take on a Christmas Carol, resonated because of his continued contributions toward child support and food programs - actions that complements Aldi’s own, including the brand’s 10 million meal pledge. It’s consistent with their tone of voice, proposition as a brand and stands every chance of influencing viewers.


Amazon Prime and Disney also come out trumps. Because storytelling is so close to what both brands sell, they can both seduce the viewer (typical of Festive ads), but also persuade them of their offering of great stories and entertainment.


Brands need to ensure that what they are creating is somehow relevant to their mission, vision or what they are trying to sell, ultimately. This is why brands like M&S need to work a whole lot harder to ensure relevancy.


If the ad itself is unattributable to the brand paying for it, there’s potential for it to be the biggest waste of money imaginable.


Tips for 2022


Selling should be clever, not dirty.


What makes the old John Lewis ads so memorable are surprise and charm. Differentiating the brand in a crowded category requires creative and innovative thinking, telling a beautiful story that sells the brand and is consistent with the brand’s DNA.


This takes effort and skill but with a finger on the pulse of your customers’ needs and a firm understanding of the entire category and changing context (in this case, festive advertising) brands are able to rise to the challenge.


To access insider information on your customers, competition and category to boost your own seasonal marketing, click here.


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