Holiday advertising: Why John Lewis gets it right and others miss the mark

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Christmas is just around the corner and retailers have begun pushing their marketing programs in this important sales period. Consumers have a lot more choice in their “portfolio”of shopping destinations that will allow them to find gifts for their friends and family. As a result, retailers put a great effort in assuring a spot on that list. To do so, an important part of their marketing mix is TV to ensure that their “sales pitch” is received by as many of their consumers as possible. One retailer seems to hit the sweet spot every year and gets people talking about its Brand – John Lewis.

John Lewis finds a way to ignite the heartstrings of audiences with its TV ads each year, while others are inconsistent. As a consequence, John Lewis always assures having a spot on that increasingly competitive consumer shopping destination list. How do they do it? They certainly don’t have a “tried-and-true” format, but they do have an uncanny ability to connect with audiences. This allows their films to travel a lot further than their media buy, exploding on social media. Here are some observations that I’ve made regarding their work over the past 5 years.

The first thing is that they have incredible focus and provide depth not breadth. Instead of trying to capture multiple Christmas moments or rituals, they capture only one. If you look at Sainsbury’s work this year (see here), it feels too all-encompassing and thus the ability to really relate and immerse yourself in one emotion is difficult. If we look at John Lewis’ work from 2010, we can see how they bring to life the joy of gifting. That simple act of preparing a gift for a special person in your life is a specific aspect of the holiday season. Moreover, focusing on the joy of giving allows John Lewis to go deep into how this is manifested across society, be it parents, lovers, children, etc. What also makes it so powerful, is that it touches on the core reason-for-being of Christmas; it is so human. As a result, people don’t just understand, but get caught up in the emotion.

The second thing is that they capture cultural resonance through music. All you need to do is look at the commercials over the past few years and you notice that each leverage a universally known song that happens to perfectly capture the theme or mood of the story. This allows the viewer to connect with the story because the song likely brings back personal memories. Tesco used this approach in 2012 and it was incredibly successful (see here). This year, Tesco continued their music-driven storytelling approach but indulged too heavily in the narrative, making it less authentic than if they kept with their simple “christmas scenes” approach from 2012 (see here). Arguably the most powerful example of John Lewis’ excellence in music-driven storytelling is their 2012 rendition of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “The Power of Love”. You will be pushed to tears, I promise.

The third thing that John Lewis does well is to keep their message and narrative incredibly human and real. With their 2013 commercial (see below) they decided to use Disneyesque animation. However, the story remained incredibly human and very relatable. This allows the viewer to be transported into the story. Some retailers forget the importance of this. To make it on the “list of shops to visit” there needs to be a feeling that the store understands the emotions that I want to create at Christmas for my family. Why? Because then there is a better likelihood of having the right selection of gifts. Debenhams did a wonderful story this year but, on judgment, it is too fantastical and therefore doesn’t truly capture the authentic feelings of Christmas. Instead it relies on “wow” to be remembered. It may be remembered, but not emotionally loved (see here).

The fourth thing that John Lewis does well is that it really heros their products, giving them such significance. This is a golden-rule of any advertising initiative, but it is arguably that much more important at Christmas for the simple reason that the products are considered with such personal emotional investment. For many retailers it is all about showing selection. We simply need to look at the Aldi Christmas film from this year (see here). However, selection is everywhere so you’d better show that there is painstaking curation happening – that is how a consumer will see value. In John Lewis’ 2008 holiday film, they also went for selection but they framed it up in a much more meaningful and personal way by showing how their curation helps you find the perfect gift.

A last thing that John Lewis has been doing over the past few years is focus on character development in its stories. Their most recent stories (2009 onwards) really focus on one (at most two) characters and allow the viewer to really get to know that person (or animal) and what they are feeling. This makes you get totally caught up in the emotional twist that will most likely be revealed at the end of the story. Others try to replicate this but somehow don’t “allow you in”. Waitrose is a good example. Their holiday story is about a father who will be preparing the turkey. While the intent of capturing the emotional investment of the father is great, they failed to reveal his true self, instead merely showing his “outside self” (see here). John Lewis on the other hand goes very deep. Their 2011 story beautiful illustrates this point with their account of a young boy’s impatience with waiting for Christmas day. Get ready to shed a lot of tears.

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