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Are Christmas campaigns too brand’y?

As the annual schmaltz-fest lumbers towards us like the randy cougar at the office party, we ask why the big retailers concentrate so hard on their brand, and not on the products that they’re selling in the lead up to Christmas?

For those creative and production agencies working with one of the major retailers, ‘tis the season

to make lolly; 3 minute cinematic emotion-indulgent ads don’t come cheap, so those tills need to ring hard to justify the indulgence.

Just picture those ruddy faced CMOs trotting downstairs on Christmas Day, with chubby little fingers crossed in the hope that their stocking is brimming with ROI, and not a lump of coal attached to a P45.

CMOs can breathe easy though it seems, as the cinematic ad campaign has been proven to be a success, particularly by John Lewis, with their Gold in the IPA effectiveness awards this year for their 2012-2015 campaigns:

  • Following years of high performing Christmas campaign strategies, John Lewis had become one of the highest profile brands in the UK.
  • The new campaigns continued the emotional and product-free storytelling style that had previously been used by John Lewis; but in more recent years, more attention had been paid to teaser campaign periods, directed at both consumers and media, as well as social media.
  • Following the centrepiece Christmas campaign film, these campaigns were aided through social, digital, OOH, online, TV, PR and POS ads that created an immersive experience.
  • As a result, John Lewis has registered an increase in sales of 33% over the past four years, as well as a market share increase to 29.6% and an ROI of £8 for every £1 spent. Source: warc.com

But this success initially seems at odds with the renowned David Ogilvy, who famously said: “I do not regard advertising as an art form, but as a medium of information. When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.” (Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy, 1983).

If Ogilvy is interpreted to the letter, then these ads should not be successful. Has that much changed since the 80s? I think there’s truth between the lines here: ‘I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.’ I think that agencies have just found a new way to be ‘interesting’ and that the product has developed away from the specific item, to the retailer.

Stable mate of Ogilvy, John Caples, whilst writing specifically about direct selling in print advertising here, identifies that the appeal is the key:

“I have seen one advertisement actually sell not twice as much, not three times as much, but 19 and a half times as much as another. Both advertisements occupied the same space. Both were run in the same publication. Both had photographic illustration. Both had carefully written copy. The difference was that one used the right appeal and the other used the wrong appeal.” (Tested Advertising Methods, John Caples, 1975)

This holds as true as ever, although the appeal might not be a soap which is ‘wickedly creamy,’ rather the Christmas retailer which makes you feel, Christmassy.

These large scale festive ads aren’t designed to sell off the page (or screen), they’re designed to link Christmas with their particular brand. The end goal is that when people think Christmas, they think John Lewis, or M&S or Waitrose etc. Obvious? Well here’s why it works…

Each time that we encounter a brand, whether in advertising, a shop front, of a delivery lorry, we “may generate thoughts and feelings about that experience. When we do, brand memory structures develop and these memories are at the centre of a brand’s equity.” (How Brands Grow Part 2, Byron Sharp, 2016)

Each encounter can affect our brain by refreshing existing brand memories or creating new ones. This brain activity can build what Byron Sharp refers to as ‘mental availability.’ The more readily a brand comes to mind at appropriate times, the more likely it is to be bought.

The reason that this is particularly powerful is because of Associative Network Theories (ANT). Essentially, memories are proposed to consist of nodes, which can form links (become associated). This is how, for example, celebrity endorsement works. Consider George Clooney and Nespresso; the theory is that these two entities become linked in the person’s memory, and therefore, when the person sees George Clooney’s image, there is a chance that they will think of Nespresso.

This is exactly what the Christmas retailers are doing. If we think back to John Caples’ emphasis on the right ‘appeal,’ things begin to fall into place.

The retailers are seeking the right appeal to link their brand to your Christmas; to come to mind instantaneously. To achieve this, brands are looking to own as many cues as possible. Byron Sharp describes these as doorways, used to access your memories, and proposes that they are of significant importance. ‘Open the green door, and you travel down one path in memory; open the red door and another path appears.’

At Christmas these cues primarily revolve around gift buying, sometimes specifically for individuals, or high quality / wow gifts. If, as a retailer, you are the first to come to mind when Barry is thinking about how to wow his new mother-in-law, then you’re in the hot seat, you open that door, which is where we return to reference Ogilvy.

Whereas the ads can sometimes seem idiotic, overly emotional, or farfetched, they’re cleverer than they initially seem. If you thought that the bear and the hare had absolutely nothing to do with John Lewis and their business, you’d arguably be right. But all the way through the run up to Christmas people were talking about it, taking up valuable head space, and pushing the competition out. And who knows, they may even have linked themselves to one of your Category Entry Points, such as thoughtful gift buying.

All Response Media Viewpoint

These campaigns are a particularly useful example when illustrating the difference between Brand, and Direct Response (DR) campaigns. Even though a growing amount of shopping is done online each year, £24bn out of £75bn in 2015, the majority remains on the high street (for now), so the battle ground remains in peoples’ memories.

When planning for the Christmas ad campaigns, we know that people are not going to make every purchase immediately, if only. So the effect of the advert needs to sufficiently link their brand with as many of the category entry points, or ‘doors’ as possible / realistic.

When people think “where shall we go for little Johnny’s big present,” they’re also adding a number of criteria, sometimes subconsciously. Things like whether the gift should be something to impress little Johnny’s peers, or to impress / show off mum and dad’s generosity, something expensive, or on a budget, something heartfelt, or a massive Nerf gun, whether mum and dad want to have a special shopping experience or a transactional experience.

All of these criteria, conscious and subconscious, can have brands linked to them through our experience with the brand and its advertising. Here is the difference between the Brand and DR campaign; the Brand campaign creates links in case a choice should occur in the future, and the DR campaign encourages the choice and shows you the door to open.

But it’s not going to work for all advertisers. It can’t. There’s only so much Christmas headspace to go around. So, whereas in theory, ‘owning Christmas’ and some of the feelings and moments that surround it, should be lucrative, in reality what we’re seeing is an arms race for festive ownership, which is making it more and more expensive to achieve this mental awareness. If this continues, the golden goose is in danger of being killed.

As a business, if you don’t have the sort of budgets to compete on an emotional level with the big 4, you are considerably better off focusing on a campaign closer to Ogilvy’s original intention – an ad which sells the product, the effect of which can be measured and optimised to.