Go on, admit it… you were looking forward to the launch of the new John Lewis Christmas advert. But what is it that makes UK retailers’ Christmas commercials so compelling? And what lessons can internal communicators learn from them?
By Carol Luck
Although I bought my cards at the start of October, it wasn’t this early purchase that signalled the start of my countdown to Christmas. It was Buster the Boxer.
As expected, the best of the Christmas adverts went viral, achieving the stuff of dreams for an internal communicator. This article unpicks a selection of these communications, to work out why they are so effective and if any lessons learned can be applied in an internal communications setting.
Create an expectation
The social media activity surrounding the release of this year’s Christmas ads didn’t disappoint. The number of YouTube views alone in the first week of each campaign is impressive: John Lewis – 19 million; Sainsbury’s – 9 million; M&S – nearly 7 million. People anticipated them, talked about them, shared them and commented on them. And then there are the inevitable spin-offs, Buster the Boxer being my personal favourite.
According to Steve Garvey, CEO at EVCOM, the success of these adverts is simply the result of a tried and proven process for effective communication.
“Investing regularly in communication is something I always recommend to corporate communicators,” says Steve. “Doing one-offs of some kind can be very effective, but generally speaking you’ll get a much better return on investment from a series of activities that are well thought out, consistent, carefully executed and delivered to the audience at the expected time.”
According to the 2016 IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) Effectiveness Awards site, between 2012 and 2015 the John Lewis Christmas adverts were watched nearly 2.5 billion times, with a further 0.5 billion exposures from PR.
“They have inspired mutually beneficial partnerships with suppliers, tech firms, media owners and charities – not to mention over 81,000 parodies. Sales have increased 37%, generating a profit ROMI of more than £8 for every £1 invested in the advertising.”
The Sainsbury’s advert is a charming, humorous tale of a father whose huge workload means he struggles to find time to be with his family. So he decides that the greatest gift he can give them is himself. It’s a brilliant piece of marketing
IC lesson learned: If we create a great piece of content, execute it well and then tell people that they’re going to get something even better from the same mould at a given time, they’ll come back again and again to look for it.
Know your audience
The retailers know their audience and craft their communications accordingly: their Christmas adverts are the result of analysis, careful thought and detailed planning.
With catchy lyrics sung by comedian James Corden, the Sainsbury’s advert is a charming, humorous tale of a father whose huge workload means he struggles to find time to be with his family. So he decides that the greatest gift he can give them is himself.
It’s a brilliant piece of marketing. We all identify with the main character. Not just in the sense of too much to do and too little time to do it in, but also in our desire to spend quality time with the ones we love. Sainsbury’s is hugely family oriented and the advert appeals directly to this target audience.
But Sainsbury’s isn’t the only retailer that knows its demographic: the M&S advert is cleverly designed to appeal to its mature female audience. It stars Mrs Claus, who casts off her cosy jumper and woolly slippers and transforms into a sophisticated female James Bond. Dressed in a stylish red suit, she flies her red helicopter to a boy’s house in order to deliver his sister’s present in time for Christmas.
When Mr Claus returns, Mrs Claus is back in her woollies, asleep on the sofa. He has no idea of her heroic deeds. In the hectic run-up to Christmas, the notion of the reticent yet hugely capable secret agent will definitely strike a chord with women across the country.
Amazon was similarly astute with its video about a vicar and an imam buying each other a thoughtful gift. This is a story of friendship between people of different faiths – perfect for Amazon’s global audience.
One slightly more left-field character is Aldi’s Kevin the Carrot. He’s a vegetable who narrowly escapes being served up on Christmas Day, only to be dangled in front of Rudolph’s nose to speed up Santa’s worldwide journey. After seeing that, will any young children want to eat Kevin on Christmas Day?
IC lesson learned: When creating a piece of internal communication, we need to first understand why we’re doing it, who it’s for and what interests and motivates them. Only when we have that information can we work out the best way(s) to connect and generate an ongoing, positive dialogue.
Reflect brand values
The strongest Christmas adverts are the ones that tug at our emotions. This ability to resonate with the audience is a critical part of all communications.
Steve Garvey says: “As human beings we’re hardwired to behave in certain ways. And we absolutely respond to emotions. It’s said that around 70 per cent of communication is non-verbal. When we’re trying to work out what someone really means – and if we believe them – we’re always looking for non-verbal cues, eye contact, hand gestures, posture, that sort of thing.
“The retailers recognise their audience’s heightened state of emotion at Christmas time and how to capitalise on this. It’s extremely hard to get it right, but the ones who get it absolutely spot on are the ones where the advert genuinely reflects the organisation’s brand values.”
The strongest Christmas adverts are the ones that tug at our emotions. This ability to resonate with the audience is a critical part of all communications
Let’s look at the star performer again. They’re not trying to sell us a trampoline… or a dog. What we’re being sold is what John Lewis stands for. This isn’t some cheap commercial developed on a shoestring; it’s a meticulous production of the highest standard. What’s more, Buster the Boxer merchandise is now available, with sale proceeds going to The Wildlife Trust. This is an organisation you can trust to do the right thing at all times.
However, not all retailers hit the mark. Take Lidl’s Homecoming video, for example. “I don’t think Lidl’s Christmas ad works very well,” says Steve. “The narrative doesn’t tell a compelling story – in fact, I had to watch it a couple of times, to work out what’s going on.
“I believe that’s because Lidl doesn’t yet know where it stands regarding its brand values in the UK. It entered the market as a huge discounter, attacking big, well-known, well-loved brands. It’s certainly not a brand you feel warm and cuddly about, but you can definitely save money there.
“From what I can see, Lidl is trying to migrate towards becoming a more mainstream and established brand. And that’s a risky strategy for Lidl: it’ll either come off as second best to the likes of Sainsbury’s and M&S, or it’ll lose its reputation as a discounter who sells principally on price. Maybe it’ll get there in five years or so, but at the moment its Christmas ads are a work in progress.”
IC lesson learned: For messages to resonate with their audience, communications should reflect the organisation’s brand values in a consistent way.
What the Christmas adverts have shown us is that if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well – and that if we hit the bull’s eye with a brilliant communications campaign, it’s not the end of the race. It just means we have to come up with something even more creative next time.
Can you guess who these Christmas ads (past and present) belong to?