This year marks 10 years since John Lewis made its return to small screen advertising with its festive ‘Shadow’ advert. In the decade since, the festive frenzy of big-budget media has changed, rapidly evolving away from traditional advertising and into the realms of content marketing, PR, CSR and (of course) a digital-first approach. In many ways, they’ve become the ultimate integrated campaign.
What lessons can we learn from the big brands? What does this tell us about our industry? And how will they adapt to a changing economic climate?
Despite being some of the most anticipated TV ads of the year, most of the action takes place off the small screen, in the press and on social media. With previews, speculation and rumour running rife on all channels in the run-up to the big reveal, these campaigns really do demonstrate the power of an integrated campaign. It’s almost as if the advert is the product, and a masterclass in running an integrated campaign. And how could we forget the introduction of merchandise with Monty the Penguin, where the campaign was completely integrated to the point of being able to buy a fluffy toy.
From advertising products to advertising positioning
Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane to 2007. A child walks onto the stage with a lamp and is quickly followed by a succession of others who each place more and more products on the floor, from Macs to bags, until the shadow of a woman riding a sledge appears on the wall behind. Creative? Of course. Musical accompaniment? You bet. But looking back at it 10 years on, it seems oddly product-focused.
By 2011, however, we’re away from the presents themselves and onto fluffy feelings around the excitement of giving gifts, and by the time Lily Allen hits the screen in 2013, there’s not much on screen you could buy at John Lewis, except for a clock and a ball of wool from the haberdashery.
It’s not just John Lewis that’s followed this trend. The two key competitors for the top spot (M&S and Sainsbury’s) seem to put less focus on product and price and more on feelings. Sainsbury’s 2014 WWI themed story is a fantastic example, along with Waitrose’s 2016 Robin. A revolution in the Christmas ad space had taken place.
At this end of the market, Christmas seems to be an opportunity to say ‘this is who we are’ not ‘this is what we sell’. This leaves an opportunity for brands who compete on price, or position themselves as a challenger brand, as Aldi demonstrated when they jumped on the 2015 ‘Man on the Moon’ advert. Because they know their target market value price, it works; if they’d run the original John Lewis advert it probably wouldn’t have worked so well.
Partnerships as a tool for evolution
By 2013, John Lewis had cemented its position on feel-good Christmas advertising. But like anything, we need to adapt or die, and what came next was an evolution which took us out of advertising and into a more integrated CSR and PR space. A percentage of sales from the merchandise “The Bear and the Hare” teamed up with Save the Children, the Man on the Moon teamed up with Age UK, Buster the Boxer helped The Wildlife Trusts and this year’s monster under the bed works with Barnardo’s. It’s not just charities that brands want to team up with to help them stand out: M&S have secured the help of everyone’s favourite bear from Darkest Peru.
Apart from getting brands brownie points for sharing the rewards of their work at Christmas, the well-known benefits of CSR are a nice addition. Knowing if you’ve hit your peak with your current methods is always good, but identifying if you need to evolve or revolutionise can be trickier.
Beating the competition and markets
Sainsburys, M&S and John Lewis may be measured on their share of voice against each other and a Christmas advert winner chosen. But while a few product types do cross over between the markets, the important thing is keeping the real competition out of the picture. Other supermarkets and department stores are who they really need to be measured against at the time of year, and maybe that’s the reason they continue to put more and more into their budgets and spend on these ads. If they’re not in the space, then a competitor will be.
Of course, as nice as these warm seasonal videos may make us feel, the retail market is chilly. Consumer confidence, retail footfall and retail sales are giving the market mixed messages, making it an unpredictable time. Could there be a link between the product focussed adverts at the time of the financial crisis, while when the economy is on the up, retailers towards the top of the price range can afford to focus on feelings? Can they afford to keep up this strategy if consumers get more money-conscious and consider switching their spending? I wonder if sales of the John Lewis nightlight will boom this year. Could we see another revolution in ad-type, more personalisation and opportunities to get involved (as with this year’s Asda advert)? Economic uncertainty changes how and what we buy, and comms will need to react too. Maybe we’ll see the return of the Christmas window display bolstered with technology and personalisation…
Lessons for brands
What’s hiding #UnderTheBed? Big budgets, and big returns for brands that get it right. You may not have the budget to compete on the same scale, but the same lessons of an integrated approach – knowing why your customers value you and sticking to it, evolving and adapting your comms strategy to market conditions – can be applied to every business.