‘Tis the season to make great ads

‘The Long Wait’, ‘Monty the Penguin’, ‘Man on the Moon’. Everyone has their favourite John Lewis Christmas ad, and each year the new release is awaited with great anticipation. Since setting the tear-jerking benchmark in 2007, and reaping eye-watering bottom-line benefits as a result, nearly every other UK brand has stepped up with their own Christmas epic.

Christmas has become the Superbowl of the UK, and New Zealand advertisers are increasingly following suit. This is for good reason. Not only is this a key spending period, when some businesses earn upwards of a quarter of their annual revenue, but it’s a hugely emotional time of year.

The holiday season is brimming with tradition, family reunions, and happy childhood memories. Fertile grounds for nostalgia, a powerful emotion with a positive psychological role to play. Nostalgia, the recreation of an idealised past, makes us feel grounded and affirms our sense of identity amidst all the other changes in our lives.

It’s no wonder then, that people are more open to overtly sentimental advertising at this time of the year. While such films might be dismissed as cheesy in April or September, the marker of Christmas makes us keenly aware of any alterations in our lives, and opens our arms to anything that gives a sense of connection to the past or to other people.

The John Lewis model seems to be working, and with sound reason. But before we copy and paste it onto New Zealand screens, it’s worth taking a look at how our national context might affect things, and how the model might be better tailored to work for different brands. To borrow a great line from my colleague, Damon Stapleton: “In creativity, it’s really hard to find a winning formula, but it’s even harder to shake one off”. We’re better to put our own spin on the Christmas phenomenon now than to wait until it’s ingrained.

Consider the context

While there are lots of similarities in the way New Zealand and the UK celebrate Christmas, there’s one major distinction: the season. This hasn’t exactly gone by unnoticed; barbecued turkey and jandal-wearing-Santas adorn Christmas paraphernalia up and down the country. But the way the seasons affect the role of Christmas is more fundamental than that.

In the depths of a long, dark winter, Christmas in the UK is a welcome distraction. The day is blown out into a month-long celebration, with markets, mulled wine and festive sweaters providing respite from the cold.

In New Zealand on the other hand, the holiday falls just as the weather is starting to heat up. The countdown to Christmas doubles as a countdown to summer-earnest. The anticipation goes beyond the day itself. It’s a prelude to the end of the school or work year, a holiday at the beach, and another few months of sun-drenched days.

Find your fame

To stand for something in people’s lives, your brand first needs to stand for something. Christmas shouldn’t change these core beliefs or benefits, but what it can do is tie them to something that people already care about.

While many brands stake their claim as the bearer of thoughtful gifts or indulgent festive fare, there’s an opportunity to think outside the box. Instead of competing for room on the Christmas table, could yours be the brand that champions relaxed dining, becoming the go-to bread for boxing-day ham and turkey sandwiches?

Tap into a feeling

Touching, pull-at-the-heartstrings advertising is what’s worked for John Lewis, but that doesn’t mean this is the only emotion you can connect with at Christmas. Why not play to the expectation of Christmas Eve, the sleepy comfort of a full belly, or simply make people laugh? Contemplating your usual personality and tone, and the need you seek to fulfil will steer you towards a feeling well aligned to your brand strategy.

System1, a marketing research agency that uses behavioural science to predict the effectiveness of advertising, took it upon themselves to test the emotional-pull of every UK Christmas ad as it came out this year. They confirmed that there’s no one-size-fits-all model, but what is important is that you tap into the positive side of Christmas. Advertising that tries to be a little too authentic rarely does well. People want escapism at Christmas, not to be reminded that they’re likely to get into another argument with their drunk uncle.

Build up fluency

Developing fluent brand assets helps viewers attribute your advertising to your brand, especially at this time of year when there is so much noise. But if used consistently over the longer-term these assets can play an even more powerful role, building an association between your brand and Christmas. The ideal scenario is that your brand becomes entrenched in people’s holiday traditions, much in the same way that Love Actually has become a Christmas-must-watch.

The perfect example of this is Coca-Cola’s Christmas truck. For the past fifteen years, they’ve run the same ad with only minor creative tweaks, but it continues to achieve a five-star emotional rating from System1. The truck has become so entwined in the Christmas psyche that it signals the start of the season for many people. The asset is also used outside of advertising, with people waiting on the side of the road for hours to see the truck roll into their town.

Make the soft-sell

The Christmas period offers huge commercial opportunities, which brands should definitely look to amplify through advertising. But, with an audience that is already emotionally primed and ready to shop, this doesn’t need to be a hard-sell. Instead, considering how we can cater to people’s emotional needs will help to form a deeper human connection and sustainably grow our brands over time.

Annika Fyfe is a planner at DDB New Zealand.

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