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From the anticipation of the John Lewis advert to the nostalgia of hearing ‘holidays are coming’ for the first time each festive season, Christmas advertising is big business. In fact, Coca-Cola is regularly credited with creating the Santa Claus we recognise around the world today.

From early November each year there’s nowhere to hide from Cokes version of the Christmas legend as he occupies our screens and billboards with his on-brand red coat and festively fizzy bottle of pop. In recent years we’ve even had the treat of ‘Santa Coca-Cola’ himself visiting our towns and cities, but not on his sleigh lead by Rudolph, but in his truck full of fizz.

But why in the age of digital are so many big brands still spending the big bucks on festive campaigns? And do we, the savvy consumers, really get that sucked into the tale of Monty the Christmas Penguin looking for love?

Increasing your advertising activity and spend around the festive period isn’t exactly rocket science. Cultures who celebrate Christmas by the giving and receiving of gifts and the consumption of anything from turkey to dried apricots are in the mood to spend. But with a cramped market place and 1000’s of brands vying for business (and often pushing the same products) how do they achieve breakthrough?

A very John Lewis Christmas

After a three year Christmas campaign sabbatical John Lewis, one of the UK’s largest high street retailers, returned to festive screens in 2007 with a campaign designed to pull at our heart-strings and send us heading to their stores. Costing a reported £6million, the campaign used gifts stacked to depict the shadows of the people they were bought for - their perfect present.

2008’s campaign followed a similar theme, using stills of families and friends from all demographics and eithnic groups interspersed with images of their (again) perfect present. This time the advert also used a softly sung cover of The Beatles classic From Me to You and the recipe for the perfect John Lewis Christmas advert was born.  

Over the past ten years the excitement surrounding and success of the John Lewis Christmas advert has continued to grow. The brand have been clever to work with the same agency adam&eveDDB, ensuring that although the theme may change, from animations of bears and hares wandering through the snow to Lily Allen’s version of Somewhere only we know, to a dog, called Buster going wild on a trampoline, the message is always the same, a gift from John Lewis makes people happy.

As well as being a huge hit with the public, the use of characters in John Lewis’ adverts has been hugely lucrative for the brand. In 2014 we were introduced to Monty the Penguin, the imagery friend of a little boy called Sam, who was looking for love (Monty, not Sam). Monty instantly won the hearts of the Great British public. The advert was viewed more than 7 million times online in the first 24hrs after its release and a soft toy version of Monty was soon available to purchase in store. John Lewis saw a 4.8% increase in profits over the festive season and sold more than 48,000 stuffed Monty and Mabel’s, Monty girlfriend.

Alongside the clever use of characters boasting in-store sales, John Lewis recognises the power of social and the share. The buzz surrounding their Christmas campaigns generate huge cover and engagement online and on social. Within three hours of 2015s ‘Man on the Moon’ TV advert release the hashtag #manonthemoon had been used over 39,500 times and Aurora, the Norwegian artist whose cover of Oasis’ Half the World Away, provided the accompanying soundtrack received 7,315 online mentions in one hour.

John Lewis’ Christmas campaigns have also done wonders for their brand reputation and reach. The warm and fuzzy feelings the adverts create have translated to the perception of the brand. After the release of the 2014 Monty advert word-of-mouth around John Lewis increased by 71% (www.campaignlive.co.uk) and YouGov named them the most talked about retailer and third most talked about brand in their category. With the success of their festive campaigns and the buzz and anticipation they now generate online and on social, the earned media John Lewis gains sees the return on investment rocket. According to the econometrics the Monty campaign generated over £132million worth of extra revenue in 2014, a return of nearly £8 for every £1 spent.

Watch your back Monty

Of course many other retailers are catching on to the potential return a little Christmas advertising spend can bring. According to expenditure data from the Advertising Association Christmas 2017 saw the largest ever seasonal advertising spend, with advertisers investing close to £6B during the final quarter of the year. But research from The Guardian suggests this may all change, with ITV braced for a fall in advertising revenue of up to 8% in December 2018.

ITV are yet to share which brands or categories are reducing their spend, but media sources have suggested it’s a mixed bag, with online retailers and supermarkets seemingly increasing their TV budgets and market challengers like Aldi and Lidl  investing heavily. Meanwhile some of the established players, most notably Sainsbury’s, have significantly cut their festive advertising budget this year.

With this period of financial unsettlement looking to drag on for at least the foreseeable future, it’s expected that many big brands will continue to tighten their purse strings and cut their advertising budgets. ITV Chief Executive Carolyn McCall, blames the economic uncertainty of Brexit for a more cautious approach by companies. But, as the John Lewis case study shows, if you can invest in a campaign that works across both traditional and ‘new’ media and engages the consumer the return can be magical.

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Last updated: 11/2018

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