Neil Cook, Global Creative Director, tcc global

2011 was the dawn of the Christmas ad. The year that John Lewis made it ‘a thing’. In case you need reminding, their tear-jerking £5m+ ad “The Long Wait” saw a young boy anticipating giving his parents a gift accompanied by a cover of The Smiths. John Lewis had put its trust in its new ad agency, Adam & Eve, after beginning to work with them on its 2009 advert –  they introduced the rich storytelling we’ve all become used to – which helped drive a Christmas period sales increase of 12.7% compared to the previous year.

Since then, brands and agencies have thrown giant, gleaming budgets at their Christmas ads. And the nation’s creative minds have made ads that put the British advertising industry back on the world map.

The results have been magical—and something that pays. Forecast data from the Advertising Association shows that brands will spend close to £6.5bn on seasonal advertising during the final quarter of this year. This is a 5% increase on last year. It’s still working.

For retailers – and grocery retailers in particular – the Christmas ad offers an opportunity to evoke emotion in a sector that often delivers a rather mundane experience that is sometimes seen as a ‘chore’. Functional experiences, and functional marketing, are something their customers face on a daily basis.

This – coupled with the explosion of supermarket choice – is why the majority of shoppers are feeling what can be described as “transactional inertia”: the options available to them are doing the job at a purely practical level, and they are being given little motivation to change their habits. They aren’t loyal. They’re sleepwalking.

Christmas, however, is a key opportunity to be theatrical about what makes you different as a retailer and shift away from this inertia. To stand out from the crowd.

This year, retailers have largely focused on recreating their shop window. The disappointingly anonymous batch are centred on products, price and value rather than creating a compelling moment.

M&S’s clothing and home offering for example; features 15 times the number of products compared to 2017. Asda’s snowy scenes have a ‘come to us for everything’ feel, featuring everything from ovens to pyjamas to pavlovas. Tesco’s is trying to appeal to the “everyman and woman” by montaging almost every man and woman and every food that could possibly be consumed at Christmas.

Has it become ‘unfashionable’ to create a festive splash? Perhaps largesse in advertising looks misplaced when retailers are struggling and customers’ purse strings are stretched, or maybe the way we consume advertising has changed, with an M&S marketer suggesting that “the world’s moved on”.

But, as Iceland has shown, and John Lewis has too, year after year, Christmas is an opportunity to make an impact and demonstrate what sets you apart from your competitors, and it should stay that way.

As creatives, we have a responsibility to push clients who question the pressure to deliver data, ROI and product-focused advertising, look at the bigger picture, and remember the power of brands to deliver emotion and, ultimately, loyalty.

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