Mark Ritson: Advent of the Christmas campaign blitz

We’ve never had anything like Superbowl advertising in this country. In the US, the four-hour finale of the American football season is as much about watching the ads as the contest itself. Every American brand aspires to be part of the biggest annual event in marketing.

But something interesting is happening in the UK this year. We are developing a focal point for our own retail brands: the Christmas campaign blitz. While it’s true that Christmas, which can account for up to 75 per cent of a store’s annual profits, has always been the most important period for retailers, the growing focus on Christmas communications in recent years is incrementally different from seasons past.

Retailers are spending more money and much more effort in prelaunching and promoting their campaigns in the run-up to the holiday season. Their advertising has become news in itself, and consumers are responding in kind. The past week has seen a flurry of debate and criticism about some of these new campaigns.

If we are to follow the Americans, we also need to critically appraise the campaigns from the big players; this year there are four worth noting.

John Lewis: the originator, 7/10

If any brand can be held responsible for starting the Christmas campaign blitz, it must be John Lewis. Since 2008, the retailer has been making an increasing effort with its Christmas TV campaign aimed at being a “real appointment to view” each year. The retailer’s success, despite the troubled British high street, must be partly attributable to the strength of its Christmas strategy and a consistent campaign that straddles the years with a clear positioning of “thoughtful giving” and a classic reworked pop song. This year is no exception with a touching story of snowmen with the act of giving at the centre of the ad. The retailer deserves plaudits for continuing its Christmas theme but may be a victim of its own success. Other retail brands are following its approach of a big campaign with a heartwarming message. It’s the classic market leader’s dilemma as competitors copy and perhaps overtake its original strategy.

Tesco: the traditionalist, 8/10

Tesco gets a high score for meeting one simple but deceptively difficult challenge – not doing anything new. The brand has had a difficult year and there has been much clamour for it to urgently change its approach. How impressive, therefore, of Tesco to not alter its core positioning at a time when everyone at the company must have been tempted to try something radical.

As Tesco’s marketing supremo Matt Atkinson puts it: “‘Every Little Helps’ has never been more relevant to our customers and business. We want Tesco to play a small but important part in everyone’s Christmas plans by helping with those elements that make it Christmas”. Plaudits too for its new agency Wieden + Kennedy. Often new agencies suggest new straplines. Instead, we have something festive, familiar and bang on brand. The execution, so far, is unlikely to set the world on fire. But in times of change it always makes sense to play your strongest, most familiar branding elements and Tesco has done just that.

Asda: the accidental provocateur, 9/10

What else is there to say about the most talked about campaign of 2012? Some 186 complaints to the ASA, acres of column inches and thousands of Tweets – and the campaign is less than two weeks old. It’s clear that Asda did not expect any of the furore that followed its slice-of-life campaign showcasing how hard mums work at Christmas. In its defence, there is a difference between a stereotype and a market segment – it’s called data. And Asda used tonnes of it to create the campaign. Yes, there are single dads and yes, some men do help around the home, but the majority of Asda homes will recognise the campaign and it will resonate. The ad itself is relatively bland but the ensuing debate that will follow it into Christmas will ensure an excellent performance among its target market.

Chanel No.5: special mention for being bonkers, 0/10 

Despite a history of producing glorious Christmas campaigns for its signature fragrance, Chanel has truly jumped the shark with Brad Pitt this season. Pitt is actually a consummate actor but the look on his face in the ads screams a vivid combination of shame and confusion. “Help me,” his eyes seem to be saying, “I don’t understand what is happening here. Help me.”

But the biggest winner this Christmas season is TV. For all the shrieks about social media, good old TV advertising is still at the heart of big brand strategy. Yes, the social media diaspora does help to fan the flames, but the fire is still burning bright from the box sitting next to the Christmas tree in the corner of the room.

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