Debenhams returns to emotional storytelling with campaign to help shoppers find their fairytale Christmas

Debenhams is evolving its ‘Found It’ messaging to tell the story of Cinderella, and hopes the focus on storytelling will “seduce and inspire” shoppers.

Debenhams is shifting strategy this Christmas to focus on emotional storytelling as it looks to “seduce and inspire” shoppers with a campaign based around the 1697 fairytale Cinderella.

The campaign, created by J. Walter Thompson London and launching on TV tonight (10 November), is a modern spin on the classic tale. It features a woman who loses her shoe and the man who tries to find her and return it. Hollywood star Ewan McGregor also appears, playing a pivotal role in ensuring a fairytale ending.

This year’s strategy is quite a shift for Debenhams, which in recent years has used the creative platform ‘Found It’ to great effect. According to marketing director Richard Cristofoli, that campaign was “hugely effective” because it was “distinctive and had good standout and recall”. However, he admitted that it didn’t work so well on an emotional level.

“Found It spoke very well to pragmatists and list makers but struggled at the emotional level to engage. We have the opportunity, particularly with everything going on in the world, to have some form of emotional engagement and that is important for the brand,” he explained.

“There is an expectation that all brands, but retailers in particular, will create storytelling content to entertain and reward. We weren’t in the game on that. This campaign builds on the insight that led to Found It but adds an extra layer of magic and enchantment.”

To promote the ad, Debenhams will be “taking over” YouTube from midnight, while the full ad will run across TV over the coming weeks, as well as VoD, social and paid-for digital. The campaign will also feature in more product-focused creative in print and outdoor, as well as being brought to life in-store.

There is an expectation retailers in particular will create storytelling content to entertain and reward. We weren’t in the game on that.

Richard Cristofoli, Debenhams

Stores will feature ‘clock strikes 12’ moments, where at midday colleagues will hand out “pay it forward” surprises to customers such as free gift cards, free meals in Debenhams restaurants and free cups of coffee. Debenhams will also be turning its personal shoppers into gift finders, so customers can go in with their shopping lists and relax while a selection of products that should suit are found.

“Customers tells us that if they’ve made the effort to go into a town centre, park and visit the store then we’ve got to reward them and create an experience they can’t get elsewhere,” says Cristofoli. “Part of that is the ambience and atmosphere which adds a frisson of excitement. Some bits of cardboard hanging down from the ceiling are not good enough.”

Christmas on the high street

This Christmas is expected to be challenging for the UK high street amid volatile economic conditions and concerns over Brexit, inflation and interest rate increases. Cristofoli says he expects customers to be looking for “real value for money”, but that doesn’t mean a focus just on “cheap stuff” with a Ted Baker child’s coat for £80 one of its bestsellers.

Debenhams will also be getting involved in Black Friday once again, with the event expected to “kickstart” the shopping season for the retailer.

This campaign also marks the last by JWT after a “great eight-year relationship”. Debenhams is currently in the midst of a pitch process that should be concluded around the end of the year. JWT was part of the process but is not on the shortlist in Debenhams’ hunt for a “brand expression partner” rather than simply a creative agency.

“We realised that with [our strategy] Debenham Redesigned we had a clear point of strategic focus. Our relationship with our agency is not just about advertising or the TV. The way customers engage with brands is more fluid and dynamic than it ever has been. We need an agency that can work in a 360 way across marcomms and our in-house creative teams to find consistency.”