The story in this year’s spot is of a young boy Sam and his penguin friend Monty. Created by Adam+EveDDB, it shows Sam finding a partner for his lonely friend.
Before it even aired on TV the ad had become an internet sensation. Figures from the retailer show the ad was viewed 7 million times in the first 24 hours after its online launch on Thursday (6 November), seven times as many as last year, with comments overwhelmingly positive.
It has even won praise from unexpected places – animal rights charity PETA awarded the retailer its first “compassionate marketing award” for using CGI, rather than real-life, penguins.
The strategy behind this year’s campaign was to create a 360-degree immersive experience and to use the retailer’s store estate as another media channel, according to James Parnum, client business director at John Lewis’ media agency Manning Gottlieb OMD. John Lewis wanted to innovate in media to ensure its message was pushed as wide as possible.
To do that it worked with Channel 4 to create teaser idents with the hashtag #montythepenguin and took over a whole ad break for its premiere during Gogglebox.
For its online launch John Lewis used the native Facebook and Twitter video players, on top of uploading the ad to YouTube, for the first time. YouTube ensured people who were searching for the ad could find it, while Facebook and Twitter ensured engagement through sharing.
In store John Lewis set up “Monty’s Den”, which puts technology front and centre and gives customers another reason to visit John Lewis stores. Its shopping bags feature Monty.
The aim, according to John Lewis’ marketing director Craig Inglis, is to find new ways to amplify the Christmas campaign and offer customers a unique experience.
“We hope our customers will have more chances than ever to interact with them [Monty and Mabel],” he adds.
A very social Christmas
Nielsen predicts retailers will spend £359m on advertising in the final quarter of this year, down 2% on 2013 figures. Much of that decline, the firm says, will be due to a switch to more PR-based social media activity.
John Lewis was one of the first retailers to harness social media in its Christmas campaign, launching its 2011 ad The Long Wait online first. Now the rest of the retail industry is following suit. The ads for Boots, Tesco, Morrisons and Waitrose were all on YouTube before their TV premiere.
Retailers have also taken other lessons from John Lewis. Debenhams this year teased its TV ad with trailers featuring the #foundit tagline while M&S has a Twitter account for the two fairies that feature in its TV ad, following the example set by John Lewis last year, when the bear and the hare both had their own social media accounts.
The rise of emotional ad
Stephen Springham, senior retail analyst at Planet Retail, says retailers have been watching what John Lewis has done over the past two years and “jumped on the bandwagon”. That is the case not just in how they launch their ads and the role of social media but in the message.
More and more brands, he says, are going down the emotional route rather than overtly selling or focusing on price.
“Retailers have seen how well received John Lewis’ ads have been and have decided to take the emotional route. There is no reason not to. Retailers, rather than being able to just have a price message they bang out on ITV, have to reach people in different ways. Not everybody consumes media in the same way any more,” he adds.
The marketing effect
John Lewis’ ads might not sell products directly, but that doesn’t mean they don’t impact sales. Jacques de Cock, non-executive director at the London School of Marketing, says the campaign takes advantage of “remarkably positive” feelings towards the brand to ensure it is front of mind.
“John Lewis wants to position itself as the safe, reliable, trustworthy partner in people’s search for the right gift. It doesn’t force people to associate the brand with a particular product or make you buy something you don’t want, it’s a reminder that John Lewis is there. In that sense it enables them to capture a higher proportion of spend,” he adds.
However, the role of marketing can be overplayed. Last year John Lewis’ managing director Andy Street did credit its marketing as part of the reason for its sales rising by 6.9% but he was careful not to place too much emphasis on the campaign, citing it as one of a number of reasons why the retailer performed well.
Springham believes that while there is a link between a good campaign and solid trading it would be disingenuous to say that sales were up just because of an ad. John Lewis is already trading well, has a brand that is “well loved” and runs advertising that fits with people’s perceptions of it, he says.
“There is more to marketing and advertising that just a good ad. A poor performing retailer won’t have a good Christmas because they have a good campaign. If Tesco, the way it is currently perceived and with all its issues, put out an ad like John Lewis’ people wouldn’t buy it nearly as readily,” he adds.
The annual launch of the John Lewis Christmas campaign has become something of an event in its own right. No other ad causes such anticipation, so many column inches or such a reaction in the UK.
There is no doubt that the ad is important for John Lewis. It spends £7m producing and promoting it. De Cock estimates it probably gets another £1.5m in free advertising through all the newspaper articles, let alone the shares on social media.
However it is just one part of a marketing strategy by John Lewis, most of which will go unnoticed. People won’t write about the emails, the direct mail, the print ads pushing product or the CRM but they all play a crucial role in boosting the John Lewis offer.
So too will in-store promotions and its multichannel approach, which makes it easy for people to browse and buy online, have goods delivered to their homes or pick them up via click-and-collect.
The John Lewis marketing works because the whole business is working together to offer a seamless experience that showcases its brand values, service and focus on the customer. The TV ad may be the most obvious example of this approach, but it is all the other aspects working hard under the surface that will help John Lewis in its quest to be one of the Christmas winners once again.