Read the nation’s mood before you commit to your Christmas campaign

At our first Covid Christmas, consumer sentiment could range from weary resignation to a desire for escapism, and brands will have to set the right tone.

Sad Christmas pugChristmas comes but once a year. That’s certainly true. But it comes a lot earlier for marketers. Rewind back through buying media, producing ads, creating copy, planning a campaign, formulating the strategic goals and – lo and behold – September is pretty much when most marketing minds turn to Christmas.

Thanks to John Lewis and a raft of other big brands in recent years, Christmas has become a vital communications period for brand building. And that is just the ‘long’ of it. For many brands Christmas is also the crucial sales period, with between 50% and 80% of total revenues often generated in these last few weeks of the year.

That makes Christmas an essential consideration for marketers and one that is, right now, sitting at the top of the to-do lists of many CMOs and brand managers. But there is another C word this year that also occupies marketers’ thoughts. What influence will coronavirus have on the Christmas period? And how should a well run brand navigate a Covid-impacted Christmas, given there are no precedents to guide marketers toward a suitable response.

Avoid unhelpful research

There are plenty of reports that are already predicting how things will play out during the first ever Covid Christmas. A new report from Rakuten Advertising, for example, purports to predict how consumers will behave during the holiday season. According to the study, 70% of British shoppers do not plan to decrease their Christmas spending this year and 73% of that spending will primarily take place online. The most powerful tactical tool for the festive period will be discounts, with 47% of consumers citing them as the most influential factor in their upcoming purchase choices.

So there you have it. Budget for similar levels of spending and put everything online, ideally with a 30% promo code. Done!

Consumer confidence fails to rebound despite government schemes

Not so fast. While the sample for the Ratuken research, a global group of 8,673 adults, is more than enough to tick the box of representation, the validity of asking people how they think they will behave in six months’ time is 100% stupid. I am all for market orientation but people simply do not know how they will behave four very unpredictable months from now.

Surveys that ask people to provide their perceptions are a vital tool. But ones that ask consumers to speculate on how they will behave in a distant future, contingent on a number of different influences, might produce precise percentages but they are one step next to worthless. So too are the questions that ask consumers to assess what influences them or what attracts them most from a list of factors.

You can reflect on tragedy and challenge while also providing a genuinely uplifting coda.

You will get an answer, an honest one at that, but consumers simply do not know what influences and alters their decision making. Yes, we have to listen to consumers as part of the marketing process. But its not as simple as asking them ‘what works on you’ or ‘what will you do if X happens’ or ‘what should I do to be successful’. If it was that simple we would all be marketing success stories.

So, marketers planning their Christmas campaigns are a bit in the dark. Success will depend on those brave marketers who can best predict the mood of the market now and prepare their marketing efforts accordingly. But no survey can or will provide them with an accurate prediction. Instead, as with so many branding challenges, a good marketer will need to reflect with introspection, roam wide with ethnography and dig deep with cultural analysis to determine just what mood their target consumers will be in when December arrives.

To help them in that task, and at almost no expense, I have prepared a new tool based on the key principles of marketing science, Christmas bullshit and Hollywood movies. My new device – named the Chrisometer – allows marketers to review different degrees of festive feeling and then select the precise level of Christmas spirit they want to inject into their marketing to maximise brand equity and sales growth during the all-important holiday season.

Let’s explore the Chrisometer from the far left of the scale (Bah!) to the far right (Christmas Pudding) before discussing the recommended level of festivity that I believe marketers should aim for. Please note that I actually like all the movies included in the Chrisometer. This is not about which is the best festive movie but rather which one will capture the mood of the consumer this Christmas.

Festive level -2: Bah!

There is a considerable chance that the British population will become so weary from the challenges of 2020 that they simply want the year to end. They may find it almost impossible to feel any Christmas joy and become relatively cynical about the whole holiday. The movie that best encapsulates this mindset has to be Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa. It’s a dystopian vision of Christmas with heavy drinking, filthy language, evil dwarves and wedgies.

If weary resignation really is the cultural context for the upcoming holidays, brands should go along with the negativity and help consumers to see the black humour in such an awful year and such a miserable Christmas. As Bad Santa ably demonstrates, there is a lot of potential in taking a darker view and plenty of scope for creative impact. Go low, then go lower, and help consumers laugh at how bad things have been.

Festive level -1: Humbug

Perhaps things won’t be totally bleak. Maybe, as 2020 draws to a close, British consumers will be comforted by dark humour and a Christmas setting devoid of all the usual schmaltz and tinsel. In which case, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang would be an accurate representation for the mood of the nation and an important assistance for brands looking for the right direction to take.

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Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer (in easily his best role) are wise-cracking anti-heroes in a very unfestive Los Angeles during the holiday season. It is about guns, murder, very dark plot lines but also a properly funny narrative entirely devoid of sentiment and any cheerful retrospect. That might be a smart path for brands to take if the British public really are beaten down by the events of the last 12 months and see Christmas as respite but little else.

Festive level 0: Christmas?

The safe bet this season is that brands play out their marketing to a Christmas backdrop but leave it at just that – a backdrop and no more. Most big brands will need to acknowledge the festive period but might want to focus on other messages because consumers will simply not be in the mood for the usual Christmas celebrations.

The best exemplar of this ‘Christmas as context only’ approach is the spectacularly cool movie Three Days of the Condor. Filmed slap bang in the middle of the 1970s, Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway are brilliant in this gripping little spy movie. Dave Grusin’s funky-ass soundtrack and Max Von Sydow’s menacing assassin almost make you forget that the titular three days are set during the week before Christmas. And yet the references are there if you look carefully enough, with the occasional carols and New York Christmas decorations ever present.

It’s apparently a Christmas favourite of Quentin Tarantino, and I can see why. Super cool. Super engaging. Set at Christmas. But not defined by it. Could this be the answer for brands trying to go out on a seasonal note without opening up too much festive cheer?

Festive level +1: Happy Endings

Maybe there is a way for smart brands to speak to the tragedy and sad strangeness of 2020, and still redeem the season with a final yuletide twist. Consumers might be wearily heading towards the end of the year but is there a chance for a brand to inspire them with a deeper message and redeem the festive period at the very last?

The only movie for that would be Frank Capra’s masterpiece It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s easy to forget just how dark and lost Capra’s all-American hero George Bailey has become by the middle of the film. Up until the 60-minute mark this is a film about thwarted dreams, bankruptcy and suicide. And then comes Clarence and redemption and the greatest, most glorious pay-off in movie history.

Is this the template for Christmas advertising this year? Speak to the pain of the 12 months now ending, but then go for the heart and the joy that comes from love, community and generosity.

Festive level +2: Festive Warmth

Perhaps the doomsayers are taking things a little too far. Yes, it has been a hard year, but Christmas usually brings pause and then relief. As December arrives, so too do positive vibes and a sense that life has been good, no matter how tough it has been. Consumers may want to feel good again and look for the silver lining in all this.

The movie to illustrate this mood is The Family Stone. It looks super-shit and I can remember dragging my wife to see it on a miserable afternoon because there was literally nothing to do and nothing else to see. And it starts out pretty shit too, shaping up for the first 10 minutes like a badly formulaic Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle. She is visiting her future in-laws. Her future brother-in-law is gay. And in a mixed-race relationship. And he’s deaf so he has to sign his indignation.

But hang on in there. Gradually – so gradually you can easily miss it – the movie creeps up on you with a properly rare slice of genuine Christmas emotion. Everything eventually heads in completely unexpected directions and there is a happily incomplete tone to the film’s conclusion, which adds to its emotional impact.

And maybe that’s the secret for brands this year. They have to somehow capture the Christmas genie in the advertising bottle and deliver a true emotional punch. Brands need to avoid the clichés but also the cynicism and simply go for the heart. It will need to be calibrated carefully and executed by masterful creative talent – but maybe, just maybe, the country is looking for a chance to reflect and emote after all. They just need help doing it. And the brands delivering the goods will win big as a result.

Festive level +14: Christmas Pudding

If Christmas is escapism then the upcoming Covid holiday is perfectly timed. Consumers have been locked in, beaten up and generally pushed around for almost a year. Christmas brings fantasy and a chance to break the bonds of humdrum reality for a few precious days. What better time to do that than after this crappy year? Perhaps, the best approach to Christmas marketing is to offer consumers a chance to escape on an emotional magic carpet.

If that is the case then The Holiday is the perfect execution for brands to follow. It’s not a great movie but provided you drink enough red wine (trust me) it’s a veritable classic. Cameron Diaz is at her smoking hottest. Jude Law still has his hair and is a six-foot advertisement for perfect English manhood. There is lots of snow, entirely unreal Christmas villages are populated by impossibly lovely locals, and snow crunches under foot while log fires burn in the background.

It’s all total nonsense. But it is lovely, Christmassy nonsense and for two hours you roll with it. And maybe that’s the blueprint for the perfect holiday marketing campaign? Help consumers escape from 2020 and give them a little bit of magic free from pandemics, lockdowns and impending global recessions.

What’s the answer?

So where do I sit in all of this? If I were running a big brand my money is somewhere between the harder, grittier approach of Three Days of the Condor and the the festive warmth of The Family Stone. I think consumers do want to recognise they have lived through something big and horrible but they also want, need, to be able to sit down and embrace the emotion that comes with reaching the end of something, and the optimism of something new around the corner.

As the country’s CMOs sit down to plan their brand’s Christmas campaigns I’d therefore be taking a long hard look at It’s A Wonderful Life for narrative and tone. You can reflect on tragedy and challenge while also providing a genuinely uplifting coda. In fact, you might even argue, without hardship and difficulty it’s impossible to savour the peace and pleasure that comes with its resolution. George Bailey is the model for the Covid Christmas of 2020.