Beautiful or bland? Marketers react to the John Lewis Christmas ad

A shift in tone from last year’s offering and a break with Waitrose, John Lewis gambled by bringing its festive campaign forward a week to feed consumer demand for all things Christmas. Has this strategy paid off?

One of the most highly anticipated marketing events of the year, the John Lewis 2021 Christmas advert is finally live.

This year follows the story of 14-year old schoolboy Nathan, who discovers a spaceship crashed landed in the woods near his home. In the wreckage he meets space traveller Skye and they strike up a friendship, with Nathan teaching her all his Christmas traditions.

The ‘Unexpected Guest’ campaign is a shift in style from last year’s ‘Give A Little Love’, which responded to the pandemic with a message of kindness through a series of nine vignettes, each created by a different artist.

This is also the first time for two years that John Lewis and Waitrose have deliberately not joined forces on a festive ad, with John Lewis customer director Claire Pointon explaining that both brands needed their own campaigns to achieve “real clarity of thought”.

John Lewis brought Unexpected Guest forward a week compared to 2020 after seeing consumer demand to get Christmas started sooner and says the creative is a response to their desire for joy and escapism after a difficult year.

The timing did, however, mean that John Lewis launched the same day as Marks & Spencer’s clothing and home, and food Christmas campaigns, and just a day after the festive spot from Boots.

Has the shift in tone and timing paid off? And how does John Lewis compare to its high street rivals? Some marketers share their thoughts:

Tanya Joseph, managing director, Hill & Knowlton

It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas – oh no it isn’t! I still have a pumpkin in the front garden and we haven’t got Bonfire Night out of the way yet, but today is the day that John Lewis dropped its Christmas ad.

When I checked my emails first thing, there were five messages alerting me to it (one from John Lewis itself, the others from news outlets). Too early, people, too early.

As for the ad itself, as usual very high production values – it looks beautiful and if you look carefully there are a few products featured. But what the hell? It is a creepy rip off of ET with a dollop of Stranger Things on the side. I would much rather have the seasonal offerings from M&S and Boots.

Ross Farquhar, marketing director, Little Moons

It’s John Lewis Christmas Ad Day! Truly, the most wonderful time of the year for marketers. And the fact that ‘normal’ people outside the bubble will debate the merits of this one and compare it to their favourites is testament to the way John Lewis and adam&eveDDB have created a consistently effective behemoth that makes it easier for all of us to make the case for advertising.

So for the greater good we should all be lining up in support behind this one and luckily they’ve made it easy to do so. A story of open hearts and open minds at a time when living on our island can feel small and closed. And as always, so beautifully executed you want to applaud. All the more so for those of us who’ve made advertising in Covid, the professional equivalent of ‘hard mode’.

Of course, we’ll all have our subjective quarrels. Personally I long for the work to orbit (see what I did there?) a little closer to the early years thought of ‘next level gifting’ if only to draw the red threads back to the business a little more vividly, but perhaps I’m just nostalgic and ride or die for ‘The Long Wait’. I doubt such concerns about strategic clarity will be part of my Mum’s critique when she gives it to me in the coming weeks.

Jerry Daykin, senior media director EMEA, GSK Consumer Healthcare

It’s an out of this world twist on a well-established formula and, whilst it’s not as heart wrenching as some previous efforts, it lands a good emotional warmth and ultimately made me smile. I love the casual inclusion of a black middle class family without making a big point about it, after all representation matters.

Tom Wallis, CMO, Gousto

It’s a beautiful ad to watch. I really enjoyed the cinematic aspect of it and once again the soundtrack has been expertly chosen to tap into our emotions.

The overall narrative is really one of a traditional love story, which I appreciate. However, the ‘stranger’ from another world angle feels fairly cliché, without a new twist on it. And whilst there are some very heart-warming moments throughout, the ending doesn’t leave any lasting emotional impact like we’re used to experiencing from the John Lewis Christmas ads.

The idea of enjoying this year like it’s your ‘first Christmas’ after last year’s Christmas lockdown is a really strong insight. I don’t think this link has fully landed through the creative though.

Overall, it’s a great watch, with super high production value. I’m just not sure whether this will capture the heart of the nation in the same way last years’ ad did…and all the years before for that matter!

Abba Newbery, CMO, Habito

Oh gosh, John Lewis. Asking to comment is like judging an X Factor song. Every year, pretty much, they deliver the ad feel good hit of the year. Whether we like it or not. This year is good, albeit a return to the tried and tested formula. A love story, a cute kid, a cracking soundtrack and this year littered with stuff for us to buy – outfits, decorations, backpacks, beanies – you see it you can buy it.

The Christmas traditions are rooted in the narrative – trees, jumpers, mince pies. I don’t love it, nothing will ever top ‘The Long Wait’ for me (still brings a tear at every view). But this is defo John Lewis back to their very best. Happy Christmas (PS buy all your gifts now!!)

Abi Comber, CMO, Cignpost Diagnostics

I found it very predictable unfortunately and it did not warm me to the brand. If they were not about to make me laugh or cry, I thought they would have taken the opportunity to show up as one of the good guys in a world of turmoil and consciousness….but no.

I love the smart choice of Dawn French in the M&S ad with Percy and think she is the addition to the product showcase that makes it watchable.

My vote actually goes for Boots…but then I did indulge in the three-minute version. It evokes a feeling of childhood wonder that never leaves you and the joy you feel from both giving and receiving gifts (yes, I did shed a tear at the gift for Grandma). The vast selection felt joyous (see, they got to me!) and surprising when I only think of Boots for cosmetic and chemist items. Maybe an unfair comparison when I had three minutes of exposure.

My big question is…..what is Kevin the carrot up to? He is the one I am waiting for and I think that he is the one winning my wallet this year, which we often forget is the true test of the ad’s effectiveness in this fiercely fought period for retailers

Cheryl Calverley, CEO, Eve Sleep

John Lewis have had a challenging period as they seek to transform and rejuvenate their business from top to bottom. It’s in danger of being boxed into the (low growth) corner of ‘Middle England establishment’ – a path well and painfully trodden by M&S over the past decade.

But as always, doing the right thing for your business, changing, modernising, shaking things up is hard, and the brilliant ‘boy in a dress’ work we saw recently was testament to that. It rattled cages, but was undoubtedly highly effective in driving awareness and repositioning. Until, that is, the FCA got involved in all their wisdom.

So as ever, John Lewis Christmas has all eyes on it and I think the work is strong. I’d have liked to have seen a pacier, more high energy opening to pull me in to the boy’s adventure with excitement and intrigue, but from then on the creative progresses with a wonderful story, crafted in the usual high quality way, with some classy touches.

The interesting thing is the clear departure from the ‘thoughtful gifting’ strategy of the past 10 years, which, as a multiple IPA winning work, has done them proud. This does make the punchline a little less heartrending than usual, without the big ‘gift reveal’ that pulled so hard historically, from scarves to penguins, to Christmas puddings.

‘It’s bigger than a campaign’: Boots’ CMO on the strategy behind this year’s Christmas ad

But to my earlier point, change has got to come for John Lewis and the ‘Christmas as special as your first’ idea is incredibly rich, with legs to run on for many a brilliant script as the concept builds. I look forward to seeing where they can take this ‘as special as’ thought as they explore it further.

I find M&S Food a conflicted piece of work. The team have quite rightly identified a strong asset in Percy Pig and challenged how this can be leveraged at Christmas. But Percy Pig is somewhat of an anomaly for M&S, one of those quirks of British culture and is at odds, in its ironic silliness, with the core ‘premium quality’ positioning of the food brand.

This ad smacks, as a result, of a conflicted brief, where the team have been challenged to make M&S feel accessible through leveraging the asset of Percy, but without losing the strong quality cues of the food. When M&S does humour well it’s with a certain knowingness, a little self-deprecating, and this work misses that for me, whilst shoe-horning in the ‘product shots’. As we know, asking one piece of creative to do two separate things rarely works and the result here is a horse-headed goat I’m afraid.

And finally, Boots. A delight of an ad and a real departure for Boots from its historic creative around beauty, and Christmas party season, which always felt a niche insight. This ‘magic bag of gifts’ work is one of pure gifting indulgence, appealing cross-sectionally and promising that thing we are all so much in need of after such a long period of isolated austerity – the pleasure of finally being able to treat your friends and family to all the little things that represent the love that makes the world go round. Strategically, the Boots as ‘magic bag of gifts’ also appeals. Very neat. It’s a sheer joy and a piece of work that captures the mood perfectly.

As ever though, this morning my main feelings were of relief and utmost respect. Relief that I am not having to play my part and show my hand in this incredible creative Christmas battle, and respect for the remarkable work that continues to be developed each Christmas, for our own ‘Superbowl period’.

I cannot begin to imagine the stress, passion, commitment, sleepless nights and fraught days that go in to creating a Christmas campaign, and I sincerely hope that everyone whose advertising is going live over the next few weeks can now take a breath and enjoy a celebratory moment as we reflect on the brilliance of our industry, our people and our creativity. Oh, and that they all, for the first time undoubtedly in many weeks, get a good night’s sleep.