Why marketers stopped pulling on heartstrings this Christmas

With a wave of optimism hitting this year’s Christmas advertising, marketers are finally taking note of socio-economic pressures.


Let’s face facts, you were firmly clutching that packet of Kleenex in anticipation of the John Lewis Christmas ad just like everybody else. But then something strange happened. A dog jumped joyously on a trampoline. The regular set up of tears, followed by an existential crisis over cold turkey, all but gone and replaced by a goofy smile.

Peak tears

“Following a roller coaster year with Brexit and Trump, the nation needed an uplifting, certain and positive festive season and it’s great that the majority of campaigns this Christmas recognised this,” is the assessment of Peter Markey, brand communications and marketing director at Aviva. And the public seem to be in agreement.

In fact, in the seven days since the Buster the Boxer campaign launched, the ad has been viewed over 53 million times on social channels with Facebook views up over 300% on last year’s darker Man on the Moon ad.

The shift away from tugging on the heart strings has also seen the likes of Lidl, Tesco and Morrisons use real customers and colleagues in a bid to stand out.

According to Lidl UK’s marketing director Claire Farrant this shift is happening because brands have hit saturation point.

“We could have just used a 3D character but then we’d have just been like everybody else,” she explains. “At the end of the day there is nothing more engaging than a real customer telling another customer at home how great a brand or product is. It can achieve cut through and give a brand a real edge.

Rather than something isolated and one-off, you make a deeper connection by consistently focusing on real customers.”

However, Brand Finance’s marketing director Robert Haigh is more cynical. He believes more has been made of the move away from emotional advertising than perhaps merited.

“I don’t think we’re observing a revolution in the themes of Christmas advertising but I think there’s been a recognition of three things,” he adds. “Firstly that some consumers are turned off by the focus on large, extended, cohesive families as they can’t relate, secondly that even those who can relate have become saturated with this kind of messaging and thirdly that there’s publicity to be gained in breaking the mould as Aldi and John Lewis have successfully exploited this year.”

But Stephen Vowles, marketing director at Argos, which has opted for skiing yeti monsters that do dance routines around Dyson hoovers for its headline festive ad, counters: “For me the sentimental and nostalgic approach is very samey as everyone is now doing it.

“Our message internally is very much to characterise Christmas by being about heartbeats rather than heartstrings. And I think that’s becoming an industry-wide consensus.”

A year-round approach

Sainsbury’s wants its marketing to shine beyond Christmas

Christmas 2016 could also be the end of the isolated ad. Earlier this year, Sainsbury’s moved its £60m advertising account to Wieden & Kennedy, with insiders claiming AMV BBDO was dropped because the supermarket’s marketing only really stood out at Christmas.

And M&C Saatchi’s managing director Tom Firth expects more brands to start proritising ad spend beyond the golden quarter. “Sainsbury’s recent move to W&K gives us a big clue. “Clearly getting it right at Christmas can create a powerful halo for a brand. But there’s a need to be relevant and visible throughout the year to grow.”

A year-round approach is crucial according to Tesco’s global brand director Michelle McEttrick, who is persisting with its tried and tested fictional couple, played by actors Ben Miller and Ruth Jones, for the supermarket giant’s Christmas 2016 campaign.

“People form a bigger emotional bond with characters they are used to seeing all year round,” she told Marketing week.

And by taking a year-round approach, it is easier to make adjustments too, according to McEttrick. The Tesco TV couple’s fictional son is noticeably absent from this year’s ads and that’s because by rejecting an isolated ad Tesco was able to integrate customer feedback.

McEttrick explains: “We’ve listened really hard to customers and looked at a lot of data so whenever we pick out anything that is an irritant then there will be adjustments. Being able to listen gives [our marketing] an edge”

The end of big spending?

Consumer confidence hasn’t been majorly impacted by Brexit. Well, not yet anyway, with clearer consequences expected by March 2017 when Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged to invoke Article 50.

The sombre tone of Man on the Moon looks like a distant memory

One thing that is clear is consumers are looking for a bargain, with nearly a quarter (24%) of all Christmas gifting expected to occur on Black Friday, according to a poll of 1,000 18-55-year-old British consumers by technology publishing group Purch.

But “it is too early to see a major consumer spending impact around Brexit,” according to Argos’s Vowles. He concedes: “I expect we will have to work a lot harder to maintain price competitiveness in the new year.”

Vowles’ hint of price rises summarises a cloudy outlook for 2017, with marketing budgets also predicted to be squeezed as cautious brands wait to see what way the British government bends in terms of Europe.

Markey feels next Christmas could be a lot more restrained, with major brands treating 2016 as their last big blowout.

“You’ll see some drop back in advertising spend next year definitely but that’s also based on how successful the work this Christmas is.”

Haigh, meanwhile, expects marketers to follow the Aldi approach: “A smaller budget doesn’t necessarily mean less impactful work. Aldi’s effort has been widely praised and commented on yet they didn’t spend too much. Marketers will be taking notes”.



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