Why John Lewis ‘turned left’ for unusually un-Christmassy festive blockbuster

Elton John has replaced the likes of Moz the Monster and Buster the Boxer this year after John Lewis pushed its long-standing creative agency adam&eveDDB to try something new.

John Lewis has settled months of rumours that Elton John is indeed the star of its 2018 Christmas campaign with the launch of the film this morning.

It is, as has come to be expected from John Lewis, a major piece of creative that tells a story and has that ‘feel good’ factor. Even if the retailer’s customer director Craig Inglis argues the ad is actually a “very understated story” about a boy and his piano that “could almost be anyone”.

But compared to John Lewis’s previous Christmas campaigns – which have included Moz the Monster, Buster the Boxer, Man on the Moon, Monty the Penguin and Bear and the Hare – 2018 marks a significant change in creative direction for the retailer. That is something Inglis says the retailer really pushed for when giving long-standing agency adam&eveDDB the brief at the beginning of the year.

“It’s strategically always in this space around ‘thoughtful gifting’ and going the extra mile, but each year the challenge is to ensure it’s fresh and to have a different take on it,” Inglis tells Marketing Week. “We really pushed adam&eve on that particular aspect.”

The different take was also driven by a need to make the campaign as effective as possible. While 2017’s Moz the Monster performed well in terms of views and engagement, according to Inglis, it had the lowest ad awareness of any of John Lewis’s previous five Christmas ads, as well as being spoken about the least.

That is why John Lewis decided to “turn left” this year.

Craig Inglis, John Lewis

“It’s a leap of faith in many ways because at that point it is just words on paper,” Inglis explains. “You’ve got to believe that you can create something that will be special and tell a John Lewis story in a John Lewis way and that will resonate with audiences around the country when it gets to 10 months later.”

The ad also feels less Christmassy than previous years’ campaigns, which should help it resonate well beyond the festive period (and into next year when John embarks on his final stadium tour). However, Inglis says the notable lack of festivity wasn’t “explicitly” deliberate.

“[The scenes] are based on the big moments in Elton’s career and we knew that was going to get us to that incredible end scene,” he says, “which was all about what really matters at Christmas.”

Creating an effective Christmas marketing campaign

2018 has been an especially tough year for many retailers, particularly those on the high street. There have been retailers falling into administration, such as Toys ‘R’ Us and Maplin, as well as chains shutting stores.

John Lewis has not been immune. Its owner, the John Lewis Partnership, saw profits drop by 99% in the first half of the year. But while other retailers have pulled back on media spend and shifted creative focus to products and price, rather than brand, this year, John Lewis still sees the value in emotional storytelling and the big TV spot.

READ MORE: How department stores are fighting back to combat declining sales

“These two months of the year are where we make the vast majority of our profit so commercially it’s really important we get this right,” Inglis says, adding that John Lewis usually sees returns in excess of £20 for every £1 spent on marketing during the festive period.

“What we’ve found over the last 10 years is that this kind of advertising, which connects with people on an emotional level, is what really is most powerful at Christmas. In our view, the way TV works most powerfully is by telling a story. It’s when it goes on to telly that it really starts to get mass audience appeal and really be talked about.”

John Lewis has quashed “wildly inaccurate” rumours that it paid Elton John £5m to be in the ad, with Inglis saying the ad cost “about the same” as any TV campaign at Christmas and that the vast majority of spend was, “as ever”, on media. It is understood John Lewis usually spends around £7m on its Christmas campaign, with around £6m of that going on media.

Working with Waitrose

This is also the first Christmas since John Lewis and Waitrose rebranded to add ‘& Partners’ to the end of their names in a bid to differentiate in an increasingly competitive retail market.

In September, they unveiled their first joint marketing campaign to mark their change in identities. However, Inglis says it made sense to keep them separate over the Christmas period rather than doing a joint ad that would end up “compromising” both brands.

READ MORE: Are the John Lewis and Waitrose rebrands a cosmetic fix or a strategic move?

Indeed, Waitrose’s 2018 festive campaign has taken a very different approach to John Lewis with a series of “playful” and light-hearted 30-second spots focusing on the fact people “will do whatever it takes” to get to the food.

“We’ve always said we will bring the two brands closer together and we are doing that, particularly in digital channels. We’re finding lots of opportunities to work together,” Inglis says.

“With [Christmas] we looked into whether we could and the reality is what Waitrose needs to say at Christmas about food, the joy of food and the role that plays is very different to what we wanted to say about choosing a gift and going the extra mile. We would’ve ended up compromising both of the brands if we’d gone together so we made the choice to keep them separate.”