‘So This Is Christmas…’

…opens John Lennon’s infamous seasonal offering, and we TV viewers are all now in the thick of the retailers’ annual assault on our buying power.

Christmas UK retailer advertising. Is it advertising or a movie show? And does it work?

The trend towards the big, cinematic statement has been growing in recent times and there is now an established divergence in approach from the traditional ‘this is what we sell to complete your Christmas’, to a much more nebulous articulation of brand values – to the extent that I’m not quite sure what some of these brands are trying to say.

On the back of this is an increasingly breathless media commentary peddling the notion that the launch of these ads in itself is an important event – like Paris Fashion Week. Really? Maybe the media is genuinely interested in how our Christmas shopping habits are influenced by retailer advertising, but maybe it also helps to massage the egos of the various retailer brands involved who, let’s not forget, are all significant media spenders. Harry Wallop in the Daily Telegraph give us the low down on Waitrose and on the rest of the season’s key offerings or maybe look at this too? Certainly  the people at the Telegraph watch a lot of telly  – and I appreciate their help with my content.

Over recent years the ‘flagship’ ads have evolved into something way beyond a humble advert. They are mini-features with big screen production values. Running with the leaders – John Lewis, M&S and the like – is a big budget affair. This year John Lewis spent £1m to literally put their man on the moon and a further £6m for airtime. Another one weighing in with a tangential approach is Sainsbury’s, with three and a half minutes of Mog the cat. Both are liberated from any direct product references. Only at the end do we even find out who the retailer is, although the retailers are absolutely confident that this is implicit.

In amongst the links above, you’ll find Rachel Swift, head of brand marketing at John Lewis, explaining: “It is has become part of our handwriting as a brand. It’s about storytelling through music and emotion. The sentiment behind that hasn’t changed – and that is quite intentional. The strategy behind our campaigns is always about thoughtful gifting”. Sounds amazing but I’m struggling to see the USP?

There is also the sub-text of John Lewis asking us to think about the lonely at Christmas. Sainsbury’s and the Royal British Legion last year is another memorable (and notorious) example: an increasing feature of ad offerings in recent years as CSR builds momentum in Annual Reports. And how is the ROI on that measured I wonder – purely on the Christmas trading performance or is there an aspiration for a deeper-seated, longer term affinity to the brand? How do you differentiate in your board report?

But not all the big guys follow this route. Compare these with the direct, more traditional approach of say Aldi, ASDA, Morrisons and Tesco. It’s people-centred in terms of both employees and shoppers, and with simpler objectives. A clear divide has emerged between the cinematic and pragmatic.

It’s hard isn’t it? Retailers are all desperate for a good trading season, yet their customers have mostly become more hard-headed about Christmas spending. Certainly, technology mercilessly exposes price so is appealing to our emotional side alone the better option? I’m not sure.

In October The Retail Bulletin forecast a ‘good not great’ Christmas and pointed towards evidence that the growth of online spend will slow down. Maybe it’s driven by shoppers now guilt-free about shopping with discounters (where fewer have a developed e-commerce channel)? Or due to past disappointments with fulfilment. When all is said and done, people have very simple needs: give me some ideas, prove that you have the products and promise to get them to me in time for the big day.

So, for me, these will be the cornerstones of success for Christmas trading. And not much of it is steeped in emotion. Unless you have to hand out empty stockings on Christmas morning:

  • Keen prices. Winners will either genuinely offer the best for less, or will have a differentiated offer based on pack size or ‘added value’ bundling.
  • High and low-end ranges will do well. The middle ground will be far more patchy. Value is king.
  • Flawless availability. The winners will have stocks and good supply chain.
  • Crucially, they will get it to you in time. This will not only mean offering guarantees about pre-Christmas delivery, but may also play into the hands of the bricks and mortar stores where ‘a bird in the hand…” could be crucial. Watch out pureplay: you are a one trick pony.
  • My one concession to emotion is that in-store merchandising and theatre is a big deal. Department stores are good at this. And if you are looking at an area where John Lewis really does excel, then here it is. Quite why the food retailers still think it just needs a few red and green shelf barkers and ceiling-high shelving of packets of things to create in-store experience beats me. It’s the most important day of the year for goodness sake!! Show us how to cook the turkey, show us how to dress the table, show us how to create a domestic idyll, and let us taste a menu to get us salivating! And do it in-store. That’s where the disconnect between ad creative and reality really does kick in. And it shows.


Whilst it’s all mildly entertaining to watch the various retailer offerings, my spending will be determined by the rational, hard-headed decisions we are all increasingly pulling into even this notoriously mushy area of household budgeting. I’m putting on my Greg Lake record now. Bah, humbug!

Update: 16 December 

With the season now well on the way to being done and (sugar) dusted, I came across this progress report in Marketing Week. Admittedly it’s verging on old news, and I hadn’t seen the Aldi ‘Man on the Moon’ ad, but it seems my view that John Lewis was relying a little too much on the grand cinematic gesture seems to be borne out by the media analysis. As usual the nimble pretender stands a very good chance of running rings round the behemoths. But it’s not quite over yet: watch this space!



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