For some it’s the sudden drop in temperature and the darker nights, for others it’s the moment their morning coffee is served in a red takeaway cup. For me, and no doubt countless other people across Wales, the countdown to Christmas really begins with the release of the Christmas adverts.
We no longer need Coca-Cola’s red articulated lorry to let us know the holidays are coming. For the past decade John Lewis has led the charge, with major retailers endeavouring to replicate its capacity to evoke Christmas nostalgia through heart-warming, tear-jerking stories and tender soundtracks.
This year, however, appears to be a tale of two Christmases, with some of the UK’s biggest brands taking distinctly different approaches to their festive advertising campaigns.
On the one hand, there are the blockbusters. Big budget, big production and often featuring big names, this year’s offerings include Paddington Bear mistaking a burglar for Santa Claus in Marks and Spencer’s Christmas epic, and Ewan McGregor narrating Debenham’s Cinderella-inspired advert.
It’s in this category John Lewis continues to take centre stage. This year, its much-hyped £7 million Moz the Monster advert is directed by Michael Gondry, who won an Oscar for writing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Set to Elbow’s moving rendition of The Beatles’ ‘Golden Slumbers’, it tells the tale of seven-year-old Joe and his unlikely friendship with Moz, the monster under his bed.
Whether you like the advert or not, it’s impossible to deny its impact. Within hours of its release, Moz the Monster was a hot topic of conversation on social media, with every major news outlet scrambling to get its own reaction to the ad online. And no wonder: in just four days the advert had been viewed more than seven million times on John Lewis’ official YouTube channel. And signs suggest children across Britain will be waking up to Moz the Monster merchandise on Christmas Day - great news not only for John Lewis but also for Barnardo’s, John Lewis’ charity partner this year.
While the public response to Moz the Monster has been overwhelmingly positive, there are some in the marketing world crying out for John Lewis to be bolder next year, to take a creative risk.
This year, Sainsbury’s has done just that. The supermarket chain has been responsible for some of the most talked about Christmas adverts in recent years, including ’1914’, its controversial blow-the-budget cinematic remake of the 1914 Christmas truce between the trenches, released in 2014. But, the brand has made a surprising about-turn in what it calls a “definite and conscious decision” to move away from one-off Christmas ad specials, and stay consistent with its ‘living well’ campaign.
Its 90-second “Every bit of Christmas” ad features real people singing a song penned by British rapper-turned-comedian Doc Brown about the things that make up a traditional British Christmas – from Brussel sprouts to novelty socks. While there are brief cameos by The Royle Family star Ricky Tomlinson and Kermit the Frog, it’s a decidedly pared-back approach from a brand that last year had actor-turned-presenter James Corden sing the backing track for its animated ad.
Using real people in its Christmas advertising campaign this year may be a different approach for Sainsbury’s, but it’s far from unique. More brands are embracing ‘social realism’ than ever before, perhaps in an attempt to create a greater emotional connection with their target audience during this period of prolonged austerity. TalkTalk has a similar fly-on-the-wall approach to its family Christmas ad this year, and McCain and Iceland are using real people, rather than celebrities, in their advertising campaigns.
It has never been more important for brands to win consumers’ trust. In an era where communication between consumers is easier than ever before, and public trust in so-called ‘experts’ is low, research suggests that people are far more inclined to trust recommendations from friends and each other, than sales messages from organisations or brands.
That said, campaigns still need to be innovative and well executed in order to be successful. It’s not enough to simply replace actors with ‘real’ people.
The social realism approach is one we’ve implemented at Freshwater for a range of clients, and have seen time and time again the impact real people and their stories can have. Rewind to 2010, when patients waiting for an organ transplant were the focus of a hard-hitting, national award-winning campaign for Donate Wales, aimed at encouraging people to sign up to the organ donor register. During the course of the year in which the campaign ran, more than 60,000 people joined the organ donor register – an increase of more than 50 per cent compared to the previous year.
And earlier this year, we ran a nation-wide search to find four families to become the faces of the Welsh Government’s Parenting. Give it time campaign. Over the next few months, the chosen families will be sharing their personal experiences of the joys and challenges of bringing up a young family, in the hope that other parents can relate to, and benefit from, their stories.
History tells us the ads that tug on our heart strings tend to work best at Christmas. Look no further than last year’s unexpected hit, the three-minute advert by little-known Polish auction site Allegro that told the story of an elderly Polish man learning to speak English in the run-up to his trip to London to visit his granddaughter.
But while brand awareness and making an emotional connection with consumers matter, let’s not forget the ultimate test is sales. The release of the Christmas sales figures in January will reveal who comes out on top, and Sainsbury’s will be hoping that its move away from a one-off big ad will help deliver results at the tills… if not, we probably won’t have seen the last of the blockbuster ads from the retailer.
This article appeared in the Western Mail newspaper on 20 November 2017.
Angharad Neagle is group managing director of Freshwater UK, the Cardiff-headquartered communications consultancy.