Why brands are going for emotions rather than commercial focus this Christmas, by Uber's Greg Clark

Stephen Chapman's picture

This November – just like every November in recent years – the nation waited in anticipation for their favourite Christmas advert to officially usher in the beginning of the festive season. Greg Clark, managing director of Sheffield's Über, examines how Christmas ads have evolved and how the most successful brands are making commercial messaging a secondary objective.

No matter how cynical we are, Christmas has a reassuring habit of filling us with a jovial spirit, filled with appreciation, family and nostalgia. The latter, is particularly effective, and to quote a famous fictional Madison Avenue ad man is ‘delicate, yet potent’, and this is something brands have been laying on in spades in recent years.

The Coca Cola truck has always been a great example of this, and something the British public have come to love (despite, the fact that the product will make you fatter than any turkey). And, while it’s hard to believe it today, for many years, Coca Cola had the monopoly on Christmas adverts with no real competition from other brands. After all, Coke is the reason Santa is red and white.

Enter John Lewis.

That was until around 2013 when John Lewis stepped up their Christmas advertising game. And five years later, we have brands fighting tooth and nail for that Christmas advertising top spot. Coca Cola is at risk of being dated with the same theme almost every year (despite Aldi’s great parody) and this paved the way for the likes of John Lewis, Aldi, Sainsburys and this year – although the advert didn’t make it to our screens (albeit arguably in a brilliant PR stunt) – Iceland.

And what do these new generation of Christmas adverts have in common?

The top adverts don’t focus on the commercial aspect of Christmas. The brands appreciate that consumers are increasingly turned off by hard sales messages, instead they focus on the emotive element of the festive period. Time with family and friends, warm fuzzy feelings behind giving a gift and making loved ones feel special.

John Lewis Christmas adverts follow a similar storyline each year and incorporate recurring features which set them apart from other retailers; loneliness, love, friendship, generosity. As a result, the brand in just a few years has become synonymous with Christmas, and while their ads might not scream out sleigh bells and snow, certainly align the retailer with gifting.

Focus on emotion, not consumerism.

One key success of the marketing behind John Lewis and the other top tier Christmas brands this year, is their focus on human emotion rather than cynically dialing up consumerism hype. They do not in any of their adverts discuss specific product names or prices, but rather tell a story to their audience, which is always heart-warming, relatable and inspiring.

Iceland was responsible for a Christmas first this year (albeit by re-purposing something that Greenpeace had already made) by advocating a contentious ethical issue, which forms part of a broader macro ‘social standing’ trend we are seeing across the board. And while brands becoming more morally and ethically responsible is something that is becoming more frequent, no company has backed an issue during the ‘Golden Quarter’ the biggest trading period for most retailers.Iceland used the emotive element to back a campaign to stop using palm oil on products, and like all great Christmas adverts, it has since become so much more than a TV spot, integrating itself into the public’s consciousness via public relations, experiential and digital. It was almost as if Iceland knew its political focus would be banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)…

Sainsburys is another brand that has completely dismissed commercial messaging. After the success of 2017’s Mogg the Cat, the retailer giant used a primary school nativity to prove it is the Christmas brand for families. Using a mix of nostalgia, emotion and humour, Sainsburys don’t push any products or services, in fact there is no brand recognition at all until the end with the straplines (in brand colours of course) “We give all we’ve got for the ones we love”. Enlisting the help of The Greatest Showman director, Michael Gracey, has given it some sparkle but you cant help thinking that they were already half way through production of this when they saw John Lewis and Partners “Bohemian Rhapsody” commercial and thought…“Oh bugger”.

By masking their sales objective with subtle reiterations of family love and emotional nostalgia, these brands have expertly masked their apparent commercial focus, in doing so positioning themselves as not just a brand for Christmas, but an intrinsic part of Christmas itself.

Greg Clark is managing director of Sheffield-based, creative advertising agency, Über.