The Christmas PR War
November 10, 2018
Christmas marketing evolves
The John Lewis advert became the unofficial start of the Christmas period about five years ago and every time we look back at the fact now, we’re forced to ask ourselves – how the hell did it happen? That’s the kind of PR and marketing work you’d sacrifice a limb for; to become absolutely synonymous with Christmas itself.
This year the big story was the Iceland advert that was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) because the message was allegedly too political. Whether you agree with that or disagree with it is neither here nor there, the advert was released online instead to the howls of anger and disappointment of millions. Again, for an advert that Iceland didn’t even create (It was originally done by Greenpeace) it’s probably going to be regarded one of the smartest PR moves of the last half a decade or so.
Depending on your cynicism, you may well believe that the only reason Christmas even exists at all in its current form is because of clever marketing and PR people and – broadly – you’d be correct. If you’re familiar with Christianity or theology more generally there’s very little in the bible or Christian tradition that suggests presents, cheap decorations or mince pies have any religious value.
Enter Craig Inglis
As far as Christmas marketing ideas go, Inglis is probably someone worth listening to. Back in 2008 he became the head of brand communications for John Lewis and made his first noticeable foray into their Christmas sales attempts.
Talking to Marketing Magazine, he said that the advert had purposely avoided images of excessive consumerism and replaced it with messages of love and connection. In some ways I suppose you might call it “the real meaning of Christmas” if it weren’t designed by a marketing exec.
Over the years the John Lewis adverts became a national event and, of course, competitors started to quickly take notice and tried to catch up. Over the past ten years John Lewis have given us some of the most iconic Christmas adverts of the past century notably so with 2011’s ‘The long wait’ in which a small boy counting down the days to Christmas was set to a melodic cover of The Smith’s ‘Please Please Let Me Get What I Want’, and 2015’s #ManOnTheMoon where a small child flew a present to an old man sat on the moon set to a melodic version of Oasis’s classic Champagne Supernova.
In the meantime everybody from Sainsbury’s to Aldi have gotten in on the act, creating characters and narratives showing families together, warmth and love to try and sell their products. Aldi managed it so fantastically well with a carrot character that there were reports of customers physically fighting each other to get their hands on a cuddly toy version of the character, such was his appeal.
Not to belittle the successes of Aldi et al, this approach really has worked. The 2011 advert increased sales by 9.3% year-on-year from when it aired to Christmas day. In 2012 “Snow people in love” increased year-on-year sales by an incredible 44.3% in the same period. Ads from every year since have told a similar story.
Aldi, Boots, Sainsbury’s, we could go on, but all have recorded a similar upturn in sales simply by curbing the focus on excessive consumerism and tying the idea of gift diving to happiness and love. It’s a basic and crushingly effective principle: emotions sell products. If you manage to tie your brand to an emotion (think coke and friendship), you’re half way towards the holy grail of defining Christmas just by making an advert.