Christmas advertising and its effect on brand perceptions

Tuesday, 13 December 2016 12:49

It’s that time of year again, the lights are twinkling, the pubs are overflowing and, in the UK (at least), the yearly bonanza of Christmas advertising is in full swing.

For those of you who manage to block out all things festive until mid-December, you may have missed the fuss, but for many of us (especially the British members of the BrandMatters team), the start of Christmas is signalled by the yearly arrival of the UK retailers' Christmas advertising contest.

Aside from the Super bowl, it’s hard to think of any other example of consumers getting so excited by advertising.

And whilst there’s no doubt that the investment these key retailers make in these creative adverts generates social media buzz (John Lewis was mentioned on twitter 30,000 times within the first 2 hours of the 2016 ad being aired), we’ve decided to consider here whether it’s a worthwhile brand investment.

Storytelling at work

Whilst each of the major UK retailer advertisements have a very different theme and aesthetic aligned to their particular brand, there is one thing they all have in common: a strong and emotionally engaging storyline.

Whether we are following the little brother who asks Mrs. Claus for a new pair of shoes for his sister, or the two teddy bears travelling home to see their family, each ad uses this opportunity to develop characters and a story that viewers can relate to.

This is wise. Research shows that consumers interact with stories differently than when they are provided with the list of rational benefits, as we so often see in traditional advertising.

Storytelling raises dopamine levels, which increases the positive feelings the viewer holds towards the brand. It’s also known to trigger a response called neural coupling whereby viewers translate the story and relate it to their own ideas and experience, creating feelings of ownership.

So, while from an outside perspective these stories may momentarily fill us with warmth and nostalgia, the advertisers understand that the positive reinforcement towards the brand translates to longer term engagement.

Long term good-will

A number of the large retailers have incorporated a social responsibility message within their adverts over the last few years. Boots, the UK’s largest chemist, shone a light on the hard working women of the emergency services, and last year John Lewis teamed up with Aged Care to encourage their customers to reach out to the elderly during the festive season.

With more and more bad news stories surrounding well known FMCG brands: unsustainability; poor pay for suppliers; questionable hiring practises; aligning themselves with a worthy cause allows these brands to, in contrast, make a deposit into their trust bank.

This building of positive brand equity then stands them in good stead for the coming year.

Another positive brand outcome of the association with a particular cause, is that it demonstrates the retailer’s commitment to delivering on their brand values.

One of John Lewis’ values centres on helping the community. By raising awareness of Aged Care they are showing employees, shareholders and customers that they walk the talk when it comes to the values they hold themselves to.

Creating nostalgia

Many of us have traditions that we associate with Christmas, whether that’s a visit to the fish markets on Christmas Eve, Church services, a family BBQ with all the cousins, or the fully traditional Christmas turkey lunch. What Boots, Marks and Spencers (M&S), John Lewis and Sainsbury’s have cleverly achieved in the UK, is to add their brands to our associations of this time of year. Just like mince pies and long lost relatives, Christmas ads and Christmas now go hand in hand.

This means therefore, that unlike traditional advertising that interrupts our attention, for many of us we actually seek these advertisements out. We wait online for the official launch, we share them with our friends and family, they cement themselves into our narrative of what Christmas means, and this will no doubt continue as long as the ideas flow freely.

But at what cost...?

Is this advertising investment accountable?

Because all this spreading of emotion and nostalgia certainly comes with a very significant cost. As a customer of M&S you may feel that the advertising investment is money well spent. But if you’re one of the investors whose money covered the millions in production costs, you may feel differently.

Consider the investors in John Lewis, who have seen profits down 9.3% on the previous year. Clearly this was something that four prior years of creative advertising wasn’t able to prevent.

Or if you’re a customer perhaps you might just prefer cheaper prices? Particularly in the context of tough economic times.

Or perhaps it’s just self-indulgent creativity?

It might also be argued that this festival of Christmas advertising is really just the expensive symptom of a marketing budget gone awry? When looking at the production budgets of each of these adverts you might be forgiven for thinking the 80’s had returned in full swing. What began as one retailers out of the box idea, has become an all-out battle of brand egos, with each big name aiming to out create and out spend the competition.

We might also argue that with nearly 4 years of this ongoing Christmas battle, stakeholders are becoming jaded. Where the first year was exciting and seen as a novelty, are we beginning to see this slew of feel good ads for what they are? A desperate attempt to outshine the competition with no real regard for actually delivering business results?

On balance...

And so, to sum up, do we think these adverts achieve anything meaningful from a brand perspective? They certainly embrace powerful storytelling and create strong emotional connections, but it could also be said that they are self-indulgent and unconcerned with delivering value for customers and returns to investors. So what’s our verdict?

To us (and especially the slightly nostalgic British members of the team), we see great brand value in all of these adverts. Certainly the financial returns may be more difficult to define, but to us the intangible benefits are huge.

Today, more than ever, brands are not owned by corporations or investors, but rather customers and broader communities. Their brands are now part of that conversation in an uplifting way, building positive associations along the way. This injection of positivity around the brand is much needed, frequently tipping what is often a very negative public face of retailers and their treatment of suppliers and customers.

Finally, in the face of a frequently negative 24/7 news cycle, they bring a warmth and a family centred emotion into our homes and lounge rooms. And in this fast paced, impersonal, screen-centric, stress-filled world we live in, isn’t this what Christmas and this time of year is actually all about?