There was a time, not so long ago, when the beginning of the festive season was marked by the launch of one single ad. Coca Cola’s annual offering, with its bright red lorries driving through snow-packed streets, and the image of Santa holding the brand’s famous glass bottles, has resonated with the UK audience over several years.
However, over the last few years there has been a pronounced shift in the landscape, with the festive season increasingly becoming the UK’s equivalent of the US Superbowl advertising drive, with major brands now competing to produce the best campaign to win the hearts and minds of consumers in the run up to the lucrative Christmas period. We have had “Monty the Penguin” from John Lewis, “Christmas Is For Sharing” from Sainsbury’s, “Special Because” from Boots and “Follow the Fairies” from M&S all fighting it out to be top dog in the advertising stakes.
In stark contrast to the launch of the first Coca Cola Christmas ads, these campaigns have been fought not only across our television screens, but also online, with social media users playing a prominent role in assessing how successful each offering is. This represents a major shift that holds significant consequences for the reputations of these major brands at their busiest time of year.
John Lewis was arguably one of the first major UK brands to identify the opportunities of a fully integrated festive campaign, opening the door to many others that have since attempted to mimic the brand’s emotive style. Its 2011 offering told the story of a little boy impatiently counting down the days till Christmas, finally rushing on the big day to give his parents the gift he has been so excited to present. The ad was first launched on YouTube and the John Lewis Twitter account to generate discussion before its initial TV airing, becoming the first UK Christmas ad to provoke significant discussion online.
Since then, the John Lewis ad has challenged Coca Cola to become the UK TV ‘event’ marking the start of the festive period. Its latest offering, “Monty the Penguin”, the tale of a little boy’s imaginary friendship with his stuffed toy animal, has outperformed all others in terms of discussion volume across social media, with almost 17 million YouTube views and almost 200,000 Twitter mentions of the hash tag #MontyThePenguin since its launch.
While some online question why the ad has produced such an emotional response en masse from the British public, the majority of online users speak positively about the production, describing it as their “favourite” or the “best” in terms of Christmas ads. Indeed, the public have connected so strongly with the penguin character, that Monty even has his own Twitter feed, with 33K followers – an indication of just how many people have engaged with this “spin-off” John Lewis brand. When it comes to the volume and the quality of the response on social media, there is little doubt the ad has been a resounding success for the brand, reaffirming its place in the consumer’s mind as the top ad to watch out for each Christmas period.
However, Monty the Penguin is not the only ad users have been talking about online. Sainsbury’s “Christmas Is For Sharing”, made in partnership with the Royal British Legion, tells the true story of British and German soldiers who temporarily stopped fighting to play a Christmas Day football match during WWI. It has been viewed over 11.5 million times on YouTube, with the hashtag, #ChristmasIsForSharing, mentioned 32,000 times on Twitter since its 12th November launch. However, some have criticised the ad, with one of AMV/BBDO’s rivals asking: “Should we really be using the horrors of the First World War to sell Christmas turkeys” (City AM, 17/11/14), while the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received 240 complaints on the piece within 2 days of its launch.
However, this negative sentiment was not reflected online, with the vast majority of contributors speaking positively about the ad, with some describing it as “extremely moving”, “tear jerking” and “poignant”. Interestingly, as can be seen from the word cloud below, which shows the most commonly used terms in tweets on the ad, many users compared the Sainsbury’s ad with John Lewis’, with many saying it rivaled the latter’s. By taking a gamble on an emotive theme designed to generate debate and reflection on the key Christmas themes of giving and togetherness, Sainsbury’s stepped up to the plate, rivaling John Lewis in the Christmas ad stakes.
Another brand which has taken a similar approach this year is Boots, whose heart-warming #SpecialBecause campaign tells the story of a family on their way to visit a nurse on the early hours of Boxing Day after she has finished her Christmas shift. While the campaign has so far failed to gain as many YouTube views as either John Lewis or Sainsbury’s, its social media element has engaged thousands with a call to action, which asks users to tweet about the person that is special to them and why using the hashtag, #SpecialBecause. Boots has responded to the vast majority of tweets, demonstrating the real value in following through on user engagement after designing a targeted social media campaign.
In contrast, M&S’ #FollowTheFairies centres on Magic and Sparkle, who transport Christmas presents to unsuspecting residents across UK homes. This safer, less emotionally charged theme has so far resulted in 3 million views, far fewer than either John Lewis or Sainsbury’s efforts. However, when it comes to social, M&S has been particularly innovative this year. As well as feeding campaign content through the main M&S Twitter account, the company also secretly created another account, @thetwofairies, which retweeted pictures of gifts sent from the “fairies” to people across the UK. According to The Mirror M&S searched social media to identify individuals wishing for specific Christmas presents and made their wishes come true, only being discovered after one user spotted her cupcake gifts had been delivered from an M&S food hall! This M&S tactic demonstrates the advantages of connecting campaigns from large brands to other, seemingly independent “voices” through Twitter, with this extra layer on social adding a sense of intrigue and mystery, as the account’s 28.3K followers aptly proves.
— Mari Stewart (@mari_stewart1) November 4, 2014
From spin-off Twitter accounts to mini feature films, it is fair to say that Christmas advertising campaigns have come a long way since the first festive doses from Coca Cola. This year’s display marks the culmination of the “tear jerker” Christmas ad, with the brands employing this tone winning the day in terms of YouTube views. While past Christmas ad campaigns focused on a direct call-to-action targeted at consumers to gain sales, over recent years we have witnessed an increasing drive from brands to create an emotional response. This suggests the aim of Christmas adverts is changing, with retailers placing increasing emphasis on ensuring their ads influence how consumers perceive their brands, rather than purely using them to sell products. As a result, the line between consumer and corporate communications is becoming increasingly merged, with the impact of social highlighting this pronounced shift.