A festive formula: Have retail brands settled on emotion, or does Christmas creative need a shake-up?

Christmas retail campaigns are almost unrecognisable compared to 10 or even just five years ago, with brands and marketers across the board upping their game for what is now the undisputed main event of the UK advertising calendar. But are retailers still shaking things up or have they settled on a heart string tugging formula? Gillian West unwraps the issue.

For the best part of the 90s, and then the 00s, the highlight of Christmas advertising and harbinger of the festive season was the appearance of Coca-Cola’s light festooned truck and its unmistakable ‘Holidays are coming’ soundtrack. That was, of course, until John Lewis got in on the act.

Now an institution in its own right, the John Lewis Christmas ad has been a growing phenomenon since its first iteration was broadcast in 2007, and it has since gone on to define the Christmas retail ad genre – not least since it brought in Adam&EveDDB and shifted the focus to the rituals of gift giving, accompanied by highly emotive soundtracks.

As Richard Denny, joint executive creative director of DLKW Lowe, explains, Christmas campaigns in the UK are now the equivalent of the Super Bowl in the states. “You’ve got big brands with huge budgets and Christmas campaigns are very polarising – what you have to do nowadays is be smart with it.”

But what exactly does this entail when every retailer, brand and supermarket is trying to capture the attention and hearts of the public?

Before it had even aired on television Adam&EveDDB’s sixth Christmas offering for John Lewis, ‘Monty the Penguin’, had already become an internet sensation, racking up seven million views in just 24 hours thanks to a savvy approach to marketing which competitors are trying to emulate.

Debenhams has this year taken a leaf out of its rival’s book, with the retailer’s marketing director Richard Cristofoli admitting: “We had a difficult Christmas last year, particularly because of our lack of a competitive multichannel proposition.”

Launching a 360-degree immersive campaign for Christmas 2014, created with JWT London, Debenhams’ ‘Found It’ spans out of home, digital, social and in-store activity in addition to the big budget television creative which shows children staying overnight in a Debenhams store searching each department for the perfect gift.

With chief executive Michael Sharp deeming Christmas 2013 as Debenhams’ “toughest in almost 40 years” the retailer has been given more than a gentle nudge to shake up its approach.

“Gone are the days when you could just do the TV ad and everything else would fall into place,” says Cristofoli. “A multichannel world now requires a multimedia approach, and as much as we’re proud of our TV campaign this is the first time we’ve had a campaign that isn’t purely about amplifying the above-the-line creative.”

While Debenhams, like most other retailers, is taking full advantage of social and digital this Christmas, it’s is perhaps more interesting to observe that this year it has chose to launch its first hard copy 100 page gift guide which is “far from irrelevant even in a multichannel world” according to Cristofoli as it acknowledges the retailer’s “breadth of offering rather than just a single hero product”.

Also casting its eye back to traditional channels is Morrisons. In addition to a big broadcast piece, the supermarket is running a print campaign with a difference, creating a range of wrapping paper to be given away as free inserts. “Often print is just seen as a placeholder to do some nice photography work, but with Morrisons we’re pushing it beyond that,” says DLKW Lowe’s Denny, who is leading the brand’s seasonal activity.

“We’re taking something that is part of Christmas – wrapping paper – and owning it. It’s festive and beautiful in its own right and it conveys the idea of unwrapping something and gifting really well.

“What we’re trying to get across with it is, whether it’s the brussel sprouts, the special carrots, mince pies or stollen, they’re all treated like gifts by Morrisons... celebrating the brand’s proposition of making Christmas special.”

A theme of gifting and the emotions tied to that is apparent in the majority of this year’s campaigns – an arguable side-effect of Adam&EveDDB’s emotive work for John Lewis over the years – but with retailers from Sainsbury’s to Boots trying to tug on the public’s heart strings, challenger brands such as Notonthehighstreet.com are choosing a different route to achieve cut through. Working with WCRS, the online marketplace has updated its ‘Choose a Life Less Ordinary’ positioning to ‘Choose a Christmas Less Ordinary’ with a cheeky marketing campaign that treads a different path, choosing to be quirky rather than conventional.

“We knew we couldn’t go down the emotional route of a John Lewis or a Sainsbury’s. It’s perfect for the sweet spot they’re after, but not us,” explains the brand’s marketing director Ben Carter.

“What sets us apart is our products and partner stories. We’ve made sure our products are front and centre, but not in a commercial or crass way. We’ve used humour around our products and, of course, emotion, but not that heart strings emotion we know others can do much better than us.”

Taking the humorous approach this Christmas is luxury fashion brand Mulberry – a recent addition to the Adam&EveDDB stable – with its tongue-in-cheek ‘Win Christmas’ campaign which shows a Mulberry gift topping everything else, be that laboriously hand painted portraits or unicorns. The creative is a diversion from the emotional narratives we’ve come to associate with Yuletide. What was the thinking behind it?

“Beneath all the joy and glad tidings, there is an undercurrent of competition at Christmas. Who has the most lights on their house? Who has the biggest tree? Who cooks the best turkey? No one talks about them, but these competitions are real and it felt like a new perspective on Christmas we hadn’t seen before,” explain Miles Carter, one half of the Adam&EveDDB creative team behind the campaign.

By deliberately going against the ‘spirit of Christmas’ as a heartfelt moment, and instead focusing on the more cynical ‘spirit’ of consumerism, Mulberry has set itself apart from the majority of this year’s offerings. Sophie Knox, the other half of the team, says: “We were very keen to make something funny. You don’t really see funny Christmas ads, let alone from a luxury fashion brand. The fact Mulberry was brave enough to make people laugh amongst all the other Christmas messaging they are being bombarded with helps it feel unique.”

As brands demand much more from Christmas campaigns than ever before, finding an original needle in the Christmas haystack has become more challenging for creative agencies, and planning for festive campaigns often now begins in January.

Ian Barlow, joint head of account management at DLKW Lowe, describes the season as tough, explaining that “so many things have been done before” and that if you try and do something completely different “customers struggle because they want the Christmas traditions”.

JWT London executive creative director Russell Ramsay agrees, adding that the public “aren’t as cynical about Christmas advertising as some would have us believe” and that the perfect Christmas campaign strikes a balance of “getting the clichés right along with being something new and fresh”.

“If you try and do something too offbeat, people will say ‘that’s not Christmassy enough’ but to make it Christmassy you need to include some of the old clichés. It’s about putting a new spin on those clichés,” says Ramsay. “For creatives that is difficult to get right.”

This feature was first published in The Drum's 26 November issue.

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