House of Fraser's marketing boss on avoiding ‘cry before you buy’ Christmas ads and tying itself to music instead

Brands have long leant on the catchy tune of an advert to prolong a campaign's lifespan and the subliminal part music plays in triggering certain emotions is well documented. This Christmas, House of Fraser sought to steal the well-worn crown of John Lewis – the inspiration behind a number of breathy festive number ones – and created a campaign rooted in music in a bid to stand out from the festive onslaught of Mog the Cats and Men on the Moon.

The all-important song – ‘You Don’t Own Me’ by Australian songstress Grace – has now arguably become bigger than House of Fraser’s ad itself. It entered the Charts for the first time on Sunday, topping off a week which saw Grace appear on Alan Carr’s Chatty Man and sing at Capital’s Jingle Bell Ball as well as have a rendition of her song performed on last week's X-Factor by contestant Lauren Murray to some six million viewers.

House of Fraser 'Your Christmas Your Rules' 95" from 18 Feet & Rising on Vimeo.

Indeed, a quick look at House of Fraser’s YouTube channel shows that while the spot’s content might have provoked mixed reaction, the song itself was an unreserved hit. Testament to people’s engagement with it, Shazam revealed that it had reached the top of its chart – meaning users fired up the app to find out more about the catchy tune.

“We always thought we would have a popular track on our hands,” marketing director Tony Holdway told The Drum. “That track was the perfect combination of modernity and having a classic element to it. That really mirrors House of Fraser and its history and heritage […]. Now, it’s like a mini advert for the campaign.”

The Brief

But music was woven in much deeper than just a lucky song choice. The brand’s creative agency 18 Feet & Rising was briefed early to come up with something that would differentiate the retailer in the crowded marketplace.

“When you look at the Christmas ads, a lot of them are that emotional fuzzy warm feeling of Christmas, which is lovely, but actually will you stand out if you do another version of that?,” said Holdway. “Who can remember the ads, apart from John Lewis, from last year? So we had no hesitation in terms of not going down that well-trodden path.”

18 Feet’s creative director Anna Carpen quickly came up with the concept of ‘Sugar Plumb Rebels’, a fresh spin on the iconic scene from The Nutcracker ballet.

“The media paints this idea of a perfect Christmas and families buckle under the pressure. So that’s where the line ‘Your Christmas, Your Rules’ came from; we wanted to take the pressure off people,” she said.

Concept locked in, Anna approached the choreographer behind Justin Beiber’s latest videos, Paris Goebel, to craft a dance routine and heard Grace’s song for the first time after it had done the rounds in her native Australia.

“It was all a great match for the campaign idea,” said Carpen. “And it felt like a female empowering message - Paris is 23 and Grace is just 18.”

Meanwhile, famed music-video director Ace Norton was snapped up which Holdway attributes directly to the fact that House of Fraser wasn’t trying to create a festive fuzzy ads.

The end result is a music video, rather than box-standard ad, which has pushed House of Fraser’s ‘edgy’ credentials and given a young musician a massive platform for success.

However, Holdway remains reserved in patting himself on the back.

“This has ultimately got to be commercially viable for us,” he said. “It’s a bit too early to sit back and say we’ve done well. No retailer can. We’ll wait until the dust has settles and look at the effectiveness.”

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.