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Iceland's top marketer says risky decision to hold back Christmas campaign until December has paid off

Iceland's surprise unboxing

In the heated competition for shopper attention, major retailers rush to launch their Christmas marketing in November but frozen food supermarket Iceland allowed the crowded field to have their say before it defrosted its Christmas campaign just last week. And it's a decision that's paying off.

This marks the second year that the retailer has opted to launch a Christmas campaign nearly a month later than rivals. The difference this time around is that it has capitalised on the quieter period with brave, odd creative that seems to have struck a chord with shoppers.

Working with Karmarama, Iceland gained traction by using video manipulation to alter footage of children unwrapping Christmas gifts. Instead of the coveted presents, the kids’ reactions were paired with turkey, lobster thermidor and pavlova reveals – a unique twist on the unboxing craze.

This product-led approach has paid dividends in-store, according to Mel Matson, marketing director at Iceland, and the gilded turkey in particular is nearly sold out as a result of the campaign.

Matson is just ten months into the role and for her first Christmas campaign wanted to direct the retailer away from the celeb-heavy ads featuring the Kerry Katonas and Peter Andres of the world and towards more tongue-in-cheek work featuring families, and more importantly, the food.

Since arriving at Iceland, the ninth biggest UK supermarket with a marketshare of 2.1%, she has been intent on battling what she sees as a widely held misconceptions around the quality of its frozen food.

“Iceland has always been associated with frozen food, and the image has suffered a bit over the last few years. I think we are the best kept secret on the high street but over the years we have suffered a bit with the perception of quality, there was a point we sold pound pizzas and that image stuck,” she said.

“We believe if we get our food into people’s hands they become believers, in using real people, we are demonstrating the penny drop moments when they discover the food is really tasty.”

But while its core-Christmas campaign has only just launched the retailer wasn’t completely absent in the all-important November rush to TV screens. Instead of battling Tesco, Saisnbury’s and Asda’s family-focused efforts, Iceland ran ads about partying and entertainment. Matson believes this gave it somewhere to evolve when the timing became relevant, instead of exhausting its message long before consumers are even ready to think about the festive season.

“We have been in the consideration set to a degree in November without wasting too much of our money in a battle we would not win. Our campaign when it came out felt really relevant.

“I have a theory, having worked for the other big retailers, the spend that you see in November takes a step back in the mass channels into December, and we were in the running for that,” she added.

Holding the creative back is a canny move that’s “paid off”, not just in making the most of tight media budgets but in delivering more value from shoppers who “only start buying Christmas food in December” and may already be beginning to tire of Christmas advertising.

Humour is of course now a core part of the brand’s toolkit. “There was an irreverence in how we were trying to come across, we wanted the ads to stand out so people could take notice of the food, we wanted people to see that we can poke fun at ourselves but when it came down to it, we wanted them to think ‘bloody hell I must have that gilded turkey’,” said Matson.

A week into the campaign, there has been a suitable uplift in sales, especially around the featured products, but the campaign has wider reaching implications for future work.

“We are in the middle of exploring where we will take our tone of voice, we feel emboldened by the Christmas work, there is a chance to be more playful and confident to be get out there and noticed.”