Boots among brands bracing for a Covid-19 ‘Christmas like no other'

Christmas usually starts in summer for marketers, with retailers in particular famous for plotting and filming their seasonal ad blitz months in advance. But amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, many are going to have to play the holiday by ear this time around. Here, Boots' chief marketing officer reveals how her team are preparing for a “Christmas like no other”.

Though the very mention of the holiday at the height of summer might elicit a groan, Christmas comes early for marketers every year. By July (sometimes earlier) most advertisers have at least mapped out their festive ad strategy. However, in the middle of the biggest public health crisis in modern history, brands' best-laid plans are being thrown out of the window.

With ad budgets tightened until the end of 2020, lockdown restrictions still in place in various markets and the possibility of a second wave of Covid-19 a distinct possibility, Christmas campaigns are looking to be a far less glitzy affair than in years past. Some are predicting a swell of creative focused on the power of community, with (unconfirmed) reports swirling that M&S and John Lewis are vying for Captain Tom Moore (the 100-year-old war veteran who recently raised £33m for the NHS) to front their seasonal spots.

For Boots' chief marketing officer, Helen Normoyle, Christmas this year will be all about one thing: “flexibility”.

She says: “The big challenge for all retailers when it comes to Christmas this year, not just Boots, is the question of will we be in or out of lockdown? What will that do to how people are shopping? And what will it mean for demand in-store and online? So we’re dealing with a set of questions and circumstances that we’ve never had to deal with going into Christmas, and that’s why flexibility will be key."

‘A Christmas like no other’

Speaking at The Drum’s Can-Do Festival, Normoyle says that beyond uncertainty, another complication will be responding to shifts in consumer behaviours.

Last year, Boots ditched the all-singing, all-dancing Christmas TV blitz to launch a record campaign with Ogilvy in which it allocated 55% of its total festive budget to digital. The personalised, interactive push targeted people online with tailored shoppable ads. Though TV was part of the mix, its primary role was to drive value communications.

However, in lockdown, consumption of both linear and on-demand TV has shot up in the UK.

“Six months ago we would have been talking about the decline of TV viewing among young people,” Normoyle points out. “But now we’re having conversations about how much people TV are viewing via streaming service and so on, and what opportunities that brings us.”

For Christmas then, Boots' marketing team will not only be watching closely what media customers are consuming, but navigating a “whole other set” of considerations at the same time, says Normoyle.

“Retailers will be thinking about how to manage the flow of customers in and out of shops, managing the flow of traffic to the website and fulfilling demand.”

She adds: “All of us are sitting here thinking about how this will be a Christmas like no other. Hopefully there will never be a Christmas like it again and we find a vaccine or other solutions.”

Switching media 'at the drop of a hat'

Normoyle’s message to her own team will be that while they can still plan ahead for Christmas and put a stake in the ground, they will ultimately have to “go with the flow” and be prepared to change it “at the drop of a hat” and potentially switch media channels.

“We’ll be looking for flexibility to move our creative assets and messages across to different channels.”

She highlights how the Boots Advantage Card loyalty scheme and mass personalisation has become integral to the brand’s marketing strategy and will become even more crucial going forward. Indeed, along with its US sister company Walgreens, Boots has just this week inked an expanded deal with Adobe and Microsoft that will allow it to launch a bespoke beauty experience for customers and provide custom recommendations.

“From what we’ve seen in the past few months, the response to that personalised one-on-one communication has been massive, compared to a standardised broadcast message,” she adds.

For the first six months of its financial year, which runs from December through to May, Boots' US-based parent firm Walgreens Boots Alliance reported that the health and beauty retailer’s adjusted operating income dropped by 29.1% to $276m (£220.34m) while sales dropped 2.2% to $5.8bn (£4.63 billion).

The slump was put down to the impact of bonus payments and investment in technology. Elsewhere, Covid-19 has been delaying the rollout of Boots' in-store beauty halls – which have been designed to help the retailer tighten its grip on the UK cosmetics market and keep pace with rivals.

Normoyle spoke with The Drum's consulting editor Sonoo Singh as part of The Drum's Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good. You can watch the interview in full and see what else the marketer predicted about the future of retail here.

Sign up to watch forthcoming sessions and see the full Can-Do schedule here.

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