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John Lewis’ very different 2020 Christmas ad: ‘We nearly didn't produce an ad this year’

Uniting once again, the hotly anticipated John Lewis and Waitrose Christmas ad is finally here – with a difference. Focusing on kindness rather than gift-giving, the ad is just one element of a much wider charity initiative that the partnership will push into 2021. Marketing bosses from John Lewis & Partners talk The Drum through ‘Give a Little Love‘, billed as a ‘Christmas campaign like no other, for a year like no other‘.

“We nearly didn't produce an advert this year,“ admits James Morrison, head of brand marketing for Waitrose. “We were scratching our heads thinking - is the best thing just to make a substantial charity donation?“

Despite years spent perfecting the right ratio of emotion, joy and nostalgia, the John Lewis Partnership has a colossal task on its hands this Christmas if it wants to lift the mood of a deflated nation.

The company is itself reeling from the coronavirus crisis. Earlier this month, it announced that it was cutting 1,500 jobs through a shake-up of its head office functions. The employee-owned retailer had already cut 1,390 roles this year and closed down eight John Lewis department stores and four Waitrose supermarket sites amid the pandemic disruption.

Splurging millions on a Christmas ad spectacular after announcing thousands of job cuts could appear distasteful. Now, more than ever, John Lewis has had to read the room.

“Two things stopped us from pulling the ad,“ recalls Peter Cross, director of customer experience for Waitrose and John Lewis. “The first was fear of being the Grinch that stole Christmas. And secondly, we talked to our two charity partners (FareShare and Home-Start) that said the gift of awareness is beyond the gift of financial support.“

And so, inspired by the response of the British public to the pandemic during the first wave and the ‘acts of kindness‘ that emerged from communities, for this year's campaign it has come up with a pandemic theme of kindness and giving to charity, rather than giving presents, which dovetails with its new five-year purpose-led strategy. “The business has outlined a new commitment to be a much stronger force for good, so we thought what better opportunities to use our Christmas moment to launch that,“ says Harrison.

“The big point we want to be clear on is this is an ambition, it‘s much more than an ad,“ stresses Cross. “And it‘s not just for Christmas, it‘s a much bigger initiative that we hope will make a genuine difference in the places where we live and where we work. We have never activated a campaign with this breath and this scale before“.

Through ‘Give a Little Love‘ John Lewis and Waitrose aim to raise £4m for the two charities, boosting FareShare‘s efforts to support those facing food poverty and Home-Start‘s initiatives for parents who need support. A further fund of £1m has been created to bring the charity partnership to life in-store.

Fans of the brand‘s advertising first caught a glimpse of this charitable direction at the end of October, when the John Lewis Partnership announced they should expect a ‘Christmas campaign like no other, for a year like no other.’

Synonymous with Christmas itself, each year fans wait with bated breath for news of the Christmas spectacular. Last year, it opted for a fairytale spot that – true to form – featured a loveable mascot in Edgar the excitable dragon. Available as a cuddly toy, Excitable Edgar joined the ranks of other cute Christmas characters that John Lewis has brought into being, including Moz the Monster, Buster the Boxer and Monty the Penguin.

Despite the campaign breadth this year, fans can rest assured that it has been complemented by a two-minute spot, created by long-term advertising agency partner Adam&eveDDB, which features nine different vignettes created by eight different artists, offering support to the creative industries that have struggled at the hands of the pandemic.

Taking an approach similar to Bodyform’s recent ‘Womb Stories’ campaign, ‘Give a Little Love’ is a celebration of different forms of moving art, from animation and claymation to CGI and cinematography.

The scenes are connected to create a long chain of giving, as each film passes the campaign’s heart emblem on to the next part of the film, with each storyline illustrating how acts of kindness, large and small, can multiply and positively impact the world in which we live as we pass them on to others.

One of the most anticipated features of any new John Lewis ad is ‘the song‘, with the retailer traditionally opting for emotional ballads by well-known artists. Last year the partnership selected Dan Smith from Bastille, who recorded his own version of 'Can’t Fight This Feeling’ by REO Speedwagon.

This year it‘s back to the female-led, but unlike Christmases past, fans are treated to a custom track from Brit Awards-winning soul singer Celeste, titled ‘A Little Love‘. The marketers admit they want to get it to number one.

As Cross puts it: “The music has been utterly interwoven into the fabric of our Christmas ads for a long time, but this is a departure. It‘s the very first time that the song is an original track. [Celeste] offered to write something, and she did in a room over Zoom, and then sent us across the first sample. And as soon as we heard it, we were blown away.”

There is also a shorter complementary advert, created by four post-graduate students from Kingston University who were chosen for their distinctive styles, which are joyful, yet humble. Both adverts were directed by the British director Oscar Hudson.

John Lewis is known for splurging its marketing budget on its big blockbuster, as it battles to stay relevant in the annual Christmas ad showdown which it has played a huge role in shaping. But according to Warc and the Advertising Association, UK advertisers are forecast to spend £724m less than last year, which is a 10.5% fall, reflecting a general trend of 2020 ad spend decline.

Morrison insists that the company has spent a “similar amount“ to last year. “But what we‘re trying to do is to make it work even harder. You‘ll see with content, with stories, with editorial with social media, we've really tried to broaden out the effects of the campaign so that it works much harder in a much richer way than we've ever done before.“

MG OMD handled media planning and buying. After a big push on social for ‘World Kindness Day‘ the ad will air on TV on Saturday evening (14 November) during The Voice on ITV, which coincidentally stars Celeste. “As we go on, we‘re going to be building lots of content with news of what the charities are doing, alongside customer-generated content which we will feedback through digital channels,“ says Morrison. “We’ve got masses of customers engaged with our email newsletters.

“And TV will still play a big role. The Saturday night spot alone on the Voice is fantastic.“

There are more Christmas crackers here. We‘ve got all the big brand ads waiting to be watched.

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