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Sparks & Honey Brand Strategy Wunderman Thompson

How do you solve a problem like... breaking through the noise of the holiday season?


By Sam Bradley, Journalist

November 16, 2021 | 10 min read

Each week, we ask agency experts for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners. This week we ask how marketers can cut through during the festive season.

question mark

How can advertisers make meaningful connections with so much competition?

Making a dint in consumer awareness gets harder with each passing season. Not only do audiences have a million other things to be looking at, but the shared experience of Christmas and the other celebrations of the holiday season (Hanukkah, Diwali, Thanksgiving) has less surface area than ever before, as the range of traditions celebrated proliferate in complexity.

If you wandered like the Ghost of Christmas Present into a cul-de-sac on December 25, I’d wager you wouldn’t find a single pair of households watching the same Xmas telly, listening to the same music or eating the same poultry – and that’s without considering the sheer volume of festive marketing activity an advertiser has to compete with today, against which you'd be forgiven for thinking the only way through was to yell louder than Noddy Holder.

So, how do you reach a consumer audience that’s more divided than ever? And how do you represent holiday traditions that increasingly defy mass representation?

How do you solve a problem like... breaking through the noise of the holiday season?

carrera kurnik

Carrera Kurnik, cultural strategist, Sparks & Honey

Two factors contribute to the fragmentation of consumer preferences: conversations around identity have highlighted the beauty of human complexity at the same moment that the internet has made unique and hyper-individualized spaces.

So what happened to monoculture? How do we speak broadly to an increasingly fragmenting consumer audience? Well, maybe we don’t. Monoculture did not die because people’s preferences changed, but because creators started making content tailored to the preferences of a wider variety of underserved communities.

For example, the beauty industry has seen success in launching products centered around celebrations like Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanzaa, and Chinese New Year, which have been traditionally crowded out by the media spend on Christmas. Marketers should abandon the idea of trying to appeal to “everyone,” in favor of creating authentic, culturally informed dialogues with consumers.

jackie lyons

Jackie Lyons, head of planning, Havas Media Group

This year, we’ve seen the usual festive tactics deployed. Brands are trying to grab a shred of stand out in the seasonal clutter, with catchy carols (Very), B-list celebs (Boots and Aldi), and animated Percy Pigs (M&S). Delicious.

Call me old fashioned, but advertisers should really be focussing on the moments that unite us. The best ads are grounded in real human truths, from the fear of critical guests (Ikea), to the anxiety of fitting in (Disney), to a first kiss (John Lewis). Connecting via genuine emotion means that even a single exposure goes further to drive brand preference whilst also allowing advertisers to stretch across more seasonal occasions.

matt lever

Matt Lever, chief creative officer, BMB

Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the wee donkey, it’s not been a vintage year, has it?

The problem with trying to speak to everybody is that you can end up speaking to nobody. A divided, fragmented and increasingly un-pigeonhole-able society means you need a genuine human insight, or your idea quickly becomes gaudy festive wrapping paper that’s instantly forgotten and tossed out with the turkey remnants and those novelty socks your auntie Margaret bought you.

But finding those insights is the hard bit. Maybe agencies need to spend more time putting up the tree, before they start whacking on the tinsel.

adam chasnow

Adam Chasnow, chief creative officer, Fortnight Collective

What viewers and pundits like about these big brand holiday ads is the use of story-telling vs “story-selling.” The best holiday ads don’t really pitch anything, but rather, are just a brand’s take on the goodness of the holiday spirit, which transcends religion. As a Jew and someone who has never truly celebrated Christmas, I’ve never been offended by seeing Santa or a wreath in an ad. Yet over the years, many of my clients have directed us to stay away from any religious cues.

Once when I was at Cliff Freeman, Jason Gaboriau and I even made a holiday-agnostic robotic snowman for Staples, called ’Sno-bot,’ to skirt this exact issue. We have to hope that even in a divided world, the focus on family, being present, generosity, kindness and inclusion will continue to be universal and applicable to everyone. Even if there’s some mistletoe instead of a menorah on screen.

shirin majid

Shirin Majid, executive creative director, Europe at Virtue

Many Christmas ads still manage to trigger a laugh or a tear – but the formula for the blockbuster ad of yesteryear is culturally irrelevant. It doesn't reflect the world we live in now: It’s not truly inclusive, it doesn’t reflect our media diet, and it relies heavily on old tropes. To cut through, brands should start from a place of culture: where it is now and where it's going. That doesn’t mean jump into the metaverse, but take a fresh look at the what/who/where/when/how of your seasonal storytelling – and make sure it’s ringing the right bells.

dan treichel

Dan Treichel, executive creative director, Saatchi & Saatchi London

It was fun moving to the UK from the US and learning new holiday traditions. You open up pubs on Christmas Day? That blew my mind. I always try to find insights that everyone, anywhere can relate to. For example, gathering with family and seeing long lost relatives is more relevant to everyone than Rudolph is.

But as I just discovered, Rudolph is trademarked here so we’ll say ’generic reindeer’ instead. I have so much to learn. There are definitely some lessons that I’ve gained from working in different countries on global clients that apply to the holidays. One is a universal that the most successful creative ideas are the ones that become influential in shaping a modern country.

louise martell

Louise Martell, chief strategy officer, Yonder

Standout which translates to real commercial success will come to brands that harness the momentum they’ve created to connect with audiences and turn them into customers. This could be by delivering inspiration which feels personal and relevant or providing sustainable choices that people can feel good about. And with household budgets under pressure, offering value for money and convenient ways to buy.

Richer and more entertaining ecommerce experiences will also provide standout, adding seasonal excitement to online shopping.

greg fournier

Greg Fournier, senior vice-president, global strategy, Unruly

Even as traditions and habits change, emotional drivers remain a key part of the consumer experience; they transcend cultural differences and help us find common ground.

This rings especially true during the holiday seasons, which are usually the most emotional times of the year. A study by Nielsen showed that emotional ads deliver a 23% uplift in sales volumes, and Unruly’s research found that Christmas ads receive a greater emotional response. Un-stereotype your ads beyond the regular promotional spiel and focus on making an impact with emotions that appeal to your target audience. Consider if your campaign moves people through its emotional resonance and if it makes people take action. If the answer is yes to both, you’ll be able to break through the noise of the holiday season.

matt holt

Matt Holt, chief strategy officer, Digitas

To break through the noise, brands should focus on driving memorability throughout the customer experience. So many brands are competing for the coveted number one Christmas TV ad that memorability is hard to achieve. Instead brands should look to create a memorable festive experience in other channels such as the digital experience and CRM – tailoring it to different groups using data and smart interaction design. It only works if it all works so find and connect all of the spaces to be memorable at scale, and then create a ‘stretchy’ creative idea that encompasses the paths (channels) less well trodden.

niki hall

Niki Hall, chief marketing officer, Contentsquare

The holidays are about connection – with family and friends – but brands also use this season to create emotions-based customer bonds. For example: the 1986 ’Peter Comes Home!’ Folgers Coffee commercial (you know the one) runs every year. Why? Because it taps into an emotion and illustrates the spirit of Christmas. Effective marketing is driven by creating emotional connections, and we’re going to see brands lean on nostalgia and what the holidays celebrate: togetherness. Regardless of demographic or economic differences that traditionally divide audience segments, the idea of creating a link between products/services with togetherness will drive successful holiday marketing.

emily rule

Emily Rule, head of strategy, Wunderman Thompson

This Christmas, prepare for twinkle fatigue. In a desperate attempt to cash in on the cha-ching of Christmas post lockdown, brands and retailers are dialing up the Christmassy factor to cringe-worthy levels and plastering every spare bit of media space with both sparkles and specials. As a result, the Christmas spirit is going to peak prematurely, and by the time we actually get to taste the turkey, we’ll be fantasizing about dry January. To cut through the cheer-steria, brands should slow down and tone down, giving people permission to take a deep breath and actually enjoy their newfound freedom this December, whatever that might mean.

We'll return to festive quandaries this time next week. But if you'd like to join future debates, email me:

Sparks & Honey Brand Strategy Wunderman Thompson

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