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How do you solve a problem like... cutting through during the holidays?

How can advertisers make meaningful connections with so much noise during the holiday season?

Each week, we ask agency experts for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners. This week we unwrap a second parcel of answers sharing how brands can cut through during the holidays.

Making a dint in consumer awareness gets harder with each passing season. 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?

We asked our readers and received so many expert responses we decided to run them over two weeks. Here’s part two.

How do you solve a problem like... cutting through during the holidays?

Justin Clouder, strategy partner, Mindshare UK

The ‘noise’ at Christmas is the sound of joy, of tradition, of coming together. Every family might have their own ways of celebrating, but that doesn’t stop us sharing more with people around us than at any other time of year. Smart campaigns tap into those shared experiences and traditions while using the wonderful variety and range of channels available to us to speak to people personally as well. There’s magic in Christmas but there’s no secret recipe for Christmas campaigns: great creative that moves people and media that reaches wide and deep. It’s not easy, but it’s not complicated.

Alpesh Patel, senior strategist, Engine Creative

There will be brands that will always cut through at Christmas, such as John Lewis’s 10+ years of Christmas heritage. However, there is a fundamental tension at Christmas. The issue begins with the assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas and ends with ads written with imbued white nuances but broadcast to the diverse nation. We simply don’t accommodate for the depth of a multicultural celebration.

The irony of course is that we still show Black and brown faces throughout our work. The problem arises when the nation looks at the authenticity of that representation. We all fundamentally need to do better to bring diverse teams into the Christmas development if we are to accurately portray multicultural Britain.

Kim Aspeling, head of creative solutions, A Million Ads

The festive season is here and with it an influx of generic ads at a time of year when personal connection is the most important. It’s vital for brands to make sure their ads stand out and reach a divided audience by utilizing personalized dynamic ads.

Dynamic audio allows brands to tailor their messaging specifically to individuals across a massively growing medium, allowing them to truly connect with their audiences. Brands can tap into contextual data points such as the time of day, weather or even listener’s location, which will thus resonate across every audience and every type of festivity.

Tim Lardner, client strategy director, PMG

Over the last year, we’ve seen diversification in how customers are reached as a key opportunity, especially for brands that have invested in understanding the value and experience of each platform to better enable the customer journey from awareness to purchase. In particular, we see more brands leaning into CTV, OTT and social commerce, which is likely to extend into 2022.

Our research shows consumers remain largely undecided about purchase decisions. In a recent survey conducted by PMG and YouGov Direct, 91% of respondents indicated they will switch brands this season when their needs aren’t met. In this moment of weakened customer loyalty, pursuing market share and fighting to protect a brand’s core customer set versus the competition will underpin any successful holiday strategy.

Fiona White, creative director, Hell Yeah

Most Christmas ads try to get us to feel something so we buy something. And we end up with some heart-warming narrative-led TV ads that can be super enjoyable. But if you look more closely at the underlying message things can start to unravel. A ‘buy buy buy’ message cloaked in emotion doesn’t feel so heart-warming, particularly when 30 brands are doing the same thing. Our recent Olio ad took some of the classic Christmas ad ingredients (cute kids, beautiful emotive song) but stood out from the crowd because it flipped the script to an anti-consumerism one.

Stephanie Burris, executive creative director, Marcus Thomas

To cut through the twinkle lights and jingle bells of traditional holiday advertising, we have to stop pretending that it’s a traditional holiday and really think about what our audiences need this year. Yes, the holidays are a time of joy and celebration, but there’s a lot of stress too. Longer shipping times, lingering anxiety around gathering, a tension between the typical overindulgence of the holidays and an increased focus on wellness – the brands who acknowledge these pain points (or better yet, find ways to alleviate them) will have a stronger chance of getting invited into homes this season.

Kimberly Bender, vice-president of media engagement and strategy, OH Partners

We continually work with our clients to develop in-depth profiles of our target audiences with the help of first-party data. During the holidays in particular, we advise against running mass-reaching media to tailor focus on targeted media. Even though we are reaching a smaller audience, we are reducing wasted impressions and reaching an audience more likely to convert. During the overcrowded holiday period, it‘s more important to follow audience behavior and serve messages that are pertinent to the desired consumers.

Camilla Yates, strategy director, Elvis

The ‘holiday season’ has always been a melting pot of different religious festivals, cultural happenings and family traditions. But advertising has historically favored the white Christian version of a traditional Christmas. I’m amazed that we are still only just scratching the surface in terms of portraying a more representative view of the way real people celebrate at this time of year. Regardless of which cultural moment a brand’s creative is rooted in, focusing on deep, universal values such as kindness, generosity and togetherness can enable brands to tell stories that unite rather than divide – and surely that’s what the holiday season is all about.

Nicole Lonsdale, chief client officer, Kinetic

Brands wanting to reach fragmented audiences at Christmas should look no further than out-of-home (OOH). Public, ubiquitous and delivering universal reach, OOH offers brands the ability to engage with traditionally harder-to-reach audiences, unite communities and tap into (or even create) cultural moments. We know people are excited about a ‘proper’ Christmas experience this year, with many shopping earlier than normal on the high street and in malls.

With brands needing to work harder than ever to stand out, we’re seeing the demand for creative activations and spectacular OOH higher than ever. The longer final trading week will see consumers shop in-store right up to the day, with brands using the flexibility of digital OOH (DOOH) to target last-minute shoppers, right up until the final hour.

Tamryn Kerr, creative director, VMLY&R

Everyone’s idea of the perfect Christmas is different. For me, it’s my mum’s roast, my Chinese sister-in-law’s dumplings and my Indonesian sister-in-law’s rendang – all enjoyed in a 30C New Zealand summer heat.

But no matter what you eat, whether you have a tree or exchange gifts, when the Christmas ads roll out each year, there are a few that will be universally remembered. This year, the Coke Christmas ad is a great example. One little boy’s story, beautifully told. Running in 90 markets, there are many elements of the ad that won’t feel applicable to most, but that doesn’t stop people being able to resonate.

When you deliver human stories of connection, in a beautiful way, it will always shine through.

Dan Fernandez, executive creative director, EveryFriday

Don’t try and represent everyone. It won’t end well. Lazy truths are easy to come by at this time of year so don’t get sucked in. You’ll get sniffed out quicker than the mulled wine. Instead, look for ways to celebrate your brand character through the context of the season. Think about the role YOU have to play. Look at Irn-Bru’s spot where they messed with Raymond Briggs’s much-loved classic The Snowman, turning the gentle character of the Snowman into a soda-grabbing, child-flinging ball of greed. Unexpected, irreverent and true to who they are.

John-Paul James, vice-president of business development,

Content creators can help brands cut through the noise this holiday season by offering authentic recommendations to their followers. The trustworthiness of creators is especially important for more expensive purchases, often made at this time of year, not least this year because greater consumer spending is expected.

Since they know them best, creators are experts at producing unique content that is tailored for their audience, which will enable brands to avoid falling into the generalist trap. It has also been found that impulse purchases are more likely to occur on social media than in stores. Influencer marketing can help brands stand out during the golden quarter when paired with a paid media strategy and integrated social commerce features to create highly-targeted ads that will resonate with a diverse range of consumers.

Charlotte Coughlan, managing partner, The Brooklyn Brothers

We’re a curious Christmas bunch. Rightly so, as understanding the cultural pulse of the nation is exactly what is needed to identify with our diversifying audiences this Christmas. If a brand knows exactly who their consumers are and – even better – how their brand purpose connects with the audience at this particular time of year, then you’re earning your way to rising above the Christmas noise. Take our Bumble ad from 2021. Speaking to, representing and empowering women to ‘make the first move’ and reclaim their lost year in dating was exactly the authentic, credible and sparkly ointment needed to earn Bumble a place in the culture.

Mark Elwood, executive creative director, Leo Burnett London

Brands can succeed at Christmas if they play in the emotional truths of the season rather than the traditions. We all like to have our family and loved ones around us, regardless of what we celebrate. Christmas brings out the inner child in everyone, firing up our imagination and our need for escapism. Reflecting how we feel and not what we buy is a more universally relatable space for brands and all the more powerful for it. It’s the approach we take for McDonald’s all year round and never more so than at Christmas.

Julie Michael, chief executive officer, Team One

The most loved brands break through the noise by creating their own traditions around the holidays: Coke’s Polar Bears, Hershey’s Kisses Christmas Bells and more recently REI’s Opt Outside. Another great example is Lexus, which has continued (but modernized) its December to Remember campaign for 20+ years. The big red bow has become a holiday icon that symbolizes gift-giving and goodwill. Due to its familiarity, the bow has repeatedly found its way into popular culture (thank you SNL), creating very happy dealers who typically have record sales during the last six months of the calendar year.

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