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What to expect from retailers’ Christmas ad campaigns this year

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By Amy Houston | Reporter

September 21, 2022 | 10 min read

Adland creatives in the US and UK share their predictions on how the cost of living crisis will be addressed during a frugal festive period as part of The Drum’s Evolution of E-commerce Deep Dive.

Christmas advertising

What will Christmas ads look like this year? / Adobe Stock

This year’s Christmas will undoubtedly look very different for many families as they grapple with an increased cost of living, which means that jolly campaigns will seem grossly out of touch.

As people’s spending power is tightly squeezed, brands are prepping for a very frugal festive period. In fact, according to WPP’s media agency Mindshare, 4 in 10 Brits said they are worried about affording it at all.

Furthermore, the research shows that the number of people feeling negative about Christmastime is almost five times higher than at the same time last year.

In previous years, holiday campaigns from retailers and e-commerce companies leaned into the act of giving gifts, eating delicious food and being cozily snuggled up with loved ones – which won’t be the reality for so many people around the world this winter.

So to find out how Christmas 2022 campaigns might look, we ask advertising industry creatives in the US and the UK for their thoughts on what retailers will focus on instead. Here’s what they had to say...

The US

Zakiya Larry, global chief communications officer, Constellation/72andSunny: This year’s Christmas message from retailers will be a mosaic of diversity, equity, healthy living and finding value in these intangible elements versus material items (with their widgets for sale being the exception).

While these are a lot of messages to mesh into something singularly cohesive, it’s possible. Retailers will anchor themselves as the gathering place, their various modes of shopping as a way to remain healthy, at a distance but connected, showcase their pricing or sales as forward-thinking and conscious of the times and visually paint a picture of diversity with the casting of their ads. Lastly, the ads will promote philanthropic initiatives or give-back campaigns.

Luca Lorenzini, co-founder and executive creative director, Small: The situation is not that different from when the pandemic started. Back then, most of the brands wanted to say something but they really didn’t know what and were, I guess, feeling helpless. The result was communication filled with beautiful words like ’together’ and ’stronger’, but essentially quite empty. The brands that won at that time were those that spent their budget to help the communities with real actions, more than with beautiful ads.

This is what I would do this year if I was a retailer. I would ask myself: ’How can I really help the community to cope with the rising cost of living?’ This said, I predict that most of them will decide not to face the ugly reality. They will shoot an expensive film and share the usual heartwarming message as if nothing was happening. Because, in the end, it’s the easiest (and less risky) thing to do.

The UK

Owen Lee, chief creative officer, FCB Inferno: I don’t think brands will be able to hide behind the value-for-money argument completely this year. The crisis is too acute. For the best part of 100 years, retailers have always walked the tightrope between selling the magic of Christmas and what could be considered emotional blackmail. It’s a trade-off we are all willing to accept. But this year, I think this equation may break.

Encouraging what could be seen as unnecessary or even reckless consumerism may well be a bridge too far in the contract between advertisers and the public. Brands will need to be smarter than that. I think we will see advertisers leaning into the real values of Christmas – giving, sharing and being together. And let’s be honest, these have always been more important than pineapple rings or fidget spinners. And this year they may well be more effective.

Matt Steward, chief executive officer, Above+Beyond: It will be tricky, like walking a tightrope, with the risk on one side of tumbling into an earnest dullness that misses the party and, on the other, the risk of ending up with tone-deaf indulgence that ignores the punchy and precarious context. Marketers and agency folk will have been war gaming an insane volume of scenarios that have evolved and pivoted month-to-month.

For many Britons, it will be an energy bill Truss-mas – because though bills are now capped, which lessens the pain, inflation still remains. It may also be emotionally volatile as all of this is happening in tandem with a World Cup, which will either fill British spirits up with boozy cheer or wintry misery.

Messaging this Christmas feels like cooking a frozen turkey: really hard to get right and potentially very damaging. But it’s not all doom and gloom. A clear sense of purpose will allow longer-term planning of messaging. And smart, tactical agility will allow for short-term sales opportunities.

Rob Sellers, head of retail, VCCP: It feels weird to be writing about another Christmas which will be ’hard’ and ’unique’. For retailers, it will be about treading a very fine line between ’special’ and ’value’ as shoppers will have to make choices about what is important for them this Christmas.

Don’t be surprised if shoppers start to very consciously plan which items to get from where and seek out deals to stretch their total seasonal budget. Expect smart promotions coupled with reminding audiences that Christmas is special and that, however hard life is, there is always reason to celebrate.

Sid McGrath, chief strategy officer, Wunderman Thompson UK: Making predictions about retailers’ Christmas messages this year is like trying to tie a knot in an eel – challenging, awkward and probably ultimately futile. But I’ll see if I can tame the slippery festive fella.

It’s easy to presume that, in times of crises, the indomitable British spirit will see us going all out in a grand festive bonanza, come what may. The reality is that this time round there simply won’t be the available money for a big splash and to spread the love too far. When budgets are finite, there really is a limit to what can be done and no one should encourage consumers to overspend and get into even more debt. Retailers, please take note and do the right, responsible thing here.

This will be the Christmas of the savvier, more ingenious shopper. Pulling off a big Christmas on a smaller budget, with tips, hacks, shortcuts and a make-do-and-mend approach might just work this year, with retailers thinking more about inspiration rather than just information.

Maybe, the stigma of pre-loved will finally leave us and it’ll be a bumper time for eBay and friends. Entry-level pricing for tech will become de rigueur, a cheaper supporting cast on the Christmas table will tickle our taste buds and vegetarian or vegan will be the shrewd choice, not just the sustainable one.

Whatever we do, there will be wit, charm and fortitude. How’s that for a nicely knotted eel?

Rankin, founder, Rankin Creative: On the practical side, value. Retailers will define value, package up value and elevate value in different ways – we might possibly see brands doing more ’flash sales’, offers, loyalty schemes and packages that help customers feel they’re getting more bang for their buck.

The second, on the more emotional side, will be a ’we’re in it together’ sentiment – retailers will want to convey a spirit of partnership, of weathering the storm together and a rallying cry of igniting the ’Great British spirit’ to keep us going.

Lastly, they will focus much more on Christmas as a moment to find escapism, to forget the troubles just for a moment, to celebrate each other with an almost ’treat yourself’ mentality. Not in a frivolous way that disregards the economic backdrop, but a sentiment of Christmas is a time to ’let go’ and enjoy, and to make sacrifices pre and post to enable that.

Matt Hardisty, strategy partner and head of strategy innovation, AMV BBDO: Retailers’ messaging this Christmas will be played out on a sliding scale of apocalyptic and measured.

The apocalyptic one: ‘Let me out of my feeling.’ With impending climate fallout looming and an untested PM, it’s all change and we’ll be partying like it’s our last in large public spaces that offer us free warmth – albeit with more 0% alcohol in the mix than previous years (even with the added dynamic of the World Cup).

The measured one: ‘Thankful, making it count.’ The cost of living crisis will affect behavior in multiple ways. Christmas saving has already started to ensure that we can provide a family dinner on December 25. We’ll see considered £5 to £10 mini gifts, affordable indulgences, practical gifts and blankets all on the up. People will club together to make bigger entertainment purchases possible – on Black Friday, obviously. And as John Lewis begins to give its staff breakfast, lunch and a £2,000 bonus towards their escalating bills, employers will offer festive sweeteners (if they haven’t shut up shop under a tidal wave of costs).

For more on the Evolution of E-commerce, check out The Drum’s latest Deep Dive.

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