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The war of the retailers: Who won the Christmas advertising battle?

Today’s marketers live in a craven state of panic as they try to seize on or adapt to the latest marketing trend, buzz phrase, or piece of essential new technology (Oculus Rift anybody?) With everybody chasing their tails, worried about missing the latest microtrend, Professor Leslie de Chernatony helps businesses separate brand magic from hype.

So this is Christmas, and what have you done?

The Sainsbury's Christmas ad divided opinion

When it comes to marketing, the festive holiday period – all three months or so of it – isn’t called the Golden Quarter for nothing. It’s a crucial time of the year for many businesses, accounting for a large chunk of their annual sales and profits. This assumes though that Black Friday doesn’t hurt too many retailers’ security provision budgets.

Consequently Christmas ad campaigns have become increasingly high profile, with brands vying for the nation’s attention, their spend – oh and by the way have you noticed how some have targeted their hearts, with growing appeals to our emotions. For agencies, this makes Christmas an opportunity to lay down the arms of day-to-day brand conflict and aim a little higher. But was the opportunity to put brand at the centre of ads grasped?

Well the brand epics from Sainsbury’s, John Lewis and M&S have pulled out the stops to get one over on the competition and to attract the punters. It’s hard to deny the appeal of these spectaculars. They certainly cost enough. Well done Sainsbury’s saluting the heroes and reminding us that Christmas is for sharing. Thanks John Lewis for raising our hopes that our missed partner might be with us. Hurray for the glitter sprinkling magic M&S created in its cameos.

But while these ads may well be a short-term boost at Christmas, do they have any lasting effect when it comes to the chill days of January? Or are they about as effective as a cracker joke?

Creative plaudits aside, reaching sales targets is high on retailers’ agendas; they need to make a significant proportion of their profits in the lead up to Christmas. However some have gone too far in treating Christmas as a separate campaign, rather than part of a longer term brand building communication. It’s a missed opportunity not to reinforce a clearer link between an expensive eight-week campaign and the brand’s unique and welcomed promise.

Most work seems to look at what Christmas means to consumers, and then tries to shoehorn the brand in, resulting in somewhat generic messages. A more effective use of resources would be to focus on how your brand does Christmas, which makes a clear link to previous and future work.

Waitrose and Lidl are strong in this respect, in terms of ads that have a basis for some longevity. Their messages are consistent and well told; they connect well to previous work and are likely to strengthen perceptions in the long term. Congratulations to Waitrose for not just tugging at our hearts but for linking the external and internal elements of its brand. Hail the trumpets of Lidl (yes it’s niche, but striving to grow) as it dares to name names in its quest for better.

We are told that the economic horizon is going to get even brighter in 2015, yet some have stayed with another season of safe campaigns. For all the flak it’s taken, at least Sainsbury’s has dared to be bold and give shoppers a genuinely unique reason to go to its stores. It may be just a bar of chocolate, but it is something distinctive that brings a strong link between above the line and in store.

Beyond the glitz of the brand campaigns there continues to be some retailers using tactical generic ads, promoting range and price reassurance. Is there nothing else to talk about from a brand point of view? When will more attention be paid to making incisive brand promises with executions that give a real ‘wow’. If Santa can do it, why can’t brand driven retailer communications?

Like many of us, some retailers may be waking up on Boxing Day feeling rather bloated and a bit embarrassed that they’ve spent so much, to so little effect. January brand detox anyone?

Professor Leslie de Chernatony is a board director at LIFE Agency

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