Why marketers shouldn't replicate John Lewis’ Christmas strategy – according to neuroscience

Over the last 10 years, the John Lewis model of Christmas advertising has become the gold standard. Just like Christmas carols and mulled wine, the launch of their festive campaign is part of a seasonal tradition, arguably superseding Coca-Cola’s famous trucks as the unofficial start to Christmas for many across the UK.

The retailer’s combination of emotional storytelling with a creative twist each year has gained an enviable reputation for effectiveness too. The impressive run of awards and consistent boost to sales at Christmas has made it the reference campaign for the wider industry. But is ‘the John Lewis effect’ the only way to do Christmas well?

It’s clear from John Lewis’ major festive campaigns from the last few years – including Monty the Penguin, Man on the Moon, Buster the Boxer and this year’s Moz the Monster – that emotionally powerful, narrative-driven executions are the building blocks of its approach.

A couple of years ago, using technology to analyse subconscious patterns of brain response, Neuro-Insight looked at ‘Monty’s Christmas’ to track the emotional underpinnings of each scene and its subsequent impact on memory formation. What we discovered were strong peaks of response at key points in the narrative, with a general upward trend throughout the ad, showing that the narrative pattern was highly engaging, enjoyable and emotionally compelling.

The developing story about Monty and the little boy’s friendship was interesting, easy to follow and well-executed. The ad imparted powerful memories and feelings at the end of the narrative, and the John Lewis branding in the end was strongly encoded, or stored, into memory.

Narrative-driven campaigns like these are pleasing to our brains and are made especially effective through use of character. Man on the Moon, Monty the Penguin, Buster the Boxer and this year’s Moz the Monster have close and positive interactions with other characters in their storylines and this is important – our brains respond strongly to interaction and this ramps up a sense of personal relevance for viewers, driving deeper engagement.

So it’s understandable that competitors to John Lewis have often chosen to emulate the formula and have been doing so with increasing effectiveness over the years. From Burberry’s 2014 offering (From London With Love) to Marks and Spencer’s Paddington Bear adventure this year, we have witnessed, in a relatively short space of time, how Christmas campaigns have transitioned from simple, offer-based advertising to big budget, cinematic-style experiences. These adverts have become the norm and there is an increasing expectation for Christmas advertising to continue in this vein.

But that doesn’t mean there’s only one successful approach to Christmas advertising. Some advertisers have experimented in different ways with narrative and emotion; taking a number of different routes to achieve that emotional narrative.

Differentiation is a strong and familiar concept for marketers, and it applies to Christmas advertising just as much as brand positioning. Those who sail too close to the John Lewis Christmas supertanker may find themselves trailing ineffectively in its powerful wake.

This is because of the way memory works. As we watch an ad, the brain takes 'snapshots', and uses these to recreate the story of the ad afterwards. If branding doesn’t feature strongly in any of the snapshots, the brain is likely to remember the story, but not necessarily who the ad is for. In this situation, when the information is stored away, the brain is likely to attribute the ad to whatever brand is most relevant and salient to the story – and in the case of Christmas advertising, that’s likely to be John Lewis.

In practice, this means that far from replicating the John Lewis campaign’s success, an undifferentiated competitor might actually be adding to it.

So alternative approaches can be a better choice. For instance, advertisers are increasingly drawing on a particularly festive brand of humour – like this year’s Not On The High Street ‘Thoughtful Gifts’ series. While maybe not as popular as the heart-string tug we’re familiar with, appealing to our sense of humour is still an effective form of emotional engagement, and our research has shown that plenty of upbeat, light-hearted strategies can hold their own amongst more moving emotional narratives.

Of course we naturally love to laugh, but what’s more is that when we do so together we strengthen our bonds with those around us, and again this can be particularly compelling in the context of the Christmas season.

Advertisers will have been feeling the pressure to exceed expectations set by their previous campaigns, those of their competitors and of course the trend set by John Lewis. But for those looking to make a splash in future, doing something different may well be the way to go. There’s scope to draw on different emotions, different kinds of story, new types of characters and alternative media choices.

While there are clear principles around how advertising can appeal to our brains, these translate into many different kinds of creative work – perhaps 2018 will see a new trend into more radically different concepts of the festive campaign.

Heather Andrew is chief executive of Neuro-Insight.