Christmas - lessons from the UK's advertising Super Bowl

Aldi's Christmas advert

You’ll read lots of articles today about the Superbowl ads from last night; which brands ended up as ‘MVP’ and which films ‘never made it past first down’, etc. But as I was reviewing all the adverts from the Superbowl yesterday, it just made me think all the way back to December 2017 and the UKs equivalent, Christmas. And now that we’ve started to see some proper business results come out for the gargantuan spend-fest that was Q4 2017, I thought it might be a good time to revisit them - to see which advertisers scored touchdowns and which ones ended up sacked (hopefully not literally, obv).

It is unarguable that Christmas has become the UKs Superbowl for advertisers. Despite me hearing at least once a day that advertising is dead (again), ad-spend in Q4 2017 came in at a whopping £5.9bn in the UK (Source: Nielsen). This spend was up £1.2bn (+37%) over the last five years which would suggest that, far from being dead, spend on such supposedly gasping formats as TV advertising has never been in ruder health.

And social relevance? There were over 700+ articles in Q4 alone (Source: Factivia) in the national press about Christmas adverts. This would seem to suggest that punters love to talk about the ads despite what detractors might say. So much so in fact that 47% of Britons claim to have been moved to tears by a Xmas advert in 2017 and 33% of people said that they looked forward to the Xmas adverts coming out more than the Xmas film releases. (source: Advertising Association)

It seems that the Christmas ‘blockbuster’ ad is still seen as a must for most retailers. It’s not hard when you look at recent IPA Effectiveness papers (even forgetting the clear public love for Xmas ads) to see why everyone does it. According to the 2016 IPA Effectiveness Grand Prix, 20% of sales and 40% of profit at John Lewis can now be directly attributed to their Xmas advertising.

So, who “won” Christmas, 2017? The world of research has now weighed in across every film with every conceivable methodology and every conceivable metric. I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking through their spreadsheets (I love this kind of thing). I have now read reports from Brainjuicer, Kantar Millward Brown, realeyes, 4C and TNS. There are some consistent winners from the list across all the methodologies & a couple of rather surprising absentees.

Amazon (see above) and Aldi (see below) come at, or near, the top of most methodologies as a couple of clear winners from the 2017 crop. Whether it is about social uplift, brand love or sentiment they both seem to have nailed the mixture of fun and relevance.

Another one that landed with people in the real world according to the research is M&S. It’s easy to sneer at borrowed interest of schleb ads but the use of Paddington (see below) - coupled with the social buzz of the cinema launch - seems to have helped them nail it in the eyes of the public (especially on likeability and emotional resonance).

The other advertiser that seems to have really hit the mark in 2017 when it comes to likeability, sentiment and social uplift is Boots (see below). It’s been a while since they featured in these lists of the nation’s festive faves but it was rather nice to see that the ad we did for them seems to be one of the Christmas crackers in the eyes of the nation – especially on emotional engagement and enjoyment.

The more surprising results from all the research reviews and analysis of 2017 was who didn't feature in the lists. John Lewis ‘Moz’ didn’t come near the top of any of the research methodologies apart from the TNS research (where they came third behind M&S and Aldi). Sainsbury’s had been an ever-present in the lists of top Xmas ads for the last three/four years from Mog to 1914 to James Corden’s animated warbling. This year they didn’t get anywhere near the top three on any methodology. Waitrose also was liked by adland but didn’t seem to resonate outside of it (if the researchers are to be trusted).

And when it comes to the purse-strings as well as the heart-strings? Which retailers seem to have matched likes with footfall and sales, according to the initial results from Q4? From the supermarkets, Aldi, Lidl and Morrisons have reported good sales to go with the positive reactions to the ads. Despite the ads being pretty much universally panned, Tesco also reported strong Xmas results (as did Sainsburys incidentally). John Lewis have also said they had a good Christmas so perhaps they’re still enjoying the Boxer bounce or the Monty effect.

And the losers? M&S reported a fall in sales for food and clothing in Q4 so maybe the love of Paddington didn’t translate to the tills. House of Fraser, Asda and Debenhams didn’t smash it out of the park in terms of their ads, according to the researchers, and both have reported disappointing sales to match.

So, what did we all learn folks? Having re-looked at everything I think there are five key learnings for me on what works (or have always worked in good advertising) in making a Christmas winner:

- It’s still about emotional resonance (it’s Christmas folks! Get happy)

- Tell a great story (from sisters to Martin Freeman’s love life, stories connect)

- You don’t have to be human to be “human” (Boxers and Carrots still work)

- You don’t have to sell to sell (great storytelling gets the tills going, duh!)

- It’s all to play for if you get it right (The big two – JL and Sainsbury’s – didn’t feature in the lists. But Morrisons, Aldi and Boots did)

You can stick your Superbowl to be honest. It’s the UK ‘Superbowl’ of advertising, Christmas, that most interests me every time. And do you want to know what? If the column inches and the spend are any indicators, the great British public love the Christmas ads too. And I think it is still the space, if you aspire to test your creative departments and agency thinking against the best, that you need to be playing in. I can’t wait for this year. In fact, we’ve already started planning for Christmas 2018. Bring it on.

Kev Chesters is the chief strategy officer for Ogilvy & Mather London

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