What really did work in this year’s Christmas ads?

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Baby Orangutan and Plug Boy truly were the stars of the show this Christmas. In an age of purpose-driven marketing, Iceland’s Christmas ad smashed all expectations and became the most talked about Christmas ad across social in 2018 while John Lewis and Sainsbury’s gracefully sat in second and third.

The controversy that Iceland’s Christmas ad was banned from being shown on television, created a massive social buzz with people mentioning it over 281,000 times on the day it came out. People backed the ad and the cause it supported - saying ‘no to palm oil’ due to its effect on the environment. In a time where television numbers are dwindling and online viewing and shopping figures are rising, Iceland took the plunge to focus their strategy on social - whether deliberately or not - and saw positive figures as a result.

Sainsbury's Christmas advert, featuring our favourite Christmas character at Wilderness Agency this year, Plug Boy, also had an element of unexpected controversy and received dozens of complaints from viewers concerned that the ad will encourage children to play with sockets. The ad performed really well on social, evoking a positive and warm emotion, with the highest positive sentiment of all the ads at 88% (John Lewis’ ad had an 87% positive sentiment in comparison) even with the backlash from the socket complaints. While the mentions were not as high as others at 19,000, the ad got people talking.

In both Sainsbury’s and Iceland's strategies, it’s hard to tell if the brands were attempting to invite controversy as a deliberate media strategy. But what is clear is that inviting difference and discussion can fuel conversation.

It was surprising to note how many ads didn’t feature an official hashtag for their Christmas ads, and how many didn’t push their hashtags on their television ads. Sainsbury’s, Lidl and Debenhams didn’t have an official hashtag that they pushed in their ads. This made it seem as though their television strategy was completely divorced of their social strategy which was a clear missed opportunity, especially with the current media landscape and the dwindling high street shopping numbers. Almost 6,000 high street shops closed down in the UK in 2017 according to this report in The Guardian (April 2018).

Our research showed that the Debenhams’ Christmas ad had the lowest mention score (around 1,000). On the day their ad premiered, not many people were talking about it. While the ad itself was interesting, playing on a ‘you-know-you-did-good’ tagline, it was not memorable and people didn’t feel there was much to say about it on social. The Lidl ads were also ignored online, although sentiment was positive at 77%.

Looking at conversation rates across the campaigns, the key cut-through element of this year’s Christmas ads are:

  • A close alliance between the media strategy and the social media strategy throughout the campaign;
  • A strong, easily identifiable character at the heart of the content;
  • A campaign hashtag;
  • A video that creates controversy and conversation not simply broadcasting a message.

Plug boy, a baby orangutan and Elton John stole our hearts this Christmas. For marketers, storytelling and character building will always be central to the success of a campaign but in today's ever more social landscape, JUST broadcasting is not an option. Smart brands join a conversation; smarter brands curate a conversation that their fans actively join in.

Zahra Hasan is a social strategist at Wilderness Agency

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