How John Lewis ad Unexpected Guest’s cover song compares against previous years

David Courtier-Dutton, chief executive of sonic branding experts SoundOut, lets us hear how Lola Young’s track by for ‘Unexpected Guest’ fares against John Lewis’s back catalog.

A boy, romping through the woods, stumbles upon a spacecraft and an androgynous space traveler. Cue festive jumpers, John Lewis mince pies and Philip Oakey and Giorgio Moroder’s Together in Electric Dreams, reinterpreted by Lola Young. Could this ‘Unexpected Guest’ really be the recipe for festive perfection in 2021?

The release of the John Lewis Christmas ad is the party-popping starting gun to every Christmas season. Emotions can run high as people voice their opinions about the perceived success or failure every year, thanks to a back catalog of much-loved productions created by Adam&EveDDB. It is the UK’s Superbowl moment of advertising – creating a frenzy of cutthroat creative competition for brands and agencies alike.

Commentary about this year’s ad has ranged from “reassuringly familiar” to “corporate onanism.” We ran the brand, the ad and the soundtrack separately through BrandMatch, our consumer-powered analysis platform that allows us to discover the closeness of personality match between any music or voice and the brand itself. We wanted to find out how well it reflects the John Lewis brand; how well it reinforces the core brand personality; and whether the soundtrack amplifies or mutes the ad’s core messaging and emotions.

What we found was that the personality match between the commercial and the JL brand (as rated by consumers) is really strong: 85%. Furthermore, as can be seen in the chart, the commercial even manages to have a bigger personality than the John Lewis brand itself. That means it’s packing quite an emotional punch – something that will contribute toward increased brand equity.

However, the ad’s BrandMatch does fall down in one place – the music. When isolated and compared to the personality of the John Lewis brand, it is significantly less strong (51%) than the ad as a whole. The track fails to land a number of the brand’s core emotional attributes – such as ‘Imaginative, Easy-going, Friendly, Genuine, Independent and Approachable’ – that would have delivered an even stronger result. In contrast, the track is perceived as significantly more ‘Confident, Powerful, Direct and Assertive.’

Having said that, the leading attributes that are being communicated through the ad certainly hit the right festive high notes. The top attribute is ‘Positive,’ with 83%. That’s followed by ‘Friendly, Comfortable and Happy’ (all 82%); then ‘Warm’ (81%). It’s a top five that’s as cosy as a roaring log fire.

But how does ‘Unexpected Guest’ stack up against some of the JL greats of yesteryear? We’ve already tested the last nine years of JL’s Christmas ads, so we’ve got some comparative stats to see how well this year compares.

Well, the boy and his platonic alien girlfriend have pretty much nailed it. The entire package – the ad, the music and the brand – has 81% overall appeal. That outshines the 2020 animated tearjerker ‘Give a Little Love’ (77%); not to mention ‘Moz the Monster’ (2017) and ‘The Boy and the Piano’ (2018) (both 78%). It’s neck and neck with the fiery ‘Excitable Edgar’ (2019 – also 81%). It doesn’t quite reach the heights of 2013’s ‘The Bear and The Hare’ (84%). But hey, they have set the bar so high, they can’t win them all.

And while ‘Unexpected Guest’ performs well as an entire package, we also tested the music with consumers in isolation, and the John Lewis brand itself. What we found was that the soundtrack fares less successfully (77%) as does the JL brand itself (also 77%).

The fact that the commercial is considerably more impactful than the music alone suggests that the storytelling and production are responsible for a huge amount of additional emotional depth than is being created by the music alone.

The key to maximizing ad success is to achieve a strong match between the audio and the visuals, and between the advert and the brand itself. Such consistency is the foundation to communicating authenticity and trust. Get this right – as ‘Unexpected Guest’ does, for the most part – and you’ll be loved. Get it wrong, and your audience could be subconsciously tipped off that this is a cynical attempt to hijack their emotions for commercial gain.

For the icing on the Christmas cake, we asked respondents to what extent ‘Unexpected Guest’ has captured the spirit of Christmas. It scored a whacking 8.2 out of 10, beating every other JL advert of the last nine years – even pipping ‘The Bear and the Hare’ to the post by a couple of decimal points.

All in all, a great result. A socially-distanced pat on the back all round – then back to the creative hamster wheel for 2022...

Compare and contrast here.

2020: Give a Little Love – Adam&EveDDB

2019: Excitable Edgar – Adam&EveDDB

2018: The Boy and The Piano – Adam&EveDDB

2017: Moz the Monster – Adam&EveDDB

2016: Buster the Boxer – Adam&EveDDB

2015: Man On the Moon – Adam&EveDDB

2014: Monty The Penguin – Adam&EveDDB

2013: The Bear and the Hare – Adam&EveDDB

2012: The Journey – Adam&EveDDB

2011: The Long Wait – Adam&Eve

2010: A Tribute to Givers – Adam&Eve

2009: Sweet Child o’ Mine – Adam&Eve

2008: From Me To You – Lowe London

2007: Shadows – Lowe London

If you can’t get enough of John Lewis, here’s some Christmas ad pitches some top creatives offered to The Drum, unveiling what campaigns they would run if they were in the Adam&EveDDB creative director’s seat this year.