The Race to “Win” Christmas

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The Race to “Win” Christmas

By Nadine Young, Chief Strategy Officer, Vizeum US

The holidays are upon us again, and as a Brit who’s lived in this country for over eight years, I’m struck once more by the different approaches major retailers take to their seasonal messages on both sides of the pond. In the UK, holiday ads have become a cultural phenomenon. One by one, the major department stores and supermarkets release their much-anticipated commercials and wait for the verdict to roll in as to who will “win” Christmas. Of my favorite holidays ads to date, there’s no denying a few common elements contributing to the success: cultural relevance, engagement and storytelling.

Last week my Meta newsfeed was all about Sam and Monty the Penguin, John Lewis department store’s heartwarming story of a little boy and his pet penguin, that has already garnered over 15.5mm YouTube views. It’s a beautiful story about friendship, family, love, and childhood imagination – all wrapped into one. The campaign extends across devices in ways that are not only highly engaging, but probably also the best examples of inciting pester power I’ve ever seen. Through the John Lewis website and via the Monty app, children can ‘enter Monty’s 360 panoramic world’ and continue the story where the commercial ends; as they fall more in love with the adorable penguin, they are more likely to start nagging their parents to buy the accompanying merchandise (PJs, toys and a Monty book). So John Lewis had Christmas 2014 all tied up.

That is, until Sainsbury’s supermarket released their seasonal offering. Their commercial is set in the trenches of the First World War (a much talked about subject in British culture this year, the 100th anniversary of the start of the War). It recreates the true, incredibly human and heartrending story of Christmas Day 1914 when soldiers from the British and German sides emerged from the trenches, calling a truce in order to exchange gifts and play soccer. Made in consultation with the Royal British Legion (with whom the chain has a longstanding partnership), it uses this unforgettable moment in history to bring to life the message that – past, present and forever – Christmas is for sharing. Like Sam and Monty, this campaign goes across devices; online, there is more to explore about the making of the ad and the real stories behind it. In raising awareness of (and donating a proportion of sales to) the Royal British Legion, the campaign also supports a cause that is bigger than this month’s sales.

Sainsbury’s gained 1.8mm YouTube views in less than a day, and has reached over 9mm to date. And, according to polls, it has jumped ahead of John Lewis in winning the nation’s heart.

After I wiped away my tears, I couldn’t help but compare these emotionally charged commercials to the Thanksgiving ads recently released by US retailers, which are typically much more obviously focused on products and sales such as this and this from Walmart.

The disparity in these approaches is interesting to me; especially so, that the Brits seem to love their highly charged emotional Christmas ads so much (where is our emotional reserve, for heaven’s sake!!), while American advertisers choose the more direct sales approach for their consumers. It’s difficult to say which approach is more successful in generating sales – we are after all comparing different holidays, different cultures and different economies. But during these heavy retail periods, a great way to increase chances of sales success must surely be to win the hearts of shoppers; and going the emotional route unsurprisingly delivers on that, with big gains in the social space for these retailers. Last year’s John Lewis ad reportedly generated 212,000 Twitter mentions while this year’s Monty the Penguin was shared 200,000 times in its first 24 hours online. Sainsbury’s could well beat those numbers this year.

The Walmart ads have received 1mm and 211 views respectively while Target holiday ads from 2013 and 2014 are also relatively low.

So even in the most critical sales period of the year, cultural relevance, engagement and storytelling across devices are still the right principles to adopt. And while it probably isn’t very British of me to say so, I love that our big brands back home can find enough space in the overwhelming (in both countries) holiday noise to remind us that family, friendships, togetherness, sharing and love still have a place in holiday advertising, before the Boxing Day and Black Friday sales ads begin.