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Merry Christmas!

Yes, I know it’s April. But this is the time of year when brands plan their advertising campaigns for the November and December retail onslaught. Some of the big guns – like John Lewis, of Monty The Penguin and Moz The Monster fame – will have begun far earlier.

The formula for Christmas success changes over time. Look back to the Christmas ads of the 1980s and you’ll see plenty of tinsel, chocolates and soft focus lighting. Jump forward thirty years and modern ads are full of animated storytelling and pseudo-realist documentary styles. But the underlying themes stay constant.

To conjure up the 3 Fs of brand success (Fame, Feeling and Fluency) at Christmas time, you need another 3 Fs – Fantasy, Family and Familiarity. Christmas is a time for flights of fancy, for seeing loved ones, and for tried-and-true seasonal symbols and icons. If you can find a fresh way to touch on those in your ad, you’re onto a winner.

Simultaneously, it’s a time everybody feels sold to, all the time. The most common complaint in our tests isn’t anything specific, it’s the dreaded refrain “just another Christmas ad”. That’s why Fluent Devices – familiar characters and slogans which can spark brand recognition without sacrificing emotion – can be so important at Christmas time. Like the glowing boxes in this 4-Star Very.co.uk ad:

For all the occasional grumbles, though, advertisers really do raise their game at Christmas. In our biggest ever ad testing study, last year we tested every ad that aired on UK TV in five major categories – a total of 2,314 individual ads. The results? Most ads that air just aren’t very good – 50% of them got a 1-Star score, which we predict makes them a waste of marketing spend. Less than 1% achieved the highest, 5-Star rating.

But for Christmas ads it’s a different picture. We tested every Christmas ad that aired last year too, and the overall story is far more positive. Not a tidal wave of bad ads (the white curve) but a healthier dorsal fin of raised quality (the dotted red curve).

A big Christmas campaign means seasonal sales boosts – but as the example of John Lewis shows, it can also build market share year-on-year to drive profitable brand growth. So it’s crucial to get it right, and test Christmas ads early to make sure they’re jingling the right emotional bells. If your snowy theme can warm hearts in April and May, you’ll be onto a winner in six months’ time.

Orlando Wood is System1’s Chief Innovation Officer. He’s talking in Madrid at the World Retail Congress, about Christmas advertising, on a panel arranged by the IPA including John Lewis and Very.co.uk.

For more information on our project testing every ad that airs, contact Gabriel Aleixo.

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