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Sorry, but it’s time to talk about Christmas already. Aoife McGuinness, a neuroscience consultant at  HeyHuman, explains why post-lockdown planning will be crucial for marketers to get inside customers’ heads if they are to make a success of a festive season like no other before it. 

Sorry for using the ‘C’ word. Last week in the UK we were still crowding the beaches, you couldn’t get a seat in a beer garden for love nor money and there wasn’t a fan or air con left on a shop shelf in a 50-mile radius. But we need to talk about Christmas. 

In ’normal times’, brands would have pretty much wrapped up work on their festive campaigns. There would have been full-blown arguments about creative direction and treatment, how to allocate budget across the channels, which vegetable becomes anthropomorphised and which schmaltzy soundtrack should accompany that killer strapline.

Coronavirus obviously means things are going to be a bit different – you don’t need me to tell you that. Some brands will plough ahead regardless, steadfast in the belief that their stripped-back, piano version of ’We’re Not Gonna Take It’, coupled with shots of families embracing and defiantly eating turkey, will strike a chord with customers come Christmas. Others are in paralysis – is the ad they’ve meticulously crafted going to resonate in three months’  time? Some are waiting it out, wondering whether they should even commit to Christmas spend.

Scenario planning is the name of the game here. But how to play it? Well, there’s a powerful tool brands can use to support their yuletide comms this year. It involves harnessing neuroscience to understand how consumers will respond to different brand communications, against the backdrop of what our lives might look like come December. Will there be a second wave? Will our kids be safe at school? Will we be back shopping like we used to? And, with that in mind, should brands be reworking the same old stories that have done so well for them over the years? (John Lewis, that means you!) 

Not easy terrain for brands to navigate. Because, as we’ve seen from campaigns earlier this year, you can’t just roll with it and hope for the best. Corona’s ‘Coming Ashore Soon’ strapline received a drubbing as the outbreak started to spread globally in February. It’s not as if a popular beer brand set out to insinuate anything virus-related, but naturally that’s what it came off like. Same goes for Hershey’s hugs-and-cuddles-filled ad in March – it was out of touch for just being a ‘normal’ ad. It’s supposed to be about chocolate and instead it’s about actual life and death. 

So in the run-up to Christmas, neuroscience-based insight is the perfect way to ensure your brand understands the nation’s mood. Lab-based techniques such as EEG and eye tracking, and online techniques like implicit association and visual saliency, can explore how the concepts, images, stories, dialogues, characters, settings, soundtracks and many other elements of an ad campaign land with consumers. Do they elicit joy, hope, fear, disgust, dread, solidarity, strength or celebration? Do the road-tested stories still resonate or do we need a new approach to narrative and storytelling in this age of fear? Wouldn’t it be good to know in advance?

Based on this feedback, brands can then assess and implement strategic changes, such as the actual themes and messages – and executional tweaks, pertaining to the nitty-gritty assets like music, images, logos and so on. A light edit, just a small change to the dialogue or logo placement, might be all it takes to change the ad from tone deaf to in tune.

Perhaps the happy music is a little too happy. Maybe the crane shot of the Christmas market ought to be tweaked to make the gathering look a bit more socially distanced. People might think the footage of the boy hugging his grandad is at odds with the reality most people are living. You don’t necessarily need to scrap the ad – time is running out, after all, and unless it’s a car crash you’d be best just trimming the proverbial fat.

And then there’s the tricky question of humour, which many Christmas ads have traditionally used. Humour has been off-limits for most of the year, but there’s a growing sense that it’s time to let it back in. After all, humour allows us to rationalise fear, overcome obstacles and take back control. Again, perhaps a laugh-a-second ad isn’t entirely fitting, but don’t just go with your gut. This stuff is too important to decide on a whim, so make sure you test, test, test, and then test a bit more.

The ability to grapple with these nuances using neuroscience – and being flexible enough to change the creative if necessary – is what will set apart the good 2020 festive campaigns from the turkeys.

Because during times like these, there’s nothing more valuable than knowing what’s going on inside your audience’s heads.