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Christmas in the time of coronavirus looks to be anything but normal.  Here, Joel Silverman, co-founder of KidsKnowBest, outlines how brands must be creative and break barriers to ensure the pandemic doesn’t take the joy out of the festive season.

Certainly, any gentleman with a white beard, a ruddy complexion and a big round belly would be strongly advised to shield behind closed doors this festive season. Ramping up the seasonal celebrations is proving extremely challenging for retail brands, too. With the pandemic still raging, high street retailers are struggling with luring shoppers away from online and back into physical stores.

But what about the family’s trip to London to see the lights in Regent Street? What about the informal judging of the Christmas windows of Selfridges, Liberty and Hamleys? Not to mention ice-skating and roasting chestnuts on an open fire in Oxford Street. 

The UK advertising industry is famed globally for creativity, and people know it’s time to get excited when the Christmas ads start appearing, with John Lewis the brand which tends to kick off the Christmas shopping season. What’s more, a recent survey commissioned by the retailer shows that most people in the UK are starting their Christmas shopping early in order to avoid the festive rush.

But how can retailers and brands continue to create the sort of magical Christmas experience that kids deserve in this strangest of years?

Traditionally, Santa’s grottos have been a draw for families, but the prospect of organising one this year will have been striking fear into the hearts of many. Harrods, which has had a grotto for the past 65 years, is reportedly scrapping it this year, though the grotto’s closure is only likely to disappoint the moneyed few, as shoppers needed to drop £2,000 in-store before getting anywhere near Santa at Harrods this time last year. Any grottos which do open will have all sorts of physical boundaries to overcome, and parents will foresee the difficulties of trying to catch an excited child running towards a much-anticipated Santa.

However, since the 1800s, and perhaps earlier, children have wanted to send a letter to the North Pole at the very least, while organisations around the world have enabled the ‘letter to Father Christmas’ tradition to this day. This year, the Royal Mail will facilitate a reply, if you can get your letter posted by Friday 11 December. And even Aldi recently partnered with the company SantaOnline to give families the chance to win a virtual chat with Santa live and direct from his Lapland grotto. 

It’s up to retailers and brands to get creative and reimagine the Christmas experience, for the sake of the children. Realistically, any events organisation worth their weight in artificial snow – and there must be plenty out there keen for the work – could put together an experience like no other in a shopping mall or carpark.

A socially-distanced, branded journey through a sparkling winter-wonderland, moving in one direction only, please, could see children and parents marvelling at Santa’s secret workshop. Glimpses of elves working hard making toys – behind glittery screens – and pop up reindeer – no touching; they’re wild – mini-films and gaming could be safely delivered in a large, festively decorated space featuring a bauble-filled, goodie-festooned tree hung with separately packaged treats. And, as the child stands on the golden star on the floor, a large screen lights up and suddenly Santa appears on the screen – via Zoom – getting ready for Christmas Eve, but able to chat to each visitor, and afterwards, each happily collects a present and exits safely.

We should be taking over all large car parks and park areas in the UK with wonderful ideas during December, if not before. The possibilities are endless. One adventure park near Edinburgh has admirably taken the measures to the next level by running its annual festive grotto as a drive-through experience, where visitors can see Santa’s workshop from the safety of their cars.

Making your Christmas experience go viral should be a goal for any retail brand. Just look at the sudden popularity of pumpkin-picking that we’ve seen in the run-up to Halloween. This highly Instagrammable activity has quickly taken off as a way of keeping kids who can’t trick or treating engaged with the spirit and fun of Halloween. 

Children may not be able to get up close to Santa but that shouldn’t dampen their joy. In fact, the rules and restrictions could be seen as a way for brands to recreate the mystery around the ever-elusive character or come up with more creative solutions to fuel imaginations.

Conjuring the delight of Christmas and drumming up footfall in high streets that have been deserted this year as a result of Covid-19 will require investment, care, consideration and a great deal of ingenuity, but the obstacles are far from insurmountable. Retailers that go the extra mile not only deserve to reap the much-needed financial rewards; they should get credit for helping to ensure that, in spite of everything, a generation of kids don’t miss out on a bit of once-in-a-lifetime Christmas magic.

Joel Silverman, co-founder, KidsKnowBest, a children's digital media agency.