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    Same, same, but different: Why does every campaign feel like a John Lewis ad this Christmas?

    It’s fair to say that with the holidays comes an exceptional tolerance for schmaltz. However, this year’s ubiquitous Christmas brand story trend is testing the limits of how many festive fables one can stomach. 

    Mediaweek asked industry experts what has propelled this evolution in brand storytelling at Christmas, and where is it headed?

    Behind the trend: brand choice over bargain hunting

    “Everyone is going in with very delicate brushes in many ways, and tiptoeing into Christmas in a way of not wanting to offend anyone,” observed Bec Stambanis, chief strategy officer and partner at Special Group Australia.

    “Most brands are going back to simple, pure storytelling, trying to dial out a sense of joyfulness and togetherness.” 

    “What it’s resulted in is a very mixed familiar, sweet, but not very brave or interesting Christmas campaign season,” she remarked, adding, “It’s becoming really twee, and overly cute, and it’s very ignorable.”

    The Christmas brand story trend was pioneered in the early 2010s by John Lewis & Partners. Their acclaimed The Long Wait (2011), directed by Dougal Wilson, catapulted the British department store onto the world’s main stage, making the John Lewis name synonymous with heartwarming, story-driven holiday ads.

    Over time, other large brands have been successful in adopting the approach, such as Aldi Australia via BMF, whose storied Christmas campaigns have been lauded since 2018.

    Alyce Gillis, head of strategy at Host/Havas, contends that, “brands have been using Christmas as an opportunity to talk about or deliver on their brand story for a while.”

    At this point, however, it feels as though “Brand storytelling has almost become table stakes for Christmas,” stated Alison Tilling, as stated by chief strategy officer at VMLY&R AUNZ. “Everyone’s doing it.” 

    “They’re all trying to focus on different or small ambitions,” Stambanis also noted.

    This year The Monkeys, part of Accenture Song, told a touching tale of “connection” for Telstra, featuring a lost reindeer, and a young girl named Cassie.

    The appearance of the iconic Telstra phone booth is also an instance of the “big play on nostalgia,” identified by Stambanis, albeit not a trend unique to this year. 

    Specifically, she mentioned, “Everyone’s trying to tap a little into nostalgia through music,” such as the reimagined version of the classic hit “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” from The Blues Brothers (1980), featured in The Greenhouse Collective at M&C Saatchi Australia’s work for Woolworths this year.

    The ad follows the journey of children on their way to a holiday pageant dressed as fresh food from regional Australia, like cherries (Young, NSW), and mangoes (Dimbulah, Queensland). The children band together to help a friend who has lost her tomato costume.

    Woolworths CMO, Andrew Hicks, had previously commented on the thinking behind the ad, expressing, “We know it’s the little things that make Christmas special.”

    “Even in terms of codified assets or the iconography, it all just feels very similar,” Stambanis posited, deeming that “the ability of misattribution is huge.”

    M&C Saatchi Australia wanted to create a new Christmas character for the story of Big W’s “There’s a Little Something for Everyone” campaign.

    Brendan Donnelly, creative director at M&C Saatchi had announced, “We hope this cute, simple story of a five year old girl trying to choose the perfect gift for her imaginary ghost friend, an unlikely Christmas character, will get people thinking differently about Christmas gifts this year.”

    As a general take, Gillis’ outlook is that, “Putting a Hallmark Christmas sheen over it is what leaves those ads often feeling quite flat.”

    Thoughts on the narrative premises aside, what stands out is the noticeable absence of price differentiators in these ads, or any robust value distinctions, for that matter. Given there must be more to the unanimous brand messaging strategy than trying to catch the John Lewis lighting in a bottle, why are brands suddenly “tiptoeing”?

    Advertisers are feeling the pressures of a perma-crisis

    The obvious answer would be that leaning on brand messaging, particularly through appropriately festive but ultimately dispensable narratives, is an easy way to skirt around the actual topic of purchase at a time where cost of living is likely to be a stress factor for many households.

    “There’s a real move away from value,” Stambanis affirmed. “What is value when you’re paying $8 for six chicken McNuggets?”

    Still, Tilling argued that during times of financial difficulty, investing in brand has proven to be an effective strategy. Said Tilling, “As an industry we are becoming so much better at understanding what actually does work.”

    “We are in a cost of living crisis, but actually, we know that the brands who come through that the best are the ones that continue to invest behind brand, rather than retreating to pure priced messaging.”

    Gillis seconded the sentiment, “What the John Lewis work has proven time and time, again, is that brand storytelling is also one of your best distinctive assets. It lets you tell a story that helps stand out from your competition, which is, of course, so important when it’s the busiest retail moment of the year.” 

    In terms of calendar retail moments, another thing to consider is that Black Friday is becoming a more prevalent cultural moment in Australia, with Tilly suggesting that they’ve eclipsed Boxing Day sales, driving a “structural change” that is forcing holiday advertising to start earlier, and become more generalised.

    “So what brands are doing now is going ‘I’m gonna go really early with a big Christmas brand platform, then I can do my Black Friday sales messages, and they can sit underneath it.’”

    While that makes sense, it doesn’t account for the amount of forgettable Christmas tales that have been produced this year. It may speak just as much, if not more so, to the reality of unprecedented pressures retailers and advertisers are navigating that has caused a walking-on-eggshell approach to advertising following a year characterised by conflict, climate crisis, and rising costs.

    “When times are tough it almost means the ideas your brand puts out into market needs to additionally have a sense of comfort, or a laugh, or a sense of joy,” Tilling offered. “It’s almost like the content itself needs to actually deliver some value, as well as what people can buy from you delivering some value as well.”

    Gillis advised, “Context is always important when we’re working with clients and creating work. Previously festive times, the context has been COVID, or lock downs. For this Christmas, it’s that financial pressure. 

    “My point of view is recognising the context is important for brands; to have a clear understanding of the mindset, or the attitude in which people are approaching the festive season.

    “People don’t necessarily want to hear that context played back to them, they don’t need to be reminded of the financial pressures of Christmas this year.”

    One notable swing-and-miss candidate from this year was Myers’ “Make Your Merry Meaningful” campaign, which seemed to fall short of the comfort and joy Tilling suggested brands need to evoke in order to create a culturally relevant moment. While the insight of regifting might be observant, the execution is “a bit tone deaf,” admitted Stambanis.

    “I think the message is not clear. What’s it actually asking customers at a time where times are really tough? This idea that ‘a good gift takes thought’ – I just don’t think it lands.”

    Final thoughts: the usual suspects

    While the newcomers fine tune their approach, as Tilling mentioned, having recognised the potential effectiveness and mileage to be gained when brand storytelling is done right, the oldies are still finding ways to carve out their niches further, and fortify their positions as leaders in the space.

    Some of the usual suspects are doubling down on the emotional angle, like Michael Hills’ “A Christmas to Remember” which runs the risk of alienating the audience, and “can lean a little too far into showing this picture-perfect, magical Christmas that just doesn’t reflect people’s reality,” Gillis warned.

    Others, like Aldi Australia and John Lewis itself, are taking the opposite approach and moving away from the schmaltzy stuff and getting “weird,” noting that this marks M&C Saatchi London’s first Lewis Christmas campaign since winning the account. Tilling assessed, “It’s a bit more abstract and kind of crazy.”

    “Aldi does very distinctive work that stays true to the brand and I think that brand’s got a lot of permission within their tone to be a bit quirkier,” said Gillis. “So for a brand like Aldi I think it’s absolutely right that they play into it [by] dramatising or bringing to life all those quirky elements of the festive season.”

    Stambanis considered, “You end up running out of stories and are probably searching to stand out. So they’re getting weirder and more disconnected”

    Tilling concluded, speculating “I think it probably remains to be seen how [well] some of these more abstract, weird things will do.” 

    “Let’s take the example from this year: Lewis Christmas. I will be interested to see what the commercial outcome of that is in the kind of economic context that we’re in because gone are the days when they could sell Monty the penguin toys for £35 pounds a pop!”

    While the results are still to unfold, after the Santa saturation this year, a safe prediction might be that Christmas is gearing up for a weird and whimsical 2024.

    The post Same, same, but different: Why does every campaign feel like a John Lewis ad this Christmas? appeared first on Mediaweek.

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