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Trends and Insight

A Strategy Sleigh Ride: Planning for a Covid Christmas

We asked some top UK planners (and one token CCO) to reflect on the strategic choices the UK Christmas ads have made this year

A Strategy Sleigh Ride: Planning for a Covid Christmas

Christmas advertising is big in every country that celebrates it, but in the UK, things get taken to a different level. Britain is where Charles Dickens ‘invented Christmas’ (according to that film at least) and over a century later it’s where adam&eveDDB invented the concept of the John Lewis Christmas Ad - a cultural phenomenon that set off an annual arms race of agencies twanging at your heartstrings at a financially crucial time of year for their clients.

In 2020 the pressure for those brands to make sales is arguably greater than ever. So it follows that many of them need all the help marketing can give them to get British consumers clicking away from their home offices (or maybe even donning a mask and venturing into a shop after the current lockdown lifts). 

But Covid-19 has also made creating a Christmas ad campaign a tricky thing to plan for. The complex landscape is more difficult to navigate than any normal year. So, with a good proportion of the UK Christmas ads now out, we asked some of British advertising’s clever thinkers what they thought about the paths brands have taken.


Sophie Lean

Strategy partner
M&C Saatchi London

In 2020 is Mariah still right? Is all we want for Christmas still ‘you’?
And do we mention the ‘c’ word?
 
I’m sure this is what every brand asked itself when planning Christmas ads in a year unlike any other in a generation. Despite the unique backdrop you’ll see the perennial (but probably even more true today) themes of: the importance of togetherness, the little things, and the familiarity of traditions. With a lack of contact, anxiety and exhaustion affecting us all, Kevin the Carrot may be a winner just because we definitely underestimate the strength of a familiar face and he’s one of the few you’ll see amongst the ads so far.

Apparently, Monopoly is predicted to be one of the top Christmas gifts this year and it’s no surprise that when things get bad, we look longingly to the past, so nostalgia is going to be a bigger draw for people than ever. Something Argos embraces with its ode to the catalogue.

Many of the ads avoid or gloss over the ‘c’ word. Maybe they thought we want that escapism, that it’s just too depressing. Corona does get a mention in a gloriously tongue in cheek way by TK Maxx and the goat that’s had ‘a hard year’ but for me it’s Amazon who acknowledge it fully but still manage to feel magical and hopeful while creating a Christmas advert that can only be for 2020, only for this moment. 


Ben Jaffé

Head of strategy
FCB Inferno
 
The ingredients of a Christmas ad are fairly standardised: families and community come together in scenes of generosity, indulgence, lights and snow. Over the years there’ve been some fantastic ads that have kick-started the festive season, but very few have broken from time-honoured narrative. 

Of course, this year has been very different; 2020 has been a year of improv and brands have tweaked the script of Christmas past to chime with our experience of the last nine months. Amazon has done a great job of reflecting the Christmas-like-spirit that has shone through the darkness of the pandemic. However, to my mind, Burberry’s Singin’ in the Rain is the standout ad of the season. No winter wonderland here, just a damp market street, illuminated by Burberry-bedecked dancers, gracefully battering through an onslaught of sleet and hail. Set to Lank & Tank’s cover of Singin’ in the Rain, this ad celebrates the positive defiance we need to push through into next year.


Josh Taylor-Dadds

Strategy director
VMLY&R London


I bloody love Christmas. One More Sleep by Leona Lewis (second best Christmas song - if you don’t know, now you know) is on and I’m ready. Obviously, the question this year is - ready for what? Who knows what the big day will look like and, in reality, so many have other things to worry about. So far, brands have addressed that tension in three ways.
 
First and foremost, giving back. Charity campaigns that make a contribution to support the real hardships that many are facing - Boots, M&S (sort of), John Lewis. Understandably, in tough times there are more of these types of Christmas campaigns, the same was true in the 2009 recession. Regardless of the work, it’s good to see. It’s what Christmas is all about.  
 
Then there’s the FULL Christmas spirit strategy - where I imagine a variation of ‘cheer up the nation’ was uttered in meetings more than once. A cynic might say this is not a reaction to today’s context, but a business as usual strategy. Argos joyously celebrates the after dinner shows my family endured when I was a kid and Coke’s Taika Waititi campaign lovingly (maybe) acknowledges the ridiculousness of Christmas ad epics. 
 
While circumstances are different, the challenge, as ever, is to stand out when the tendency is to converge. Unless you’re one of the few that’s carved a cultural moment out of your comms over the years, how do you stop getting lost in the sleigh bells? That’s where, for me, the third strategy comes good. The ‘show must go on’-ers. I like this because it makes light work of heavy lifting, as any good creative strategy should. It allows brands to acknowledge the adversity and strangeness of today while unashamedly celebrating the magic of Christmas. As a result, the work feels the freshest, most timely, and easiest to connect to. You don’t need to have had your ballet performance cancelled to see that this year Christmas means just that bit more and will need some rallying around. Step forward Tesco’s celebration of the year where all is forgiven, the beautiful Amazon work and TK Maxx’s ‘Lil’ Goat’, which I can only hope was inspired by the movie Babe. All three stand out, brilliantly walking the tightrope of the year that was and the celebration that will be.


Hannah Hayes-Westall

Strategy Director
MullenLowe London

We spend all day making ads, so perhaps we can be excused a bit of tunnel vision about the way that the rest of the world views us waxing lyrical about them. Or can we? Christmas ads are often dissected by the industry for their creative approach to surprising and delighting us viewers, but the thing about Christmas this year is that it matters little whether you are for or against the emotion of Amazon’s ballet dancer, or the entertainment of TK Maxx’s goat. This year, with the economy tanking harder than in living memory, the only thing that matters is whether these ads are shifting merch at a small profit, because this year, if you’re a strategist who isn’t encouraging money to keep moving through the system by helping your clients stay in business right now, then you aren’t helping anyone. This year, lyrical reviews of Christmas work that’s pretty but ineffective start to seem in bad taste. 
 
I’m no Christmas refusenik; the ballet dancer makes me almost cry and I’m there for the stylish goat. But with ginormous SOV and awareness, and business models that are well adapted for pandemic trading environments, Amazon and TK Maxx can afford to deploy brand strategies that work over the long-term, while businesses without this shouldn’t be seduced by industry ideas of taking part in some kind of cultural moment around the reveal of Christmas ads, because it simply doesn’t exist. Unless you are John Lewis, almost no one is waiting for your take on Christmas, which means the only reason to invest is either because you are in a long-term brand building frame of mind, or because you need to sell some stuff, and hopefully, protect your margins, right now. 
 
An online only lockdown shopping landscape is an increasingly commoditised marketplace for mid-market retailers in which bigger, more established brands will win share. If your business isn’t already in fighting form with great cashflow, great awareness and a killer performance marketing set up, you’re better off taking the M&S approach and focusing your spend online where it can do the most for you. Because as a strategist, the biggest gift you can give a client this Christmas is making sure they’re still around next Christmas.  
 
Disclaimer: My day job is at the Effectiveness Network of the Year, so you know, I would say this.


Dave Price

Chief creative officer
McCann UK

As Andy Williams sang, ‘It’s the most wonderful time of the year…’

Not Christmas.

January. Because that’s when we start writing the big Aldi festive ad.

Last Jan everything was normal. Like Christmas, Covid 19 was miles away. As the nation started their Veganuary, the McCann team cracked open the mince pies and got down to business.

Within weeks, the festive table was groaning with scripts. We rubbed our hands and got ready for research… just as the virus hit.

Lockdown, isolation and the NHS in crisis.

Suddenly, Christmas ads seemed irrelevant. Trite even.

How do you write for December when you don’t even know what tomorrow holds?

Ultimately, we rewrote everything. From a traditional heartwarming story, to scripts that were cognisant of the here and now. As the ideas got closer to the impact of Covid 19, the harder it became to judge them. Do you set out your Christmas stall or do you champion a cause? And do you tell people about your good deed or do you just get on with it quietly?

After reams of research, we went traditional. Our groups didn’t want to be reminded of the reality of this terrible pandemic. They wanted a bit of escapism, the Christmas of their dreams.

So Kevin the Carrot won through. But this year, Kevin’s not a rock star, strutting his stuff and putting on a big performance. He’s gone back to his roots.

Our 2020 Christmas story is about an epic journey. Different to the one we’ve all been on.

But it’s still emotional and difficult at times and there are people to thank along the way.

Ultimately, I think it’s the Christmas we’re all wanting. An Aldi mince pie or two with family and friends. But abiding to the rule of six of course.


Raj Thambirajah

Strategy director
Iris

Keep calm and merry on.

With the world as it is, marketers could be forgiven for playing it safe, quietly, or even overcompensating - struggling to find that ultimate relevance to the reality of everything that’s going on. However, the flurry of Christmas advertising this year shows us that the core emotions of togetherness, generosity, jovial spirit, and magic that we often associate with the festive period are all still very much in play. It’s even arguable that these themes are as relevant to ‘Covid times’ as they are to Christmas - perhaps even more so. 

Whether it’s championing the community spirit (Amazon), being more appreciative of family/loved ones (Coca-Cola / Disney) or being whisked away on a funny Christmassy adventure (Aldi), it’s clear that brands can confidently play different roles, even if given a very specific time or environment. Christmas, the Covid environment and indeed, people in general, are multifaceted, and all facets make them what they are. The question for brands is, what note do they want to play. Even in this time, not all need/should sing from the same sheet.

For instance, ordering a pizza (a Christmas-themed pizza at that) is unlikely a sombre moment to deeply reflect. Instead, it’s more likely a moment to lift you and loved ones up, and unbox a slice of that Christmas spirit. In step with their jovial disposition, that’s exactly what Pizza Hut’s 55 Days of Christmas spot delivers. Likewise, Starbucks’ latest Carry the Merry spot with their seasonal Red Cups positioned as a symbol of festive merriment, is perhaps the warm permission people need right now.

From the realities of Covid, social/political turmoil to the joyfulness of festive periods and the power (duty?) brands have to nurture them, there is a colourful spectrum of opportunity at play. Ultimately, if human beings are creatures of hopes and dreams, what better time is there to create them.


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