Heather Andrew of Neuro-Insight: the John Lewis effect is good for John Lewis but bad for copycats

Where the Coca-Cola truck was once the marker of Christmas, John Lewis now seems to own the mantle as the official opener of the festive season.

That isn’t new news to those in the industry, who are all too aware of John Lewis’ winning advertising formula; the retailer’s emotionally charged narratives have long been held in critical acclaim, and provided a reliable injection of revenue time and again over Christmases past.

No wonder then that other retailers have followed suit in the hope of claiming a slice of that pie for themselves. This is true not just of competitors in the UK, such as M&S’ Paddington advert this year but globally as well. In 2015 German supermarket Edeka pulled at heartstrings with an advert about a lonely old man bearing similarities to JL’s ‘The Man on the Moon’ whilst Apple explored the perils of social isolation last year with an emotional short featuring Frankenstein’s monster.

The reason this formula seems to work so well is because the ads that get it right successfully intertwine emotion and narrative. Our brains love to follow a strong story line, particularly if there is a puzzle to be solved, or an emotional punch being packed along the way. Crucially for brands, these things that the brain loves – narrative and emotion – are also key factors that drive ‘memory encoding’ – the process of storing information by our brains into long-term memory. The extent to which this is achieved by an ad is has been shown to correlate strongly with its market effectiveness.

For those seeking to benefit from emulating the ‘John Lewis effect’ however, there is a caveat; if your branding is not also successfully encoded at the same time as the emotional narrative of the ad, you run the risk of boosting John Lewis’ sales instead of your own.

This is because our memory doesn’t store information like a video camera, but can only take static ‘snapshots’ as it views an advert. When it subsequently reconstructs the ad during recall, these snapshots are joined up to recreate the story. More often than advertisers might think, the branding isn’t included in these snapshots. In this situation, while the viewer can remember the advert and how they felt about it, they can’t name the brand behind it.

Unfortunately for brands that may have jumped on the John Lewis bandwagon but failed to get their branding moment right, what the brain then does is link the ad to whichever brand is most salient in the category – and in this case, it’s likely to be John Lewis. Consequently, all the positive associations generated by the advert, and the memory that is so crucial for purchasing decisions, could well be attributed to John Lewis, so boosting its sales and brand equity in lieu of the original advertiser. Far from emulating John Lewis’ Christmas success, the advertiser in question may simply be adding to it.

Recent news that this year’s ‘Moz the Monster’ has lower awareness at this point than John Lewis’s previous ads may well be a red herring. Even if conscious awareness really is down, the fact that John Lewis “owns” the concept of emotional Christmas advertising means it could still be the net beneficiary of any weakly branded ads that deliver a similar emotional style.

But there is more than one way to cut the proverbial Christmas pudding. We may already be seeing a shift away from cookie-cutter emotional ads to other powerful approaches, like Sainsbury’s humourous “Every bit of Christmas.” It may well be that the market is already catching up with what we know from brain response, heralding a new wave of more diverse festive creative.

Heather Andrew is CEO of market research firm Neuro-Insight.

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