Isobel’s Jamie Williams: can it be Christmas all year round?

Charles Dickens knew a thing or two about the power of Christmas. The season’s unique spirit transformed Ebenezer Scrooge from a miserable stingy businessman, who didn’t consider the feelings of other people, to a kind, generous and empathetic character.

But it’s not just the time of year for giving. It’s also about reconnecting with people, thinking about what matters most in life (to you and others), and being honest. As Martine McCutcheon’s character says in her Christmas card to the Prime Minister in Love Actually, “If you can’t say it at Christmas, when can you eh?”

This idea of connecting with people and being emotional is a long-standing theme in adland at this time of year. Brands change their language for Christmas. Maybe they let their guards down. Or they don’t take themselves so seriously. And come mid-November, they suddenly try much harder to tap into consumer mindsets and moods, putting more emphasis on entertaining and engaging with their target audiences.

Often, the result is advertising that’s more joyful, more emotional and more entertaining than at any other time of year. Perhaps in the US, the Superbowl is the exception, but more on that later.

In the UK, led by John Lewis, Christmas advertising has become competitive, especially in the retail sector. Which brand can create the biggest, most emotional, most engaging, most entertaining advertising campaign? Which brand can create that campaign that everyone is talking about?

The increased ambition and expectation make it a great time of year for marketing departments and creative agencies. And not just as it raises creative ambitions. There is also very good evidence to suggest that going big with emotion is commercially effective.

Over the last decade, John Lewis’ Christmas ad production budgets have often exceeded £1m. But as its IPA Effectiveness Grand Prix win proved, these high impact entertaining big-budget ads, on average, have produced £8 of profit for every £1 spent. And the positive long-term brand effects are well documented.

So, the question must be asked, why then, do so many brands seem to have a Christmas mode and a rest of the year mode? Why do brands (and their agencies) revert to business as usual in January, seemingly putting less emphasis on what consumers are feeling and how to connect with them. The draw of being more sensible (or more boring?) seems too much for many. The danger is that this often results in ads that are less entertaining and less engaging than they have been over the festive period. Less talked about, less cut-through, and perhaps less effective in the long-term.

So, what can we learn from this?

Clearly, we can’t be festive all year around. Seasonality brings certain opportunities, and consumers are geared up to spend much more at this time of year. But humans are the same beasts throughout the year. We tend to like it when brands tap into our feelings and make us feel special in some way. Sure, it’s easier to do this at Christmas when we’re full of festive cheer, but the challenge is there to try and continue this throughout the year.

Christmas has become a competitive event in ad land. Just like the Superbowl in the US. But why do brands and agencies go the extra creative mile for their Superbowl spots? Are TV viewing audiences really more appreciative of creativity and engaging brand stories at certain times of the year? Or is it just that brands and agencies decide to up their game?

We never found out what happened to Ebenezer Scrooge in the January that followed his life-changing Christmas. But I really hope he didn’t fall back into bad habits when January came around.

Jamie Williams is managing partner of Isobel.

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