People, not product, is the key to real emotional engagement for brands at Christmas

Christmas advertising has become as much of a festive tradition as eating too many mince pies or decorating the tree. In 2018 alone, advertisers invested a record-breaking £6.5 billion on advertising during the festive period, around 27% of the total years advertising spending.

This festive contest intensifies each year, with many of the UK’s biggest retailers pitching to engage the widest audience and impact sales.

Stephen Woodford, Chief Executive of Advertising Association said: “Our Christmas advertising season is the envy of the world, thanks to the brilliant, creative talent working in our industry. The joy of this advertising period, seeing what brands bring out each year, is an integral part of a great British Christmas.”



Both industry experts and recent consumer research shows that in order to engage audiences over the Christmas period, you need two main things:

A well thought out, heart-warming story

A meaningful message

Socially conscious adverts centred around themes that pluck at the heartstrings generally means greater success. Research conducted by Kantar Millward Brown showed that adverts that scored high on brand love were thought of as more enjoyable overall by audiences.



Department store John Lewis has become a fixture of the consumer festive calendar, with audiences waiting for the retailers’ advert to start the countdown to Christmas. Since 2007 the brand has been delivering beautifully creative pieces of cinematography. However it wasn’t until 2011 – with the release of ‘A Long Wait’ – that John Lewis made its name as a front-runner in Christmas advertising.

Produced by Adam & Eve and directed by Dougal Wilson, the story-like advert showed a young boy waiting impatiently for Christmas, set to a cover of The Smiths ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’ by Slow Moving Millie. In an unexpected twist, when Christmas morning comes, the boy runs straight past his presents to get the one he had been keeping for his parents.


The advert touched the hearts of the nation and plays beautifully on the value of thoughtful giving at Christmas. Preceding the television commercial success, the campaign was uploaded online and topped Campaign Magazine’s Viral Chart on November 18th, with more than 183,000 shares over seven days and mentions in 192 Facebook updates, 10,000 tweets and 190 blog posts.



After the success of ‘A Long Wait’, John Lewis seemed untouchable on the advertising front until 2014, when we saw other retailers begin to notice the long-term advantages of engaging audiences with emotionally charged adverts. Sainsbury’s teamed up with their long term partners, the Royal British Legion (RBL), to mark the centennial anniversary of WW1s Christmas truce with their advert ‘1914’. Produced by creative agency AMV, the advert had gained 25,089 views on the supermarket’s official YouTube channel, compared to 19,593 for John Lewis’ ‘Monty the Penguin’, according to statistics from marketing technology company Unruly.


Boots also came forward in 2014 with a beautiful tale of people coming together to make a nurse feel special at Christmas. Opening with scenes of people waking up at 12am on Boxing Day and set to the understated tune ‘Song for You’ by Alexi Murdoch, the audience sees a woman who has spent Christmas on duty as a nurse, and a family travelling to ensure she doesn’t miss the celebrations. The inclusion of NHS workers at this time proved a good move for the beauty retailer, with a sentiment analysis score of 100% positivity according to Smart Focus.




By 2016, we were seeing more and more brands changing their advertising strategy from product-focused to person-focused.  Aldi’s viral ‘Kevin the Carrot’ reached a global audience of 2.3 million in its first week and has since gone on to run a three-year successful campaign, reaching audiences across online and offline channels and selling out of Kevin merchandise in store.


Retail giant Marks & Spencer also looked to reinvent its Christmas adverts and engage audiences on an emotional level with ‘Christmas with Love from Mrs Claus’. According to Marketing Society, by centring their campaign around a character and story that people could engage with – a strong and stylish Mrs Claus helping a sweet young boy find his sister the perfect gift – M&S saw a rise of 2.3% on in-store sales and 9.4% on online sales, compared to a loss of 5.8% in 2015.




Without a doubt, 2018 was the most competitive year for the emotional Christmas advert, with companies from Heathrow to Argos producing cute characters, beautifully considered stories and heart-warming messages. However, it was Iceland that stood out to audiences. Despite being banned from TV, Iceland’s ‘Rang-Tan’ advert gained 65m views across social media and its own platforms, making it one of the most viewed Christmas campaigns of all time.



The advert, created by Greenpeace and driven by PR agency Weber Shandwick, features a poetic yet heart breaking story of an orangutan explaining to a little girl why he is living in her bedroom. Voiced by Emma Thompson, the girl and her new friend’s story ends with a dedication to the 25 orangutans lost every day due to habitat destruction, and the supermarket pledging to eradicate palm oil from its own brand items. The campaign has received more than 700 pieces of media coverage and the endorsement of celebrities including James Corden, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Fry, which led to a mass outcry on Twitter with the hashtag #nopalmoilchristmas.

As well as brand exposure, sales in mince pies alone rose 11%, and the campaign raised the consideration of Iceland among consumers in the supermarket sector from 5.9 points to a score of 21.6, which was – at the time – the highest score of any retailer on the YouGov BrandIndex.

As we eagerly await the next year of Christmas advertising, it seems that one thing is clear: person beats product in the race to drive brand engagement, consideration and ultimately sales.

Are you considering a Christmas campaign but not sure how to get cut-through? Our team is on hand to help you drive a meaningful message to promote your brand in the festive period.

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