John Lewis, King of Christmas Ads

They’re here. The Christmas retailers’ ads have been released, and the race to take advantage of our sentimentality is on.

How does UK department store John Lewis manage to dominate Christmas marketing every year, significantly boost year-long sales, oh and win a Grand Prix Lion at Cannes?

In 2011, John Lewis kicked off a Christmas marketing trend. The idea of very story-driven, high production TV advertisements wasn’t a new one. But their heart-warming ad entitled ‘The Long Wait’ became a massive talking point, and since then the ‘John Lewis Christmas Ad’ release has become a synonym for the beginning of the UK festive season. Other retailers wanting to emulate this success have started a tradition for ads with strong narratives, that seem to escalate in budget and scale year on year.

Clash of the Christmas Campaigns

John Lewis deviated from their usual saccharine sweet storylines last year, with an ad about a lonely old man residing on the moon. The ‘happy ending’ comes in the form of a telescope sent to him by a little girl, so he can watch her family’s Christmas fun from afar. But as many viewers pointed out, the old man is still destined to a lifetime of loneliness, but now with the ability to see exactly what he is missing. Bit of a downer.

The ad was criticised for being a bit too melancholic for Christmas, and a rival spot from Sainsbury’s, the supermarket giant, was hailed as the winner. By appealing to nostalgia (Sainsbury’s featured well-loved children’s book character, Mog the Cat), they managed to outrank John Lewis in online views. Not to be outdone though, this year John Lewis have gone all out in the festive arms race.

This year’s story revolves around a little girl called Bridget who loves to jump, and her dog Buster the boxer. Christmas Eve night, Dad sets up her present in the back garden; a trampoline. During the night, Buster woefully looks on as a host of British wildlife enjoy bouncing on the trampoline while he’s stuck inside. Christmas morning, we get the pay-off we all want to see, as Buster runs ahead of Bridget to get the good old bounce he deserves; nice, heart-warming stuff.

The ad was shot entirely on a set made to look like a snowy townhouse and features CGI animals to pull at our heartstrings. As usual, the music is a softly-sung cover version of a well-known ballad (Randy Crawford’s One Day I’ll Fly Away) which was recorded with a 66-piece orchestra and a 70-strong choir accompaniment.

Overall, the ad cost £1 million to make and a further £6 million was spent on advertising.

VR and Cross-platform Storytelling

With such emphasis on narrative, John Lewis positions the characters in their ads as in-store Christmas mascots. It isn’t possible to portray the characters’ full personalities within a 2-minute ad, so the campaigns cross online and offline platforms expanding the narrative and reaching consumers via relevant modes.

John Lewis takes full advantage of momentum generated online through likes and shares, and engages directly with consumers through Twitter and Facebook. For example, encouraging followers to upload photos of themselves, to which John Lewis responds with the same picture, this time ‘photobombed’ by the characters.

Other than online content, the department store is keen to give more immersive experiences too. In their flagship stores you can enter ‘Buster’s Garden’ and you can even use Occulus Rift VR technology to jump on the trampoline with garden wildlife. With these platforms, consumers don’t just watch the ad, but feel a genuine involvement in the campaign story.

The Pay-off

According to John Lewis, these massive, expensive Christmas campaigns are very much worth the effort. They report that since they started these story-driven ads, they’ve enjoyed a 35% increase in sales all year round. The effect of Buster the Boxer will become clear after Christmas, but the success of Monty the Penguin (2014) earned John Lewis and the producers of the ad, Adam&EveDDB London, a Creative Effectiveness Grand Prix Lion at Cannes Lions 2016. The chair of Creative Effectiveness, Andrew Robertson, said John Lewis proved ‘beyond any doubt’, the link between this particular campaign and revenue growth of £132 million, incremental profit growth of £33 million and a profit ROI of 8%.

Despite last year’s slight misstep, the cross-platform engagement and proven effectiveness of the John Lewis campaigns demonstrate that they remain king of Christmas retail marketing.

Christmas hasn’t even passed yet, and we’re already excited to see what they’ll do next year…

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