Christmas ads have always been one of the biggest annual moments in the marketing calendar, with brands launching big-budget campaigns that capture the public imagination and enforce the Christmas season's message of togetherness and optimism.
Of course, there's something of an elephant in the room looming over this year's efforts. The coronavirus crisis has impacted the season in many ways: it's harder for people to meet and celebrate with their loved ones, the financial pinch will be harder for many, and there’s a general atmosphere of uncertainty in the air.
The advertising industry is no exception, either: especially considering reports that advertisers would cut budgets by more than £700m compared to last year. Talking to The Guardian, New Commercial Arts Agency's James Murphy described the quandary advertisers have found themselves in this year:
“Too celebratory or glitzy and it looks like you are being glib and ignoring the pressures so many people are feeling. But equally if you are too dour and down you miss a chance to cheer people up at a time of year when people expect brands to be jovial.”
So, with Christmas rapidly approaching – how have brands incorporated this unique year into their Christmas campaigns?
Animation has always been a fixture of the Christmas season – from the bright spectacle of digital animation, to the warm nostalgia of hand-drawn or stop-motion animation styles. This year in particular though, it's been a perfect route for brands who may struggle with the increased restrictions placed on live-action productions.
Certainly, this year's adverts are a testament to just how much can be done with animation – with Barbour, for example, taking inspiration from the classic illustrations of Raymond Briggs; Hendrick's Gin adopting a surrealist, Monty Python-inspired collage style; and McDonalds telling a Pixar-esque story about embracing your inner child.
Probably the best example, however, can be seen in the always eagerly-anticipated John Lewis advert, which ingeniously captures the spirit of the season by bringing together eight different animation studios with their own distinctive stylistic approaches.
Speaking about the motivations behind hiring multiple animators for their Christmas advert, a spokesperson for John Lewis explained:
“The unique approach was chosen in a spirit of kindness towards the creative industry, which has been hard hit by the pandemic … Instead of a single production team, multiple artists were selected, giving employment to many people across the creative industry.”
A similar spirit of community-mindedness and altruism has been adopted by a litany of other brands, too: clothing company Joules have used their Christmas campaign to highlight their partnership with the Woodland Trust, for example, and their pledge to plant 250,000 trees by 2022; and Walkers have similarly launched a Christmas campaign based around raising money for the Trussell Trust and their network of food banks.
Writing for Econsultancy, Ben Murphy explains why it's particularly important this year for brands to really commit to the altruistic values traditionally portrayed in festive ads:
“Data reveals an [audience] mindset shift from indulgent treats to altruism this holiday season … Although Christmas campaigns of the past have focused on those in need, with the charity theme coming out so strongly this year brands will need to ensure any messaging around this theme is backed up with real-world action like a donation. More than ever, your audience wants to know that you share the same values and this will prove to them that you do.”
A great many brands have also embraced humour and escapism as a means of dealing with (or not dealing with) the big themes of this year. Three Mobile, for example, operatically present the stresses our mobile phones have gone through – from Zoom quizzes to doom-laden social media scrolling; and Tesco's “No Naughty List” spot encourages everyone to give themselves a break after what has been an anxious year.
A more escapist approach was adopted by Coca-Cola, who enlisted acclaimed director Taika Waititi to direct 'The Letter' – a short that blends adventure, emotion, humour, nostalgia and Waititi's vibrant visual imagination to tell the story of an oil rig worker trying to deliver his daughter's letter to Father Christmas.
The success of this approach can be seen in how it – along with the iconic 'Holidays are Coming' spot – contributed to Coca-Cola's being crowned the most effective advertiser by research conducted by Kantar and shared with Marketing Week.
In a year in which so many of us have had to recalibrate our priorities and our plans, coming up with the right tone for a Christmas marketing message has been a challenge that every brand – big or small – has had to face.
As can be seen though, so many brands have managed to imaginatively, thoughtfully, and compassionately work around the obstacles of 2020. Providing particularly good advice that any business should take heed of, here's what brand strategist Sophia Kay had to say to The Drum about finding the right voice for a troubled Christmas:
“People are taking some comfort in the fact that the world is still moving – albeit at a slower pace. While it’s natural to feel worried that ‘selling’ in the current context is crass or ill-timed, to go completely quiet would be even more unsettling. Just as brands responded to the 2008 financial crash, it’s about altering your tone to be more human and service-oriented, offering flexibility and reassurance – for example in terms of bookings or payments – while continuing to inspire and create room for people to dream.”