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The Christmas Brand

The most wonderful time for brands

‘Tis the season for corporate/retail brands to perpetuate the Christmas brand. No other holiday is embraced more by brands than Christmas. According to Pew Research, consumers’ least favorite part of Christmas is commercialism and materialism. Yet, every major retail brand tries to capture the hearts of consumers with the spirit of Christmas and end with a profitable year.  In the UK, Christmas adverts are like the Super Bowl in the US. Every year, John Lewis, Sainsbury, Marks & Spence, Boots, Tesco, Heathrow, and others compete for the honor of the best holiday advert – every year the stakes seem to get higher. Christmas is no longer seen as just a religious holiday but as a joyous time to spend with family and friends. In fact, 80% of non-Christians will celebrate the holiday season. The Christmas brand has a lot to do with this fact.

Evolution of Christmas

In the fourth century, the Christian church declared a winter holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. The holiday was combined with other already established solstice celebrations. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that Christmas transformed into a family and children-centric ritual with the introduction of jolly-old St. Nicholas. In the 1840’s, the first Christmas-tree appeared in North America. Alongside this tradition was the Jewish Hanukkah celebration which evolved into the festival of lights. As the religious connotations of these holidays fade, the celebrations have become more secular and inclusive with core values of the Christmas brand based on peace, goodwill to others, charity, and a hope that goodness will prevail.

Today, the festivities and values are significantly emphasized through commercialization and sensory overload, driven by the many corporate/retail brands eager to morph the Christmas brand to theirs. Iconic Christmas songs like All I Want for Christmas Is You by Mariah Carey and classic movies like It’s a Wonderful Life are all geared to keep the Christmas spirit alive against the harsh distractions of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Boxing Day. The silver-lining is that all the shopping is tied with the notion of gift-giving. It is a practice of sharing your good fortunes, expressing your love and friendship.

The Spirit of Christmas

The 30th President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge once said that “Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind.” The Christmas brand is a feeling of happiness, wonderment, togetherness, festivities, joy and love; brought out by merriment (eating and drinking), holiday decor, lights, gifts, ritual traditions, music, and storytelling. The ultimate goal is rekindling the nostalgic holiday magic we cherished as children.

Hallmark is a master of capturing the holiday spirit through stories of reunited loved ones, kindness of strangers, family-values, and holiday love stories. Last year, Hallmark made over $600 million in advertising associated with their 37 holiday-themed movies. Last year, Christmas movies recorded 85 million viewers.

Economics of Christmas

Today, brands use the concepts of Christmas by emotionally connecting with their customers through unique holiday commercials. They hope to transfer the Christmas brand of joy and happiness into holiday sales. A whopping $731 billion in holiday sales is predicated by the National Retail Federation.

The fact that emotional branding is the strongest way for brands to influence consumers is means that companies spent almost $4 billion on holiday advertising last year.

Deloitte predicts retailers can expect a jolly holiday shopping season. While some economic headwinds are forming, the average US household is planning to spend nearly $1,500 during the holidays.

The Recipe for a Great Holiday Commercial

I don’t think there are any revolutionary secrets on what makes a memorable holiday commercial but here are some key take-aways that I have gleamed from previous successful Christmas commercials.

A Great Christmas Story

A great story should quickly establish the protagonist in a situation with an obstacle or crisis that they need to overcome. At the climax of the story, the protagonist makes a discovery that changes his/her life.  The ending should be both inevitable and unexpected. The audience should be left with hope and a sense that the crazy world is still a good place. This simple formula starts with a touch of sadness, a dash of surprise and delight and finishes with hope, happiness, and joy.  

In 2015, Edeka, a German supermarket company, introduced Heimkommen (Homecoming) one of the best holiday commercials in history. Since it was launched, it has received over 65 million views. Make sure you have a tissue handy if you plan to watch it.

Awesome Soundtrack

The audio can quickly make or break the mood. All of the great commercials have memorable music. According to the Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), musical commercials are 27 percent more likely to report large business effects compared to non-music campaigns. That translates into increased sales!

A number of research studies have found that music can amplify emotional responses to the story and increase ad memorability. Radiocentre has found that music can boost brand recognition.  Brainsights says that lyrics/message that support the ad storyline are best.

John Lewis, a UK department store, is notorious for their Christmas adverts. The Bear and The Hare, produced in 2013, is still garnering view. Recently, the UK Metro media declared it the top John Lewis Christmas advert ever in a readers’ poll. This commercial feature a bear and hare who are best friends. The wintery weather forces the bear into hibernation leaving the hare to face Christmas alone. The hare solves the problem by purchasing an alarm clock so that the bear wakes up in time for the festivities. This beautifully illustrated animation is enhanced by Somewhere Only We Know sung by British pop singer Lily Allen.

Simple, Authentic, and Symbiotic

Being real to the brand’s persona is vital. There is a great desire to solve the world’s problems and be a hero but most people are only looking for hope. No brand will be the hero but they can bring hope by emphasizing their brand’s values that correlate with Christmas. This year’s Walmart Canada’s “Piggy Bank commercial is a great example of promoting their brand promise with the message of spending small and give big for the holiday season.

Another classic commercial is Hershey’s Kisses’We Wish You Merry Christmas.” It only takes 15 seconds to effectively get its message across. The story goes that John Dunn, Hershey’s Chocolate brand manager in 1989, came up with the concept on a business trip. Ogilvy Mather produced the commercial with the latest stop-motion animation and CG photography available at the time.

Children, Animals and People

It’s true! Add a cute baby or animal and your commercial’s appeal will increase. Super Bowl commercials with animals, babies, or children tend to score much better than those with without. In fact, ads with animals performed 21 percent better than ads with celebrities and 14 percent better than the average non-animal Super Bowl ads.

The underlining premise of the holiday season is about bringing people (family, friends, and strangers) together to see Christmas as a child would: joyful and wonderous. Connecting your brand to people in the holiday spirit is a recipe for success.

The Folger’s Coffee 1986 “Peter Comes Home for Christmas” commercial fits the bill. The only thing missing is a golden retriever running to meet Peter at the door.

Inclusiveness – Peace on Earth

Keep your message and sentiment universal and true to the phase “Peace on Earth”. The holiday is a time of the year when the world stands together, quite literally in the famous Coca-Cola‘s 1971 “Hilltop” campaign with the very memorable “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” song. The ad was later re-worked to show a very diverse group of people at night, holding white candles and ended with the tagline “Seasons Greetings.” It’s not a time to air a highly polarizing messages that only appeals to one demographic segment or worse offends another.

This timeless Pampers commercial “Peace on Earth” shows different babies sleeping peacefully as the song Silent Night is sung by a mother’s voice. This simplistic but captivating ad communicates vulnerability, beauty, and peace.

Memorable, Unique and Relevant

Alongside the engaging soundtrack, the commercial must be visually stimulating with dramatic lighting and brilliant colours. Ultimately, the commercial must be share worthy.  If the commercial captures the hearts of your audience, it will quickly be shared around the world. It will become an iconic holiday memory that supports the brand of Christmas. Attaching your brand to the idea of helping, sharing, and giving during the holiday season makes good business sense. It also builds the Christmas brand that everyone wants to embrace.

The Apple commercial appropriately titled Frankie’s Holiday is beautifully shot with rich details and colours like the framed image of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, on the wall of Frankie’s home. He records a music box version of “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” on his iPhone then plays the track in the town square as he nervously sings the song. The commercial concludes with the message: Open your heart to everyone.

The Christmas Brand

There are many reasons why Christmas isn’t the most wonderful time of the year. It’s become too commercialized and is not environmentally friendly (all the plastics and packaging, food waste, energy consumption). Bringing family together can be stressful at the best of times. There is the pressure of shopping, the financial woes, and high expectations. Holiday depression is very real. Are the billions of dollars of consumerism worth it? Should we all become like Scrooge or the Grinch?

Once every year we pull-out the holiday decorations, put on the ugly Christmas sweaters, consume too much, get frustrated in busy malls, parking lots, roads and airports, navigate rude and obnoxious friends and family, but there is always that one moment that makes it all worth it.  We strive to capture these moments in our commercials.

The trick is to recognize that one moment of time when you see a child’s face light up in wonder, when a stranger stands there opening a door just for you, when someone thanks you for helping them with the simplest things, when you try something different and like it, when you invite someone new to share your holiday traditions. Not unlike the image portrayed in Christmas commercials, there are real moments that remind us of the true spirit of Christmas.

May your heart and home be filled will all of the happiness, joy, and peace during the holiday season. May you experience that Christmas moment of joy even if it is sparked by a Christmas commercial.

Merry Brand Christmas!

Check out the latest 2019 Christmas commercial lineup.

derrick rozdeba

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