Since 2009, British department store John Lewis has gone from strength to strength, with a series of award-winning advertising campaigns built upon deep human truths. This is the story of the Christmas 2014 campaign, "Monty the Penguin", the retailer’s most effective and profitable to date.
Unusually, the John Lewis Partnership (which includes the supermarket chain Waitrose) is mutually owned, making it the UK’s biggest employee co-operative.
The stated objective of the partnership is "the happiness of all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business".
Every year, the board awards a bonus to all permanent employees (Partners), depending on the profitability of the Partnership. Christmas is vital for generating those bonuses. It accounts for about 20% of annual sales and 40% of profits, and a successful Christmas sets the trajectory for good trading over the coming year.
So Christmas matters a lot to the people at John Lewis, and in 2014, the pressure was particularly acute, as sister retailer Waitrose, like many UK supermarkets, was suffering a profit squeeze. John Lewis would have to be the main profit-generator for the group that year, or staff bonuses could not be paid. The stakes had never been higher.
The UK retail market is fiercely competitive, and never more so than at Christmas. British retailers spend about £180m a year on Christmas ads.
To make things more difficult, 2014 marked the arrival of "Black Friday" in the UK, when retailers offer deep discounts to kick-start the Christmas season. This, together with the continued rise of online shopping, promised to make Christmas 2014 uniquely challenging.
Against this tense background, John Lewis set the following commercial objectives: generate profit for staff bonuses, by increasing its share of the department-store market, by increasing sales during the Christmas period.
The key to high sales at Christmas is store traffic, driven mainly by gift-shopping. So the marketing objectives were: get more customers, spending more, by increasing store traffic, online and offline, by increasing consumers’ propensity to shop at John Lewis for Christmas gifts.
The likelihood of visiting John Lewis is, in turn, partly a matter of salience – in the Christmas rush, it’s important that John Lewis springs to mind as the first port of call. It’s also a matter of emotional connection – John Lewis needs to feel "special", a "destination" shop.
However, the impact of the John Lewis Christmas campaign goes far beyond short-term sales. This is the most high-profile marketing campaign in the UK, at the most commercially important time of the year. Each new John Lewis Christmas campaign is anticipated, analysed, debated, critiqued, rated and talked about by pretty much everyone. Failing to engage the nation would have a significant commercial, social and cultural impact on the John Lewis brand.
We needed to raise the bar once more, and make this the most famous John Lewis campaign to date. With that in mind, we set the following communications objectives: increase brand salience and deepen emotional connection by "winning Christmas", and be the most-watched, loved and talked-about Christmas ad campaign.
John Lewis’ Christmas strategy is based on three core insights:
Business insight John Lewis has more products than any other general merchandiser. So no matter who you are buying for, you will find the perfect gift there.
Brand insight John Lewis is a calm, understated brand in all that it does. The shopping
experience is quiet and unruffled. At a time of glitz, celebrities and cliché, John Lewis prefers to be more considered and thoughtful.
Customer insight John Lewis appeals to an affluent and educated customer base (typically ABC1 between the ages of 25 and 55), who like to buy well and be seen to do so. When it comes to buying presents, they like to think more carefully and choose more thoughtfully. They want to buy the most interesting, relevant and distinctive gifts, which say how important the people they love are to them.
Based on these insights, John Lewis’ strategy is to be the home of "thoughtful gifting", where shoppers can find gifts that demonstrate "a little more thought" than the competition.
Each year, John Lewis looks for a new way to bring that strategy to life in a humble, charming, but highly emotive, way. If John Lewis is the home of "thoughtful gifting", what is the most thoughtful gift anyone can give? That gave us the big creative idea for the 2014 campaign, encapsulated in the endline: "Give someone the Christmas they’ve been dreaming of."
The central role for media was to make this the most-talked-about ad campaign of 2014. So, we needed to build anticipation, maximise awareness and fuel consumer engagement at launch.
We also had to embrace media and technology solutions to enhance our storytelling, in-store and out-of-store. By ensuring media delivered optimal attention and exposure for the brand, we were confident the creative idea would deliver emotional involvement from our core 25-55, ABC1 "Thoughtful Gifter" audience. Our media agency, Manning Gottlieb OMD, aimed to make this the most integrated, immersive and successful UK retail campaign ever seen.
The creative work
Christmas 2014 was the Christmas of Monty and Mabel. Monty is a penguin, whose best friend is a little boy. But he’s still a bit lonely. He dreams of another penguin to love. And that’s what the little boy gives him for Christmas. Her name is Mabel. And like Monty she’s really a soft toy… that you could actually buy, in John Lewis.
The campaign followed the long-standing theme for John Lewis at Christmas, celebrating those who put more thought into the gifts they give. The creative idea was built up from the universal insight that young children often see their favourite toys as almost real, and true friends.
The challenge was to turn Monty’s simple story into John Lewis’ most integrated ad campaign to date and possibly the most integrated of any retailer, ever.
By inviting the UK’s most creative media-owners into our planning work early, we were able to create powerful partnerships with Channel 4, Google and Microsoft, which elevated this six-week campaign throughout three phases: anticipation, launch and immersion.
These partnerships created unique, immersive content and a range of experiences to bring our story to life both in and out of store, and therefore maximise consumer engagement.
We started by teasing the nation. A John Lewis Christmas campaign is increasingly a media event, and in 2014 the campaign was "teased" like never before. Monty first featured, unbranded, on mini-trailers in Channel 4 idents.
At the same time, he started appearing on digital outdoor sites across key cities. Meanwhile, we sent mysterious boxes containing penguins to journalists, bloggers and other key opinion-formers. All this unbranded activity featured the hashtag #montythepenguin to trigger speculation on Twitter. Then we took the internet by storm.
The campaign launched on John Lewis’ social-media pages 24 hours before it aired on TV, to ensure key fans and followers got a sneak preview. We revealed who Monty really was via online media first – a "scratch-off" advertising format created in partnership with Google (once you "scratched off" the snow it would play the ad). TV gave us mass exposure. The first airing of the full 120-second ad took place during the C4 show Gogglebox on 7 November, followed closely by a second showing during ITV’s The X Factor, giving us huge exposure and talk-value.
Then, as the campaign progressed and Monty’s story became more familiar, we switched to shorter ads, to keep reminding viewers throughout the Christmas period. Immersive experiences We took customers into the heart of the story. The public became immersed in it through a world of multi-touchpoint activation. All John Lewis shops had a "Monty’s Den", featuring "Monty’s Goggles" – a world first for the use of Google Cardboard virtual-reality technology, delivering the story in an immersive 3D digital experience. Key store windows were also transformed with families of penguins, showcasing a wide range of gifts.
In London’s Oxford Street store, the digital technology was taken a step further with "Monty’s Magical Toy Machine" – another tech-first, in partnership with Microsoft, where children’s soft toys could be digitally scanned and brought to life, just like Monty in the ad. Above this was "Monty’s Winter Garden", an immersive festive experience on the roof of the flagship store. The story continued online. Monty fans could explore his world in 3D online and download the song from the ad. There was also a children’s book, available online and in-store.
An app told the story interactively and allowed users to make their own Monty Christmas cards. Monty and Mabel came to life in social media Our two lovebirds continued their flirtation on Twitter, and via online dating apps. We created a huge range of Monty and Mabel merchandise for consumers to buy. There were bags, onesies, mugs, bedding, towels, flannels, cushions, T-shirts, pyjamas, umbrellas, baby-grows, slippers, ties, lamps, CDs, chocolates, scarves, socks, a story book and interactive ebook, and, of course, soft toys.
We rewarded special customers. As well as getting a sneak peak of the ad, members of My John Lewis (the store’s CRM programme) received a suite of special experiences themed around the campaign, such as an exclusive shopping evening and competitions.
The teaser campaign worked as planned. In summary, it was the most watched, loved and talked-about Christmas ad. As a result, brand salience and emotional affinity increased, driving an increase in store traffic, both online and offline, meaning more customers, spending more and pushing sales and market share to record levels.
There was huge anticipation. Over the previous four years, the John Lewis campaign had come to mark the start of the festive season. As early as September 2014, people were speculating about the new one.
The teaser campaign got people even more excited. The week before launch, teaser ads seemed to be everywhere, heightening anticipation and triggering hundreds of conversations on Twitter, with 1.5 million people "over-hearing" them.
Teaser activity: exposure
In all, the teaser campaign garnered more than 163 million impressions. The online launch lit up the internet. On 6 November, we launched the ad online. The reaction was astonishing, Within an hour, Monty was trending in first place globally on Twitter, even though this was a UK-only campaign. During the first 48 hours, Monty was tweeted-about 124,000 times, five times more than our nearest rival.
In all, there were 212,000 tweets, plus 165,000 shares on Facebook, delivering a total of 568 million impressions. With all that buzz, the number of people searching for the ads on Google soon hit record levels.
Such was the interest that bookmaker Paddy Power took bets on how many views Monty would receive online.
The overall total across all social channels was 29 million, of which approximately 22 million came from YouTube. The total far exceeded the bookmaker’s prediction, and was nearly double that achieved by the 2013 campaign.
The TV ads got huge audiences. Twenty-four hours after the online launch, we aired on TV. The premiere was watched by 4.3 million adults during C4’s Gogglebox, and by the end of the campaign, TV had delivered a massive 370 million exposures (Barb).
Music amplified the effect. The soundtrackto Monty’s story, Real Love by Tom Odell, proved immediately popular. It was the most Shazammed ad that Christmas, and the track rose to third in the iTunes chart in the face of stiff competition.
It stayed in the charts for nine weeks, and 2.4 million people tuned in to watch Odell perform it live on Channel 4.
PR gave us massive amounts of free exposure. Our carefully orchestrated PR campaign achieved an astonishing 11,336 mentions in print, broadcast and online media, more than any other Christmas ad campaign.
The ads become part of popular culture. A sure sign of Monty’s fame was the number of parodies he provoked.
Spoofs started appearing within an hour of the ad’s launch; soon there were more than 65 on YouTube. In themselves, these attracted nearly four million views – more than most retailers get for their official ads.
Other companies and brands even started jumping on the bandwagon. Monty was clearly more than just a character in an ad – he had become a cultural icon.
Thanks to Monty and Mabel, Brits soon seemed to be obsessed with penguins. A "Save the Sea Life London Penguins" petition garnered 2000 signatures in 48 hours, and the number of Britons sponsoring penguins through the World Wildlife Fund increased 600%.
Prompted ad awareness, Christmas 2014
We "won" Christmas. We succeeded in our aim to make the most watched, loved and talked-about Christmas ad of 2014. We got more views and buzz than any of our rivals, and, as a result, higher ad awareness.
In particular, we outperformed Sainsbury’s, the other big Christmas 2014 campaign. Not only did we get higher ad awareness, but we did so in a wide range of independent polls.
People engaged with Monty and Mabel online. The ad immediately won the hearts of the British public. Social media then allowed fans to continue following the story online
Monty and Mabel’s Twitter feeds and Facebook pages brought another 170 million impressions over Christmas.
The hardback book sold 25,000 copies (despite an £8.99 price tag), and the Monty app hit the top spot in the iTunes kids’ chart, with more than 500,000 interactive sessions.
Word of mouth
Brand salience and affinity improved even further. Famous advertising is worthwhile only if it makes the brand famous, too – and ours did. Word of mouth about John Lewis increased 71% as soon as the ads went on air.
YouGov named John Lewis the most talked-about retailer, and the third-most-talked-about brand in any category. We succeeded in increasing brand affinity too. The buzz about the brand, already very positive, became overwhelmingly so.
Experiments by market research agency BrainJuicer showed how the ad affected brand perceptions. Asked rapid questions about John Lewis, people deliberately exposed to the ad gave much more positive answers. The "quality" and "different" metrics each improved by 20%, in line with our "Thoughtful Gifting" strategy.
Web traffic increased 17% on 2013, an extra 14 million visits. In excess of 260,000 of those people clicked straight through from the ad, and were much more positive about their shopping experience.
The campaign also got people pouring into John Lewis stores. Some travelled hundreds of miles to visit Monty’s Den, with more than 50,000 people visiting the Oxford Street store alone. Monty’s Magical Toy Machine was a big hit with children, who scanned more than 2600 toys to create 3D animations they could dance and take selfies with. Footfall increased by 9% year on year.
We got more customers, spending more; record numbers were achieved, both online and offline, who visited more often and spent more.
Merchandise became a revenue stream in its own right for the business. John Lewis sold £2.5m-worth, including 48,000 Monty and Mabel soft toys. Some stores sold out of penguins on the first day, and soon they were selling for £500 on eBay.
Sales and market share hit record levels
Merchandising was just the tip of the iceberg, however. Sales hit record levels, and the store took £179m in a single week for the first time in its 150-year history. In all, like-for-like sales were up 4.8% on 2013, allowing John Lewis to beat all its major rivals for the sixth Christmas in a row.
Christmas sales performance: 2014 versus 2013
This contributed to a spectacular set of year-end results. Gross sales increased 7.5% year
on year, an amazing performance for such a venerable brand.
This was not just a question of market growth. As we’ve seen, John Lewis beat its major rivals, and more generally grew much faster than the market.
John Lewis sales versus UK retail sales
John Lewis’ market share increased to 27.5%, its highest ever. This was one of the biggest rises in its share since John Lewis began supporting its business with emotional advertising.
Contribution of advertising to John Lewis sales
Monty was the biggest driver of sales. Since 2007, John Lewis has been using econometrics to measure the factors that influence sales. They have shown that advertising was the single-most important driver of growth, accounting for nearly 25% of sales.
As the simulation shows, Monty was the key factor that took John Lewis’ sales to record levels that Christmas. Without Monty, December sales would have been down 9% on 2013.
Other factors that may have had an impact on the effectiveness of the campaign
Market factors played a minor role. Economic growth and Black Friday helped, but that’s clearly not the whole story – after all, John Lewis grew 60% faster than the market. Econometrics shows that market factors boosted John Lewis’ sales by only 2.1%.
New stores can’t explain the success. To account for the impact of store expansion, all econometric models were based on like-for-like sales, which grew strongly, discounting new stores as the main driver.
Advertising was the biggest driver of online sales, too. JohnLewis.com is a major engine of growth. The rise of internet shopping has helped, but John Lewis’ online sales grew faster than internet shopping in general.
Contribution of advertising to online sales
Econometrics shows that improvements to search engine optimisation boosted online sales by 1.5%, but that online sales growth would have been much slower without Monty.
Products and prices continued to be competitive. John Lewis continually strives to offer the best products and services. Econometric estimates suggest that changes to the offer boosted sales by 1.8% that year.
The loyalty scheme My John Lewis continued to attract customers, boosting sales by 1.3%,
according to econometrics. But the programme had been in place for more than a year before "Monty the Penguin", and can’t explain the extraordinary success we saw that Christmas.
Other factors played a minor role. Econometrics has investigated the impact of many other elements that might affect sales. None was sufficient to explain the extraordinary sales success during Christmas 2014.
The commercial gain as result of running the creative work
The campaign paid for itself nearly eight times over. According to the econometrics, the 2014 Christmas campaign generated £132m-worth of extra sales. That equates to a net profit of £33m, or £7.98 for every £1 spent on advertising.
Econometrics: ROI analysis
That was 11% higher than the ROI achieved in 2013. Indeed, it is one of the highest ROIs in the history of the Creative Effectiveness Lions, and more than four times the average for IPA Effectiveness papers in the UK.
John Lewis versus average ROI
This performance, in a tough British trading environment, is remarkable for a retail brand that is nearly 150 years old. Retail profits in general have been meagre in recent years. In 2014, 43 retailers went bust, with 1314 stores closing.
We achieved our ultimate objective
As we have made clear, the ultimate aim was to keep the Partners happy. Money is only one part of that equation, of course, but the annual bonus is hugely important for the Partners and their families.
With Waitrose profits substantially down that year, profits from the department store had to fill the gap if bonuses were to be paid.
Fortunately, the record-breaking Christmas sales we helped to deliver did the job. The year ended with operating profits 10.8% up on 2013, so Partners could be given a bonus worth 11% of salary. Who says advertising doesn’t make people happy?