Are emotional Christmas ads turkeys or the chance for brands to show their purpose?

With Christmas ads increasingly trying to draw a tear, Shaun Smith, founder of Smith+Co and author of 'On Purpose', asks whether customers will be convinced by this strategy.

Are emotional Christmas ads turkeys or the chance for brands to show their purpose?
Are emotional Christmas ads turkeys or the chance for brands to show their purpose?
The public is starting to feel manipulated by beautifully crafted ads with a social message designed with a commercial outcome in mind

Watching the Queen's Speech on the box at Christmas is a regular tradition for millions across the UK but new rituals have begun to dominate our viewing habits in recent years. Last week saw one of the most eagerly awaited television events to reach our screen - the annual Christmas John Lewis ad. And, if history teaches us anything, it will have a rich online audience as well. Last year’s ad has been viewed on YouTube 25 million times. But is the retailer flogging this particular horse to death? Some commentators are suggesting that the public is starting to feel manipulated by beautifully crafted ads with a social message designed with a commercial outcome in mind.

Message of selflessness

John Lewis has previously produced some real tear-jerkers including bear & hare, Monty the penguin and now their latest visual masterpiece; the man on the moon.  Set to a stunning soundtrack cover of the Oasis anthem 'Half the world away' the advert sees a young girl reach out to an elderly man who is seemingly alone in the cosmos. As we watch the girl attempts to make contact with the moon-based pensioner, we are reminded of the isolation that afflicts so many people in later life.

This analogy, albeit one fraught with scientific holes that will have Brian Cox choking on his turkey, sends a clear message of selflessness during the most commercial time of the year.

Where many brands will be sweating blood to drag as many shoppers into their stores or online over the holiday season, John Lewis is reminding its customers that there is another world out there

You'll find no 2-for-1 deals, BOGOF's or price match guarantees in this campaign, what shines through instead is the sense of 'higher purpose'. This retail giant is looking beyond the 'sell sell sell' approach to marketing and venturing into a values-based, call to action. Where many brands will be sweating blood to drag as many shoppers into their stores or online over the holiday season, John Lewis is reminding its customers that there is another world out there. A world where many people will watch the Queen's Speech alone; feeling half a world away from civilisation.  It is definitely at the schmaltzy end of advertising but love it, or hate it, one cannot deny the sense of ‘purpose' at lies the heart of this year's ad.

Meanginful brands outperform KPIs

But there's no doubt that this isn't just a nice Christmas gesture on John Lewis’s part. This year, Havas Media research found that 'Meaningful Brands' see their marketing KPIs outperform less meaningful brands by 100%. The study also showed that those brands, which consciously make an effort to engage with their customers, gain on average 46% more share of wallet. 'Monty the penguin', the 2014 ad, gave the brand a reported 13% uplift in sales taking them through the £100m week barrier. This means that the £7m John Lewis spent on the 2015 ad will leave lesser brands dead in the water with their low-budget, tactical marketing campaigns.

What if HSBC or produced an ad like this? Sadly, it wouldn't work

So how can other brands achieve a similar sense of 'meaning' in their communications to customers and increased impact from their marketing spend? What if HSBC or produced an ad like this? Sadly, it wouldn't work. That's not say HSBC doesn't have brand values, it does, but they are not ones that would lend credibility to a purpose beyond profit message such as this. We just don’t believe that the banks care about anyone other than themselves so it would be greeted with understandable cynicism.  Whatever other brands do to make meaningful ads, they cannot follow the same approach as John Lewis otherwise they will merely look ‘me too’ and inauthentic.  

Rooted in purpose and values

The trick is to tap into their brand DNA and tell a story that is rooted in their own purpose and values.  One brand that seems to have done this successfully is Sainsbury’s. Their 2014 ad relating the story of the Christmas Day Truce in the trenches in 2014 was a beautiful piece of storytelling with a relevant social message. This year’s ad ‘MOG’, has a very different feel and evokes laughter rather than pathos but, it too, is a great story that entertains us and therefore has us feeling good about the brand.

And that sums up perfectly what we think purposeful brands do brilliantly; when their commercial purpose, their customer purpose and their social purpose intersect to benefit the brand, consumers and society. We have spent three years researching those brands we love for our book ‘On Purpose, delivering a branded customer experience people love’ and concluded that when brands focus on creating value for consumers the shareholders benefit anyway. The opposite, putting profit before purpose, is not recommended as the best way to have a great Christmas - as VW found out.