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Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Last John Lewis Christmas Ad of its kind ?

Gone are the days of 30 million of us sitting down after the queens speech at Christmas to watch a jolly good show together with great auntie Edna snoring on the sofa, our choice restricted to just four or five terrestrial button options. Sky multi-room, time shift TV hard drives "never miss a minute" and computer based catch up services have put paid to this. Gone also, I imagine, the power companies headache of predicting the simultaneous kettle spikes of surging electricity demand during the first Bond movie commercial break on Boxing day, premiering to the massess a full five years after its cinematic debut. Reassuringly though, Coca Cola will still be there with another reinvention of jingle bells, bright red Coke and that Christmas feeling, seeking to carve out its category ownership of this community celebration space that seems to be a core brand value. But have we seen the last ever John Lewis masterclass in effective emotional branding with this years Christ-tingle making story of the lonely snow man ? 

At 90 seconds in length it is certainly making a statement, although of course with the declining trend for embedded simultaneous television audiences, the cost may not be quite as high as we imagine. In line with contemporary brand building approaches, the John Lewis brand, shop space, and friendly staff are entirely absent from screen and you only get to know it is indeed a JL classic in the closing credits. Story told, emotional connection firmly made, just a pair of gloves, scarf and hat to show for it ! Entirely the opposite approach is taken by Marks and Spencer's who appear to want to reverse a declining sales trend by using fast changing, high energy dancers, vignettes flicking through their target segments, to show case as much of the new range as possible. To my mind they are using a genre that is so strongly associated with GAP that it might as well be a GAP ad. Snatching at too much, too quick, unlikely to be memorable is my firm belief. Juxtapose the soft, intricate and deliberately slow story telling preferred by Craig Inglis, Marketing Director for the partnership business.

Enter stage right, Gabrielle Aplin, the young twenty something picked out of obsurity to cover a melancolic eighties version of 'The Power of Love' by sometimes contraversial Liverpudlian band Frankie Goes To Hollywood. (Which of course these days would be referred to as FGTH, naturally.)  Like a well oiled machine, the meticulously executed 21st Century communications package is designed to deliver a mighty emotional punch. The cheaply exploitable, emerging artist (often the opposite sex to the original artist for an added twist), keen on the exposure and hopeful that the successful middle market department store advertising spend will help break them into the big time, provides a convenient platform of safety in a classic hit, but hope in establishing youthful credentials with the new artists edgy cover. Nostalgic eighties music for the higher spending 30's and 40's age group deliberately chosen by stealth. Of course, from a marketing planners perspective using your brand to launch a top ten hit hopefully pays dividends as the carry over of the song can help remind and reinforce the campaign without further payment, perhaps even on channels that do not accept advertising. (BBC making the news, not just reporting it !) Just look at what happened in 2010 for Ellie Goulding and her cover of an Elton John classic, based on this it is not unreasonable for Gabrielle to hope for a BRIT award, a chart topper and to break into the USofA in 2014. Go, Gaby, Go !

Back to the ad: A series of clips show the sad and lonley snowman's journey across stunning landscapes (The Mail suggests this is a Lord of the Rings Froddo like quest, since the stunning scenery and ample snow of New Zealands south island are used as the set) to eventually achieve his quest, reunited with Mrs Snowman at home, perfect gift bestowed and happiness ensues.

Cynically, I am not quite sure what message the audience should take away from this ? Getting to and from a John Lewis, particularly the car park in Southampton, is an epic journey that will see your devotion fully tested ? Buy your loved ones warm clothes for outdoors, because the economy is so bad you will welcome the warmth ? Here I have to fess up to being a big softy on John Lewis, having purchased a 2011 CD of the cover songs used for their advertising campaigns. I even use John Lewis as a cracking case study when I teach marketing at Royal Holloway. I guess we know the message is something around 'if you struggle to find the right gift for someone you really care about, go to John Lewis and you will not be disappointed'. Touchingly sentimental, and where I should probably finish this post.

However, aside from GAP like M&S, other players like Debenhams have emulated the magic formula, used now for several seasons, and what in the past saw John Lewis as distinctive and quite different may get lost and the inhibited memorability may see this genre of ads be replaced by a 'different kind of different' that drives a stronger return on investment for the advertising spend. For the JL creatives, it will surely be a tough call to opt for a different formulation, particularly when the December retail spend plays such a vital role in the years sales performance.

Justin O'Brien, MBA Director, is proudly a teaching focussed academic in the marketing group at Royal Holloway, University of London. 

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