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Behind the emotion (and pressure) of the John Lewis Christmas ads

Emotional advertising is far more powerful than rational advertising, according to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, with John Lewis a great example of a brand that’s capitalised on it.

Buster the Boxer – John Lewis’ 2016 Christmas campaign

Emotional advertising is far more powerful than rational advertising, according to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. In fact, it’s twice as likely to generate profit, with that profit effect building over the years, based on the data.

There’s no better example of a brand that has achieved that than John Lewis, which year after year puts out a huge Christmas campaign that tugs on the heartstrings of the United Kingdom in a bid to kick off the trading season. Last year, Buster the Boxer trended globally within 45 minutes of launching – to date it has 65 million views.

Speaking at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity this week, the team behind those efforts shared insights on what they’ve tried to achieve, what the pressure of doing so is like and just how important authenticity is in getting it right.

On starting out with ‘Always a Woman’ in 2010

James Murphy, founder and CEO of adam&eveDDB: “John Lewis has a unique place in the UK landscape – it’s admired and trusted. But there was a very clear problem – there was masses of trust, but not enough desire.. When you talked to people they say they love it and it’s fantastic, but they weren’t acting. So we thought, why don’t we try and tell and capture the feeling that customers have for the brand; the relationship.”

Craig Inglis, customer director at John Lewis: “I felt it was very powerful at that point as a storyline within the business. It felt like a sleeping giant of a brand… But it sells things that are inherently emotional – that you put in your home or that you wear. Always a Woman really did cause quite a stir when it broke.”

On the pressure to keep delivering ever since

Richard Brim, chief creative officer of adam&eveDDB: “The pressure is absolutely immense. There are two points to it; there’s the industry, but more importantly there’s the public. People start talking about it now – in the run up to it they start guessing the music, what it’s about, everyone you meet will suggest ideas and send letters. The biggest pressure is the fact that the country cares for it. It’s got this place of heralding the holiday season. When it drops, everyone is talking about it. That terrifies me. The industry I can deal with, but the public you can’t disagree with.

On the growth beyond just TV strategy

Inglis of John Lewis: “When we started in 2010 with Always a Woman, there was no social strategy, just a TV ad. Then we had the snowman [in The Journey], and started noticing social was playing a part. By the time we got to the Bear and the Hare [in 2013], we started doing products too. There was demand there. The purpose is not to over-commercialise it, or overleverage it, but we spend lots of time thinking about where else it can sit. We’ve extended into other areas like books, into stores and windows, we’ve had games and apps. That takes more effort than the film in a sense because we’ve got to keep it fresh for our audience and where they want to engage with it. That said, if we started with an idea that we can make merchandise from, we’d get it wrong – the idea of the ad still comes first.”

The Bear and the Hare campaign from John Lewis in 2013 included an audiobook
The Bear and the Hare campaign from John Lewis in 2013 included an audiobook

On the power of emotion

Brim of adam&eveDDB: “We’re very aware of the [power we’re working with]. There was a definite shift in the emotion we wanted to tap into last year with Buster the Boxer. With what was going on in the world, we realised maybe we needed to play with a different emotion; something a bit more fun and a bit more celebratory. It was a very conscious decision on that.”

Inglis of John Lewis: “We think very carefully about getting the right balance of hitting an emotional chord. We hold that tension very carefully. It can’t just be hype; it has to feel real. That is entirely instinct; there is no science to that.”

On competition and authenticity

Inglis of John Lewis: “[With five or six others now vying for best ad each Christmas], it’s certainly improved the quality of advertising in the UK, which can only be a good thing. There’s been some brilliant work done in the last few years. The key is that others don’t try and do ‘a John Lewis’ – it has to be a story that resonates; that’s true to their brand. [What we put out] has to be a reflection of what John Lewis as a business is. If it wasn’t, people would see through it.”

Murphy of adam&eveDDB: “You have to have certain values you can springboard off. You can’t perfume a pig.”

On the long-term effect on the business

Inglis of John Lewis: “[The Christmas campaign] drives the highest return of any of our marketing. We see profit of about £8 for every £1 spent. So it’s not just for fun, it’s commercial. But we also get an enduring impact; it rallies people within the business. It gets them excited and up for quite a long trading process. It has this corralling effect.”

By Rachel Arthur

Rachel Arthur is Editor-in-Chief of Current Daily, the leading news source for fashion, retail and innovation, and the co-host of its weekly Innovators podcast. She otherwise serves as Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Current Global, a transformation consultancy driving growth within fashion luxury and retail. By background she is an award-winning business journalist and consultant, contributing to titles including Wired, Forbes and Business of Fashion.

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