Nostalgic Christmas ads might be a thing of the past

bear and hare banner

Another year brings another fanfare as mid-Autumn ads from the big brands are rolled out to entice consumers to spend big both in-store and online this Christmas.

Last year we had Debenhams highlighting its elegant clothing, M&S taking us down the rabbit hole, and of course – who can forget – John Lewis’ Bear and the Hare. Christmas ads inevitably form part of the national psyche in the run-up to the festive period, so it’s crucial that brands get it right. It’s a huge opportunity to connect with and reach consumers at a time when their attention turns to budgeting for Christmas.

The best Christmas ads can warm consumers to a brand by harnessing the emotional attachment many people have with the period. However, get it wrong and you risk being remembered for all the wrong reasons long after the decorations have come down. So what do I think we can expect this year?

Whilst it’s difficult to predict with certainty how brands will approach their ads each Christmas, it’s been noticeable that in the last couple of years there’s been brands that have played safe and brands that have pushed the boat out and taken risks.

In 2012, the likes of Sainsbury’s, M&S and Tesco played it safe with product-focused ads. By contrast, Morrisons and Asda ran extraordinarily similar ads which critics felt reinforced gender stereotypes about Mums doing all the work at Christmas. Asda’s alone prompted 620 complaints to the ASA.

Perhaps owing to this backlash, both Morrisons and Asda ran pared down ads in 2013, and it was Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s turn to run similarly themed campaigns. Both focused on family at Christmas time, and both were decidedly saccharine.

However in 2014, we’re facing a significantly more challenged retail market than even a year ago, and brands have to reflect this in their advertising campaigns.

According to the British Retail Consortium (BRC), sales were down 0.8% in September 2014 compared with 2013 on a total basis. The BRC also recently announced that September showed an annual drop of 0.2% on the amount people spent on food.

Consumer confidence is high – Barclaycard said total spending on UK debit/credit cards rose 4.8% in September – it’s just that consumers will no longer tolerate feeling ripped off. They want the best deals and though a glitzy ad might entertain, it won’t necessarily be enough to get people in-store if the value or shopping experience isn’t worthwhile.

I therefore expect to see a little less glamour, perhaps fewer celebrities and a little more humility. John Lewis has already set this scene by apologising for the hype surrounding last year’s advert.

If the ads match the current retail climate, this could be the year for managing or resetting consumer expectations. With Tesco in freefall, grocery in general fighting a case for value against the disruptors of Aldi and Lidl, and more shoppers comparing prices online whilst in-store, it’s likely many Christmas ads will target cost-conscious shoppers.

It’s a tricky one for grocers like Sainsbury’s and Tesco to negotiate, as by continuing to slash prices to compete with the budget supermarkets, to many it may seem like they’ve knowingly overcharged for years. Something which is in direct contrast to John Lewis’ “Never knowingly undersold” tagline.

It seems likely that many brands will put the sentimental and nostalgic journeys they’ve taken us on over the past couple of Christmases to one side. Instead there will be a renewed focus placed on showing consumers they really do understand their needs when negotiating Christmas on a budget and have real value to offer all this festive period.

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