Arron Child

In the words of Meredith Wilson, “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” And you know what that means – it’s time for retailers and brands to roll out their festive ad campaigns. With these big ticket campaigns increasingly becoming a highlight of the creative calendar, we take a look an in-depth look at some of the best Christmas ads and explain what makes them so effective.

Recipe for success

Christmas is one of the peak advertising periods of the year. With lots of advertisers joining the fray, successful ads achieve three critical things:

  • Place brands front of mind
  • Create or strengthen an emotional connection
  • Signal the quality and size of the brand to the market.
1. Increasing brand saliency

Achieving brand saliency (the degree to which your brand is associated with a buying situation) at Christmas can be make or break for many brands.

Coca-Cola is synonymous with Christmas by design, not accident. Strictly speaking Coca-Cola didn’t invent Santa but it speaks volumes to the brand association that many believe they did.

Christmas is one of the happiest times of the year; we’ve got time off, we’re surrounded by loved ones, most of us give and receive presents, and there’s generally plenty of food and drink. It makes sense for a brand with a slogan ‘Open happiness’ to want to be associated with this occasion.

So, in the 1920s Coca-Cola started creating Christmas ads that often featured Santa enjoying a Coca-Cola. Years of repeated exposure to these ads whilst being aided by the colours of Santa matching those of Coca-Cola have weaved the association between the brand and Christmas together so much so that many believe that Christmas hasn’t started until they see the Coca-Cola ad.

Being woven into the Christmas narrative is great for brand saliency, as the flurry of Christmas activity and Santa displays have the potential to trigger thoughts of Coca-Cola. Here is the iconic Coca Cola Christmas ad “Holidays are coming”:

2. Let’s get emotional

The work of Les Binet and Peter Fields has led to an understanding that emotional ads outperform rational ads in every single business metric. There are a range of emotions that can be utilised by brands, particularly around Christmas. Since emotions are integral, let’s take a look at some of the different emotions that brands utilise to form that valuable emotional connection with people.

Making a Christmas tearjerker

John Lewis has been brilliantly creating highly emotional Christmas ads for over a decade. At the risk of over simplifying things, John Lewis Christmas ads are typically characterised by three things; a story of how a gift overcomes a feeling of being left out, high production quality and a highly emotional soundtrack. The critical element that I want to focus on is the emotion.

John Lewis ads use a range of emotions expertly; happiness, sadness and humour. Pixar storyteller Mathew Luhn explains, “what makes a great story is when you go from one chemical (happiness) to the next one (sadness), up and down, repeatedly.”

John Lewis follow this guide to perfection, oscillating from happiness to sadness to build the struggle that must be overcome. Humour is injected for relief, before resolving the struggling and leaving the audience on a high (and quite often in tears).

If you haven’t seen the 2019 John Lewis and partners ad featuring Edgar, here it is:

Getting sentimental

Christmas and nostalgia go hand in hand, we can’t help but take a trip down memory lane during the festive season. Many of us have rituals that remind us of the joys of Christmas past, like watching Love Actually every year, or driving around town to check out Christmas decorations.

It’s the comfort and familiarity of reflecting on past times that generate positive emotional reactions that Coles has tried to bottle and weave into this year’s Christmas ad. The ad showcases Christmas footage taken from the past 100 years and finishes with Curtis Stone thanking Australia for letting Coles be part of Christmas for the past 100 years. Splicing footage from yesteryear with modern day footage is a sure fire way to make people feel nostalgic but I would question whether this creative execution forms as strong an emotional connection as the tearjerking John Lewis ad, due to the lack of story and lack of payoff.

Transport yourself back in time with the Coles Christmas ad:


Carlton Dry have taken a different approach to Christmas advertising, going for humour by creating a Christmas parody song. Humour is a high risk, high reward strategy as you run the risk of a joke falling flat, but content thought to be hilarious has a high chance of being shared and remembered according to the research of Dr Karen Nelson-Field. Most brands will tug on the heart-strings, as evidenced above, in one way or another, so going after humour automatically separates Carlton Dry from the pack. Carlton Dry have further positioned the brand away from others by claiming the song was produced to save people from only hearing Mariah Carey and Michael Bublé over Christmas.

From a scientific point of view, laughter makes us feel good as endorphins are released into the human brain and thus creates a positive emotional connection between the brand and the audience.

3. Send me a signal

Our last reason for the investment in creative and airtime at Christmas is signal theory. The theory comes from animal behaviour to signal strength.  For example, young Springbok (can you tell I’ve just come back from a trip to South Africa?) jump as high as they can, to send a signal to the leopard stalking them in the grass that they are young and fit and hard to catch so the leopard shouldn’t bother.

The theory is demonstrated by marketers when they spend significant budgets on creative and high production values and mass media distribution, signalling that their brand successful and therefore bought by a lot of others and can be trusted.

Myer advertising on the side of a building last year is a great example of signal theory in action.

These lessons are for life, not just for Christmas. Whilst we’ve taken a look at this through a Christmas lens, these lessons work for ads year round. We’ve looked through the lens of Christmas to make this blog contextually relevant for you and to increase cut-through.

Feel free to contact me to chat about how you can make your marketing work harder.

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