Strategists and creatives from Havas, Leith, McCann and Contrapunto BBDO reflect on the comforting power of familiarity at Christmas
Peak Christmas ad might already be behind us. It’s now nine years since adam&eveDDB won the John Lewis account and proceeded to redefine how brands behave in the festive season. Ever since, ad agencies have been scrambling to eclipse the British department store’s Yuletide dominance and ‘win Christmas’. It’s become an event on the advertising calendar - the pressure on agencies is intense, expectations from audiences are high and there’s a lot of noise to cut through.
But while some campaigns have tried to deliver unique jewels of festive brilliance, often falling short, many of the most resonant have stuck with what they know works at this time of the year - the reassuring cuddle of familiarity.
“Whilst summer is a time of adventure and opportunities, Christmas sits more naturally as a time of reflection, homecoming and familiarity,” says Clare Phayer, strategy director at Havas London, who this year told the third story of Heathrow airport’s adorable bear family in its Christmas commercial. “We’re drawn to people we know and surroundings we love, and we want to see that reflected back in the advertisements, sitcoms and films we watch. Psychologically it’s also the end of the year; a time when people feel the need to wind down and recharge ready to take on the new year. This is isn’t a time to be challenged or inspired to try something new.”
Chris Watson, deputy creative director at the Leith Agency recognises this too, as is clear from the agency’s sequel to 2006’s beloved ‘Snowman’ ad for Scottish fizzy drink Irn-Bru. It’s the latest addition to a canon of seasonal advertising that reassures us. “These ads feature characters people love and if you can keep their stories going, then that love is only going to grow,” he says. “Folk in Scotland look forward to the Snowman, they often say that Christmas doesn’t start until they have seen it. It would be daft to dump all that love and hard won appreciation to do something completely new for no reason.”
“Familiarity is powerful at any time of the year,” adds Darren Hawkins, strategy and insight director at McCann Manchester. If consumers are familiar with aspects brand’s advertising, they are far more able to attribute the message to the brand. Those aspects could be the structure, sonic branding, colour, spokesperson, line or jingle. Or, in the case of McCann’s brilliant seasonal story of Aldi’s Kevin the Carrot - now in its third year - a lovable character. “This matters even more at Christmas,” says Darren, “because of the weight of competitor activity in the retail sector is so high.”
There’s something more nuanced at work here though. Something that resonates with our humanity. “Familiarity doesn’t have to mean mundane. In fact, familiarity is where the greatest emotion can lie,” says Clare. Havas have twice had to find fresh new ways to return to their adorable furry family. “The challenge is to find the emotional hooks within familiarity that move people. Heathrow reunions are everything but everyday. Whilst 200,000 passengers pass through the airport doors every day, each moment is special and unique to them. That’s why it’s crucial for us to zoom in on the story of one family’s special moment rather than a broad sweep of reunions.”
Thankfully, there’s plenty of fuel for advertisers to stoke their Christmas fires with and keep us warm and cosy. There are heaps of emotions to latch onto around the festive season. The team at Havas know this. The arrivals hall at Heathrow airport is even a key location in ‘Love, Actually’ - one of the most cherished Christmas films, which begins with Hugh Grant’s monologue about the abundance of love there is to be seen there. So in a sense, the place itself represents Christmas for many people. “Heathrow is a unique place where emotive and memorable moments happen every day,” says Clare, echoing Hugh. “The arrivals hall at Heathrow is a symbolic place where people feel like they have made it home. Even if needing to travel further to see family and friends, our storylines always focus around this familiar moment of arrival. A moment that has been captured through the sharing of shortbread, a squeeze of the paws, or even warm embraces from the whole family to welcome them home.”
Kevin the Carrot was born from another ready-made package of emotion - the tradition of leaving Santa a whiskey and a mince pie with a carrot for Rudolph on Christmas eve. “The fact that carrots are so very ordinary and accessible made it a good fit for Aldi. The fact that no other supermarket brand had previously used one also recommended the idea,” says Darren. “Kevin’s anthropomorphic form was a key decision, enabling him to go on a fantastic adventure, creating jeopardy so that people could root for him (no apology for that one) and enjoy his redemption. In his second year this also enabled him to represent another key Christmas tradition, that of family.”
In Spain, the campaign that’s dominated Christmas advertising for years is ‘El Gordo’, the lottery draw that unites the country during the holidays. Recent campaigns for the Lotería de Navidad have warmed hearts around the world, each year telling the story of someone who almost misses out on the shared joy of a lottery win. From the charming animated nightwatchman Justino to this year’s Groundhog Day-esque tale of Juan, the framework is built around the unique charm of the lottery itself.
“The Christmas National Lottery Draw is not your usual lottery draw,” explains Carlos Jorge, general creative manager at Contrapunto BBDO, who created their first ad for the campaign this year having won the account from Leo Burnett. “Like any other Christmas lottery, people buy tickets because they want to win, but because of the way this draw works, you can share the winning number with hundreds of people: with your family, your workmates or the greengrocer where you do your shopping. This creates a dynamic whereby people don't say, ‘I hope I win’, rather ‘I hope we win’. The campaign is a reflection of what you feel when you play this lottery. We play together, sharing our dreams with those around us. I think that people feel reassured when they see the advertising, the values they experience when they play the Christmas Lottery.”
Rather than rip up a beloved national tradition, the lottery’s new agency continued what had worked for years: the message that the best prize is sharing the prize. “The agency may have changed, but the sharing aspect of the lottery’s positioning has not,” says Carlos. “Based on this, we had to find a story where that strong message would be transmitted by people you can identify with. However fantastical it was, it had to be a story that the audience felt could happen to them. If they didn’t identify with the character at all, the message would be less credible.”
In the societies that celebrate it, Christmas has become a time for shopping and consumerism, even wastefulness, Carlos admits, but this knowledge is what underpins the slice of familiar human warmth agencies like his serve up every year (in order to build brands and, ultimately, sell stuff). “Somehow, we need to cling to the idea that our lives and our societies have values,” he says. “I think that’s why emotional, positive and family-themed stories are so popular at Christmas. This is the time of year with the highest level of consumerism, which is why we like hearing that it is also a time full of transcendent values such as sharing and good deeds. We need a story with a moral to reveal the best of ourselves.”
Ultimately, familiarity is baked into Christmas. We settle down to watch the same films every year – or in the case of A Christmas Carol, we watch our favourite iterations of the same story. And whether you rise at 6am to rip off the wrapping paper or patiently wait until after lunch to sedately open presents, everyone has a very clear idea of how Christmas day ought to play out. So while bringing back the same characters might not always be the most original approach to Christmas advertising, it does tap into the spirit of the season.
“Christmas is a time of tradition and ritual,” Chris reminds us. “Whether it’s sitting down to a favourite family film, or gathering for a family occasion.” At this time of year we just want to go home to what we know and love and when advertising manages to do that too, it’s something like a Christmas miracle.