Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards

Why Disney’s Christmas Ad ‘The Stepdad’ Is a New Chapter for a Familiar Family

London, UK
Gregory Porter sings ‘Love Runs Deeper’ as Disney weaves a tale of togetherness in their 2021 Christmas advert that is packed with glimpses of favourites from Minnie Mouse to Frozen’s Elsa, writes Laura Swinton
It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas and family favourite Disney is spreading some of that cosy festive feeling with their new campaign. The Stepdad is a heartwarming tale that draws on the brand's history of emotional storytelling and adds a new chapter to a relatable family saga.

This year’s campaign builds on 2020’s tale of Nicole and her grandmother, which clocked up 106 million views. In the new outing, Nicole is older and has two children of her own - and the family is sharing its first Christmas with new stepdad Mike. Revisiting Nicole creates what’s known as a ‘fluid device’ and it’s an approach that creates familiarity for viewers (you can read more about that here) - but while last year’s campaign had a pang of loneliness, this year’s campaign is all about togetherness. Many families across EMEA were not able to gather in 2020, so this festive season Disney is leaning into a sense of excitement around being able to spend quality in-person time with loved ones.

This year, the ad centres around a special storybook and new stepdad Mike’s attempts to join the family’s festive traditions as well as building new traditions. As with the 2020 campaign there are several nods to Nicole’s Filipino heritage - as well as plenty of references to famous Disney characters. There’s a soulful song from Gregory Porter, and money raised from the single will go to charity Make-A-Wish. Disney’s ties to the foundation are woven into the spot itself - eagle-eyed viewers will spot contributions from two children whose wish was to become an animator. Disney will also be raising money for the charity via sales of an iceskating Minnie Mouse toy featured in the film.

The campaign was developed and produced by Disney EMEA’s in-house creative team, led by Angela Affinita, Director of Brand Marketing and Creative, in partnership with Flux Animation Studios in New Zealand and story consultants, POCC.

Joss Hastings is Vice President, Marketing and Communications, Disney Consumer Products, Games and Publishing in EMEA. Here she talks about the strategy, magic and music behind this year’s tale of togetherness.

LBB> What was the strategic brief behind this year’s festive campaign?

 Joss> The brief was to create a high impact campaign that would cut through in a competitive Christmas market and really leverage the power of our brands to connect with a broad audience.

 Our strategic framework is consistent with last year – an emotive brand spot to engage audiences and drive share of voice, a commercial campaign featuring all of the key product SKUs across our franchises, and a flexible retail toolkit to maximise participation from our partners.

 We also wanted to ensure that we supported our charity Make-A-Wish® in an even bigger way this year by driving increased awareness of their brilliant work, as well as providing funds.


LBB> Last Christmas was certainly odd in the UK and across the world, and I’m sure we’re far from being ‘back to normal’. In this context, it would seem that there’s a huge role for Disney to play with its sense of magic, delight and emotion, not to mention the role that Disney+ and various properties have played in helping us through the difficult times. How much has this sense of purpose played into your holiday campaign in general terms?

Joss> The opportunity to bring a bit of magic to families has been front and centre through the development of the campaign. Both in terms of the story we chose to tell and the partnership with Make-A-Wish®.

The festive period is such an important time for families, and this year feels more pertinent than ever. It is a real chance for loved ones to come together after nearly two years of upheaval. Families also told us that they want to prioritise time together even more this year because of the positive contribution it makes to their overall well-being.

As with last year, the theme of family bonds runs throughout our campaign.

At its core, this advert is about Disney storytelling – how precious reading together can be, and how stories can ignite imagination and wonder, creating magic moments that lift off from the pages. We know that reading and sharing stories is a tradition that crosses generations, be that parents reading bedtime stories, or kids reading under the covers by torchlight. Research shows that during the Holidays even more emphasis is placed on this tradition. It was something we wanted to celebrate.

LBB> This campaign story is a follow on, of sorts, from last year’s story, featuring Nicole. Why did you want to have that sense of continuity?

 Joss> Last year was the first time that our consumer products business had developed a Holiday campaign on this scale and we were delighted with the response. Our characters Lola and her granddaughter were warmly received by so many, but especially the Filipino community and we were thrilled by the positive reaction. We saw an opportunity early in the development process to build on last year whilst telling a story that stood in its own right for anyone that hadn’t seen Lola.

Audiences meet a now grown-up Nicole and her two children, Max and Ella, as their stepdad Mike moves in. This year’s advert tells the story of a blended family learning more about each other, combining existing festive traditions and creating new ones together.


LBB> And from a creative point of view, what was it like revisiting the story and the characters? What was your starting point in figuring out where to take the story next?

Joss> Our in-house creative team has been delighted to evolve these characters. The starting point is always consumer insight and as I mentioned, that was the importance of family togetherness and magic storytelling. The story starts from there…


LBB> Last year’s film was so emotional and I’m sure this year’s will have a strong emotional catharsis too - how does the in-house creative draw from Disney’s history of emotionally satisfying storytelling in order to tell stories for the campaigns?

Joss> It was really important that we brought the heritage of Disney storytelling to the campaign – telling an emotionally satisfying story that would connect with audiences all over the world was exactly the challenge we set ourselves. We want our consumers to feel a connection however they interact with the campaign – be that watching the advert, or seeing the creative when they shop with one of our partners.


LBB> Disney has a wealth of characters and properties to draw from, so I’m really curious to learn about the strategic reasoning behind developing this other family of characters for the festive advertising. Does it bring the consumers closer to Disney by creating a family that’s more part of ‘our world’ than the fantastic? Or does it give you greater freedom?

Joss> Creating a new family allowed us to showcase the connection that they have with our different characters and franchises through the story in an authentic way. Audiences will see moments celebrating different franchises including Marvel, Star Wars, Disney Princess and Frozen woven through the story from the kids playing with lightsabers, to making an Olaf inspired snowman.

While this advert focuses on the story of one family, we hope families will recognise the interaction with our stories and between characters from their own personal experiences.


LBB> What were the most interesting creative and production challenges of this campaign?

Joss> We have partnered once again with the award-winning Flux Animation, based in New Zealand. A total of 16 animators worked on this advert.

What made this year's campaign so interesting was the combination of classical 2D animation intertwined with 3D to bring our nostalgic and iconic characters into a cutting-edge 3D landscape.

To bridge the gap between these animation styles we used visual effects that helped bring the magic to life and feel visually cohesive. We utilised various forms of animation expertise including 2D Cell Animation, 2D Toonboom Animation, 3D Maya Animation, Houdini Visual Effects, Yeti Grooms, Marvellous Designer Cloth and multiple local and cloud-based rendering networks. 

LBB> There’s an interesting musical element to the campaign, with an original soundtrack performed by Gregory Porter. Can you tell me why Gregory Porter was the right choice for the campaign and what the original soundtrack brings to the whole campaign?

Joss> The advert is aimed at a global audience, so in lieu of any dialogue, the soundtrack provides the backbone to the story. The song is also almost exclusively a narration told from Mike’s point of view and we worked with Disney Music Group to commission rostered song-writers PARKWILD and Grammy Award-winning Dewain Whitmore Junior, who penned the lyrics to Love Runs Deeper.

 We knew we wanted a voice that would bring warmth and richness to Mike’s character, so we are delighted that the incredible award-winning jazz performer, Gregory Porter, agreed to partner with us.

He put his own stamp on the track and we are really proud to have released it as our charity single in support of Make-A-Wish® International. For every download before 31 December 2021, 100% of the proceeds from the retail price will be donated to Make-A-Wish International, to help grant life-changing wishes.


LBB> Can you talk me through the media strategy - how are you leveraging different channels and platforms?

Joss> Our media strategy for From Our Family To Yours “The Stepdad” is digital-first. The three minute animated short lends itself to that platform and it makes up the majority of our media strategy. We will host it on our social channels, predominantly YouTube and Facebook, as well as running the ad across TV and Disney’s owned channels.

It will be available in 45 countries across Europe, North America, South America and Asia.

 The campaign includes a number of commercial spots that will feature priority products, using the same characters, music and creative as the brand ad, running across TV and digital.

We have also created bespoke brand content for a number of our key partners including Pandora, Vodafone and Primark featuring our family and authentic product integrations.


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