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What marks the start of Christmas for you? The Christmas lights’ switch-on? Festive cups appearing in coffee shops? Cracking open your advent calendar? For us marketing geeks (and many others) it’s the launch of the John Lewis Christmas advert.
Over the last decade, John Lewis has kickstarted a trend for heart-warming, tear-jerking Christmas ads, portraying itself as the best in the business at making us all blub over the mince pies. It’s become a national cultural phenomenon, uniting people across the country marking a point in the calendar when we can allow ourselves to feel a little bit Christmassy.
But with great success comes huge expectations – ‘What will the story be?’, ‘What song will be used and who will cover it?’, and for some reason, this year’s offering featuring Elton John has fallen flat with lots of people on social media.
As an agency with campaign analysis as part of our offering, we wanted to discover why it provoked such strong reactions in people, so we used Brandwatch to dive into the conversation, enabling us to develop a few pointers on how they could combat these reactions.
For many, the John Lewis advert is a key part of their Christmas season:

“Best thing about Christmas”

“Actually can’t wait for the Christmas market, the john lewis advert, costa cups, sitting by the fire with a hot chocolate watching the polar express and listening to Christmas music.”

Some people feel so strongly that they declared “Christmas is cancelled” when the ad disappointed them. It is at the very heart of conversation about the start of Christmas, with lots of hype and expectation surrounding it:

“Absolutely hyped for the John Lewis Christmas ad”

“Can’t wait to be flooding with tears when John Lewis release their advert”

“John Lewis Christmas advert launches this week…So happy! But….I really wish I could stop myself from compulsively trawling social media for spoilers – only to spoil it for myself when it does finally appear!”

The ad is also at the centre of conversation about Christmas adverts, both from consumers and those working in the industry, sparking parodies from individuals and brands alike.
As one individual joked on Twitter:

“2018 brand managers: ‘What’s our John Lewis Christmas ad reactive strategy?’”

As Lidl’s offering shows, brands aren’t just prepping for Christmas, they are strategising comms to respond to John Lewis.
The ad also engages people from lots of demographics, with a 50/50 gender split on Twitter and conversation (whether positive or negative) spread across all significant population centres in the UK. It genuinely unites the whole nation.

Source: Brandwatch

Source: Brandwatch

The hype even extends well beyond the UK’s borders:

“the best thing about John Lewis at Christmas is the lovely man with that name who politely deals with thousands of misguided tweets each year”

This ‘lovely man’ is based in the US and took part this year in Twitter UK’s own Christmas ad, showing the power and reach both of John Lewis and of social media.
Rather than inspiring widespread admiration, this year’s ad this year was polarising:

“Am I the only one that thinks the new John Lewis advert is absolute rubbish?

“Am I the only one who actually loves the John Lewis Christmas advert this year???”

There was a surprising number of negative comments, including numerous complaints that it is an advert for Elton John (rather than John Lewis) and that it’s not Christmassy enough, with many also pointing out that John Lewis don’t even sell pianos:

“Lovely piece of film, the direction and production on it is fantastic. But the line is boring and generic and feels more like an Elton John advert than a John Lewis ad.”

“As a advert for say an Elton John book, John Lewis’ ad is perfect, but for Xmas? Not for me! It plays into this notion that you can be whatever you want to be if you work hard! But there’s a million potentially better songwriters than Elton whose mum can afford a piano…”

“Just seen the John Lewis 2018 Christmas advert & what a contradiction. Lyrics “I don’t have much money” & “I know it’s not much but it’s the best I can do” yet ‘stocking fillers’ are £50-£100 & main presents £200+. Really reflecting working class”

There was a feeling among some commentators on social that the ad lacked authenticity. So why didn’t it work, and how could it have been improved?
In recent years, the focus of Christmas ads (and John Lewis’ in particular) has been on telling a heart-warming, and frequently tear-jerking, story.
On the surface, John Lewis has succeeded at doing that this year. The story is inspiring and emotional. A child receives a Christmas present that sets him on a path for a fantastic career and wonderful life experiences. The song accompanying the ad can be seen as a tribute or a gift to the mum who encouraged his dreams, by being there for his school performances and buying him a piano.
It lifts gift giving away from pure commercialism towards something genuinely meaningful and important. Presents at Christmas – as communicated here – aren’t about accumulating lots of things that get thrown away or hidden at the back of a cupboard, but they can be genuine, life-changing expressions of love.
The story itself is therefore anti-commercial, authentic, focused on love at Christmas (vs promotion) and inspirational, showing relatable success.
However, the advert itself questions this interpretation. Their celebrity ambassador is hugely successful and is known to be on a farewell tour as well as releasing a biopic in early 2019. The fact that the majority of screen time is given over to shots of his past career makes the ad seem like an advert for this greatest hits tour, suggesting that it has a commercial, promotional focus. It could also be seen as inauthentic – John Lewis don’t sell traditional pianos and the shots of Elton John in the past are with actors, rather than archive shots. This casts doubt on the authenticity of the story as a whole.
This clash leads to confusion about the meaning of the advert, which could be why reactions to it are so polarised. The emotional meaning of the story has been undermined.

It’s important to note that some reaction to the campaign was hugely positive. So what could John Lewis do to encourage these positive reactions to the campaign and reduce the negative? We’ve highlighted potential strategies which John Lewis could employ (or are already employing) to take this forward.

  1. A Sense of Humour: The Waitrose Approach

In a stroke of marketing savvy, John Lewis’ partner, Waitrose, put out an advert showing a couple fast-forwarding the John Lewis Christmas advert, accompanied by the strapline “Too Good To Wait”. They also discussed which advert from previous years was their favourite (“the one with the penguin”).
The couple, by responding to John Lewis ads and discussing which one is their favourite, are mimicking conversations happening online. This is relatable for the general public. It also shows that John Lewis and its wider corporate family understand the ad’s position as a cultural phenomenon, but they aren’t taking this too seriously.
By playing the two ads off against each other, both Waitrose and John Lewis have been portrayed as being able to laugh at themselves. This also gives greater visibility to both ads, provoking conversations about them on social media and making them more memorable in the minds of the audience.

  1. The Emotional Hook

Source: Brandwatch

The John Lewis ad provokes a strong emotional reaction among consumers on Twitter, as seen by the range of emotions expressed in the above emoji cloud. People on Twitter desperately want the advert to be highly emotional – they want it to make them cry and they want it to make them feel Christmassy:

“John Lewis advert is out soon and I want that ad to have me in tears like there’s no tomorrow I wanna ball my eyes out n then wanna buy decorations”

“Some adverts are more than just an advert. This is excellent and has made my Christmas. I can’t wait to go into John Lewis and feel Christmassy”

There was an emotional hook in the strapline right at the end of the ad – “Some gifts are more than just a gift”. This emotion could be dialled up in other comms surrounding the advert. John Lewis could produce social media content emphasising the idea that gifts can be life-changing expressions of love.
For example, what products do John Lewis sell that can inspire or encourage children in a similar way to the piano? John Lewis could also do this for adults, whether this is encouraging career aspirations or hobbies. After all, it’s never too late! This should be done with a light touch, to avoid the danger of pushing products too hard.
3. Taking the Inspiration Further
Through our research, we discovered a number of conversations where people were sharing stories of when they had received or given gifts that inspired them or their children to achieve:

“#tbt as John Lewis have released their Christmas advert, it seems only fitting to share this picture of me, which I guess must be the first picture of me in my dancing uniform aged 3”

“Bought my lad a piano at 17 yrs old..self-taught & within 2 years good enough to be accepted at uni to do a classical music degree. Now not saying he is THIS good but the new John Lewis Xmas advert made me emotional”

“Seriously a stunning advert! The look on the young boy’s face at the end reminds me of my daughter’s when she saw her clarinet for the first time. The power of music”

This is happening organically, with people responding to the advert, engaging with the meaning and sharing their own, personal stories that support the emotional hook of the advert. Some of these have been retweeted by John Lewis themselves. This is one of the benefits of social media listening, allowing you to see how people are engaging with your campaigns
For John Lewis, sharing these posts emphasises the authenticity of the advert, by showing real stories of people engaging with the idea that a gift is more than just a gift. John Lewis could further encourage this organic storytelling by asking people online to share their experiences of life-changing gift-giving at Christmas.

So, will this negativity really affect John Lewis’ position as the pinnacle of Christmas ads? It’s too soon to tell, but as one astute commentator noted on social media:

“John Lewis have really mastered the art of marketing a feeling. All marketing relies on tapping into human emotion but the John Lewis Christmas advert is the epitome of that.

John Lewis’ continued success with Christmas ads will, ultimately, depend on their ability to market this feeling to consumers. This could perhaps be to make them cry, but perhaps more importantly, will be to make them feel Christmassy.
The strategies outlined above could help John Lewis to dial up the emotional impact of their advert for those who were sceptical of it initially.
For any brand that wants to engage consumers, social media listening can provide an insight into campaigns. By fusing our expertise with both quantitative and qualitative insight, we can assess not only how successful your campaigns are, but also why they’re successful. For a bespoke analysis of your brand campaigns, get in touch with us @DI_Insights.
The analytics for this research were powered by Brandwatch.
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