Christmas Marketing: What Can We Learn From The Big Brands?

Christmas Marketing: What Can We Learn From The Big Brands?

Christmas marketing has shifted from product and service-based messaging. Forget overly salesy campaigns, it’s time to replace them with emotive, multiplatform experiences. Don’t believe me? Watch the biggest Christmas adverts from the last few years and tell me I’m wrong.

Brands are gradually moving away from peddling products to customers in their advertising efforts. Why? Because they have realised that marketing is all about selling relationships.

In the days of online shopping and next-day delivery, people are constantly looking for cheaper and more convenient ways to shop. Luxury retailers such as John Lewis and Marks and Spencer know this, but dropping their prices to that of discount stores such as Lidl and Aldi goes completely against their branding and reputation. So, how do they continue to attract customers? By selling the relationship and experience you get from shopping with them; by adding value elsewhere.

The main aim of most big-budget marketing campaigns is not to attract one-off, first-time buyers; it’s to find and nurture lifetime buyers. To do this, you need to approach your marketing content from a different angle: one built from evoking an emotive response; one that sells the relationship between brand and customer.

This relationship is evident in modern Christmas marketing campaigns, so much so that people anticipate and speculate what the big retailers are going to do each year months in advance. This is no happy accident. This sort of buzz only occurs over time with a patient and meticulous approach. Each year, brands pump a huge amount of money and time into thinking of the perfect campaign to stand out from the crowd.

Making the unskippable advert

Many households have the ability to skip through the adverts on television now – through the likes of Virgin Media, Sky+ and On Demand services – so how do brands make sure their adverts are worth sticking around for? By making them memorable for each individual viewer.

This is where the aforementioned emotive aspect comes into play. People no longer want to hear the typical salesy messaging; they want value. The perfect advert is one that creates the impression it is speaking directly to each individual user; one that sells the unique relationship and experience they can only get from the brand being advertised.

Here’s a challenge: watch the next set of adverts wedged in between the first and second part of your favourite TV series and see if you can guess what is being advertised within the first five seconds of each advert. Most of the time, you won’t be able to. This is because brands are now aware that people don’t actually like being sold to. Instead, they want to be told a story that takes them on a journey. Once an advertiser believes they have done that – that they have successfully sucked the viewer in – they’ll reveal their identity at the end. At this point, the viewer has an emotional connection with the brand, whether that’s one of laughter, empathy, love, or tears, does not necessarily matter.

Christmas Marketing Competition

Never has there been more competition for sales and advertising space as there is now; this means there is a tremendous amount of pressure to stand out from the crowd. To get it right, so to speak. Every year, the big brands are having to compete with one other, as well as top their previous efforts, in order to remain at the forefront of people’s minds over the festive period.

Let’s take a look at this year’s most-talked-about Christmas adverts: you may learn a thing or two!

2018 Christmas Marketing – The Big Adverts


What makes Christmas, Christmas?” Holly Willoughby asks at the beginning of Marks and Spencer’s 2018 festive advertisement. Immediately, this pulls the viewer in, addressing them directly with a question that gets them thinking about their own experiences of Christmas, a time for love, family and generosity.

The advert then takes the viewer through the pillars of Christmas, demonstrating that they understand their customers: what they like, what they do, and who they do it with. While it subliminally promotes M&S products on the screen, it never explicitly mentions the brand until the final few seconds.

John Lewis

Similarly to Marks and Spencer, John Lewis decided to put a well-known British celebrity at the forefront of their festive campaign. The video starts with global superstar Elton John sat alone at a piano in his festively decorated living room, an intimate image that instantly draws the viewer in.

The advert continues this level of intimacy by taking the viewer on an emotional journey, guiding them through Elton John’s life – the concerts, tours and behind-the-scenes dressing room footage – right back to the moment he was given the piano for Christmas as a young child.

Using the piano as a focal point to beautifully tie everything together, John Lewis’s Christmas ad ends sombrely with the same scene of the now-71-year-old Elton John playing the instrument. This, of course, implies that without such a perfect gift, all of the magic the viewer just witnessed may not have happened.

This advert has no voiceover or sales messaging. It just lets the music and imagery do the talking. It is no coincidence that the song playing throughout is Elton John’s Your Song, with lyrics such as “My gift is my song and this one’s for you” striking a chord with the audience.

Despite the absence of an explicit sales message, viewers are inspired to buy their loved ones a gift so special, such as the piano in the advert, that it stays with the recipient throughout their lives. Where do they look first for what the advert describes as “more than just a gift”? Check out the last 3 seconds of the advertisement to find out…


Who can’t help but smile at a kids’ Christmas nativity? The Sainsbury’s Christmas advert sparks an immediate emotive response among parents, many of whom will have already experienced something similar with their own children: watching as their young ones give “the performance of their lives” as Sainsbury’s say in the caption of the YouTube video.

Again, Sainsbury’s is depicting an experience, one that evokes various emotions including pride, laughter, excitement, and even nerves. When the little girl first starts singing, you find yourself willing her on, very much like the mother in the advert, but as soon as she blasts out that first note and is joined on stage by her classmates, you feel a sense of pride and joy, even if you don’t even have children of your own.

This is a very clever advert and it is no wonder it has been one of the most talked about in 2018. The production ends on a similar note to the John Lewis one, with the star of the show’s final lyric: “We only get what we give“, followed by the caption: “We give all we’ve got for the ones we love” before ending with the Sainsbury’s logo.

No products are mentioned. No offers. Just the story of a girl “giving all she’s got” for her mother. There is an underlying message to put your all into getting the perfect gift for your loved ones at Sainsbury’s, but it is not thrown at the viewers, who are instead encouraged to see the value of the relationship the brand has with its customers.


This year, the most talked-about and highly praised Christmas advert never actually aired on television. That’s right, I’m talking about Rang-tan, the adorable orangutan who finds herself at the front of Iceland’s Christmas 2018 campaign.

Iceland relied on the relationship it has built with its customers, as well as the emotional responsibility of viewers, to get their story in front of as many people as possible after it was banned by Clearcast on the grounds of it being too politically charged. The advert was still launched online, alongside Iceland’s plea: “Will you help us share the story?

Partnering with Greenpeace, Iceland pulls at the viewer’s heartstrings by using the fictional story of Rang-tan to raise awareness of the effects deforestation (specifically from the use of palm oil) is having on orangutans. “Dedicated to the 25 orangutans we lose every day,” the advert states, before detailing Iceland’s boycott of palm oil products.

Not once does Iceland try and sell the viewer one of its products. Instead, it uses its pulling power to promote itself as a company that cares about the world; that it is not a faceless, corporate identity, but a team of humans trying to do some good. This advert, despite its ban (arguably even because of it), has done wonders for Iceland’s public relations, gaining international media coverage and becoming a huge talking public point.

Multiplatform Marketing Experiences

Adverts are no longer a one-way conversation. Gone are the days of seeing a promotion on television and that being the end of it. Thanks to the arrival and accessibility of the digital world, brands can now create a multiplatform experience with their marketing.

What starts with a television advert then spreads to social media messaging and website content. The user can then head in store and see the same messaging, fictional characters and visual content and products they saw in the original advert. The tables have completely turned in some cases, with marketing campaigns such as Moz the Monster influencing the products sold in-store.

christmas marketing

Each Facebook advert, tweet, hashtag and YouTube video is a friendly nudge from the brand to its customers; a warm hug that reminds viewers that John Lewis is there for them when they need it. Every step, every touchpoint, meets the brand’s audience where they spend most of their time (online, watching television, driving past a billboard), furthering the relationship and continuing to build value.

The value of extending your marketing across multiple platforms is exemplified by the incredible YouTube figures and widespread use of hashtags online. The Iceland advert, for instance, has had a whopping 5.7 million views on YouTube, while thousands upon thousands have used the campaign’s #NoPalmOilChristmas on Twitter. Still not impressed? What if I told you the John Lewis advert has had over 12 million views in just four weeks?

A perfect example of advertisements evolving into inclusive experiences is the infamous Coca-Cola Christmas truck advert. Not only have Coca-Cola cemented this campaign as one of the key symbols of Christmas, but they now offer a tour across the country that allows customers to visit and take pictures with the truck!

Pander to Your Audience

When creating a campaign – whether it’s for Christmas, Easter or summer – remember to sell the relationship you have with your customers or clients. It’s vital, when looking to evoke that perfect emotive response from your viewers, that you pander to your target market.

Take Aldi, for example. They understand their audience perfectly and know that content echoing the above examples from John Lewis and Marks and Spencer would not work for them. What do they do instead? They choose to mock the bigger brands, undercutting them in the exact same manner they do with their prices. Check out their recent Christmas campaigns that poke fun at Coca-Cola and John Lewis to see what I mean.

Sell Your Story!

If you met someone and all they did was try and sell to you, you’d soon walk away. Remind yourself of this when conjuring up your marketing content. It’s so easy to switch off or fast-forward your television, to continue scrolling on your laptop or mobile phone’s feed, and that’s exactly what users will do if all you do is sell to them. Add value and sell your story!

Oliver Wilkinson
Knapton Wright