There are few UK brands around today that epitomise Christmas in the way that John Lewis does. To say that the company’s annual brand marketing film is synonymous with Christmas is an understatement. Each release has become a cultural event in and of itself, attracting national media attention and generating countless gigabytes of shares, commentary, debate, memes and spin-offs on social media. In this article, Evelyn Timson, explores the John Lewis effect, what it can tell us about brand marketing and what UK businesses can learn from it.
The Evolution of a Christmas Phenomenon
When many of think of John Lewis Christmas advertising, most of us can probably name a specific example that we consider represents the advent of this cultural phenomena. It might be the hare and the hound or it could be the man in the moon. The point to remember here though is that the company has been honing their nostalgic and emotionally powerful Christmas advertising campaigns for some time. Brand marketing like this isn’t born – it evolves over time.
First things first then. Let’s remind ourselves of that heart tugging advertising by taking a look back at some of it. Below are YouTube links to all the company’s Christmas TV ads going back ten years (warning: some of this content may bring a tear to your eye).
- 2008 – From me to you
- 2009 – Sweet Child o’ Mine
- 2010 – A Tribute to Givers
- 2011 – The Long Wait
- 2012 – The Journey
- 2013 – The Bear and the Hare
- 2014 – Monty the Penguin
- 2015 – Man on the Moon
- 2016 – Buster the Boxer
- 2017 – Moz the Monster
Whilst there are distinct similarities and trends, it’s also possible to see how the company has refined and tailored its approach over the years. Campaign mag, has some nice analysis to accompany this (up to 2015).
Popular Culture and the John Lewis Brand Identity
At the heart of John Lewis’s brand marketing are simple but resonant messages around familiar Christmas themes such as family, friendship, giving, childhood and even (for a brief spell in 2015 anyway) loneliness and isolation. Whilst these messages are simple to distil they’re pretty difficult to replicate and that’s because John Lewis’s brand identity is intricately and intimately tied up with public perception and popular culture, both of which are constantly shifting concepts.
What makes John Lewis stand out is that at some point their Christmas advertising has stopped responding to popular culture and has instead begun to influence it. Whilst there are many examples in brand marketing of emotionally powerful content that attracts huge acclaim and exposure, John Lewis seems to have transcended this by creating something akin to a national event. To have achieved this, the company has done two things and done them very well.
The first is creating a distinct brand identity. Brand identity can be reduced to a series of characteristics (jovial and playful, the approachable everyman, corporate and professional, you get the idea) but like human personalities, endearing brand identities are nuanced and rounded. John Lewis’s Christmas advertising can be seen as representing this personality but in no way are they formulaic or similar. Each is a different reflection of a single brand identity and this makes them feel more heartfelt and real.
The second thing John Lewis has excelled at is being different. It’s easy to look at John Lewis’s TV ads now and see them as part of a wider trend of emotive Christmas advertising but it’s John Lewis that did it first. Leading the way like this requires bold decision making at the corporate level. Traditional branding and marketing appeals have been demoted and the artistry and subtlety of emotional storytelling has been put at the fore. Allowing artistic freedom to exist within the confines of a corporate framework isn’t easy for a company the size of John Lewis but they’ve pulled it off.
What can John Lewis teach the UK’s smaller businesses?
It’s unlikely that any smaller company is going to replicate the John Lewis effect but there are a lot of lessons that can be learnt. These aren’t a framework for success and every company should develop an identity that reflects what they do and what they are about (for many businesses creating advertising about a little boy and his pet penguin would massively miss the mark).
There are some useful observations that we can pick up from John Lewis’s Christmas advertising though that can potentially be applied in many instances.
John Lewis has tapped into the childlike excitement we’ve all once felt for Christmas by using nostalgia in its brand marketing. 2011’s ‘The Long Wait’ and 2009’s ad that shows ecstatic children opening adult presents are both brilliant examples of this. Depending on your product or service offering, evoking nostalgia in your potential customers can be a very potent tactic.
They say in filmmaking, never work with children or animals and this is a mantra John Lewis has completely disregarded (to its credit). Children carry an innocence that can play very well into certain brand narratives – notably Christmas themed ones (see nostalgia above).
Like children, animals also convey a sense of innocence and instinct that really can tug at the heart strings. John Lewis has slightly cheated on this front, by using animated animals in some instances, but what this loses is realism is made up for in the potential to anthropomorphise the central characters (see 2013’s ‘Bear and the Hare’).
I could have dedicated the whole of this article to the music used in John Lewis’s ads and to say it plays an important role is an understatement. Music is central not only to setting the tone and creating the mood of John Lewis’s ads but also beautifully plays into the narrative. John Lewis’s decision to reimagine old indie or rock classics, often using soulful vocalists like Ellie Goulding, Lily Allen and Elbow, has been a masterstroke and resulted in four top ten singles (two of which got to number one).
- Strong narrative
Strong narrative structure underpins every John Lewis ad and the story arcs are expertly built, often through a series of vignettes, with the climax working in perfect synchronicity with the soundtrack. The emotional knockout punch is delivered every time. Brand marketers would do well to study the remarkable skill with which John Lewis does this. If you can get halfway as good as this, then you’re doing well.
John Lewis are masters of brand marketing and for most people, their Christmas ad is something to be looked forward to and enjoyed. For brand marketers everywhere though, they are pioneers of emotional brand marketing, whose will be endlessly imitated and emulated but never quite surpassed.
About the Author: Evelyn Timson is the Managing Director of Bristol based video production agency, Aspect Film & Video. She has years of experience working with some of the world’s most recognisable brands like UNICEF, Nationwide, North Face, TaylorMade adidas, Slimming World and Farrow & Ball. You can connect with Aspect on Facebook or Twitter or see a selection of their award winning work on their YouTube Channel.