Experience strategist Matt Davis delves into the world of Christmas advertising and how the events of 2020 will change it in the long run
Ah Christmas advertising with your implausibly snowy scenes, huge, unfathomably conflict-free family gatherings and lavish feasts with no undercooked poultry in sight. Strangely comforting and wildly unrealistic at the best of times — but clearly 2020, with all its vicissitudes, calls for a mass rethink of how we portray the festive season. So what can we expect?
The fact is that back in the spring, when any existing Christmas 2020 ideas went in the shredder and Covid-era planning started in earnest, even the best forecasters could do little more than predict things would be ‘different’.
So the overriding theme is likely to be that yes, it’s a Christmas like no other, but with a big emphasis on positivity and things that bring us together.
Local heroes and key workers
It’s a pretty safe bet that we’ll be seeing a lot of love expressed for local communities in Christmas campaigns, especially those for non-retail brands. Unifying factors of being locked down are that it has brought us closer to our neighbours and that small high street shops have been a lifeline. This has shifted so many of our behaviours: obvious ones like using local cafes instead of the Pret near the office; but unexpected ones too, such as supporting smaller, local charities that provide help closer to home. So why not let it shift our Christmas shopping habits too
There will no doubt be a stampede to celebrate our key workers (even though Thursday night clapping feels like a lifetime ago) such as subtle nods in the Morrison’s recent Christmas advert. Given that any retailer having a great 2020 is probably doing so in part due to Britain’s army of delivery drivers we can expect to see them featuring as Santa-like heroes, bringing us Christmas when we weren’t able to go out and get it ourselves. As part of this expect Charity to come into play in messaging. John Lewis has already committed to £100,000 to charity and Walker’s are raising money through their Sausage Roll Crisps (although not sure you’ll see me snacking on them).
Condensed Christmases and loungewear
Retailers are behind most of what we think of as the big Christmas campaigns, vying for our gift budgets and our food and drink spend. TV schedules this year will still be packed with those brands but the familiar tropes will be tweaked.
Mass Christmas gatherings, for example, have long been a mainstay but whatever the lockdown situation is come December, we know that many families will be apart. We are likely to see much smaller, household-based, smaller stories such as ASDA’s recent Christmas campaign as well as Argos’s (although they cheat a bit by “magically bringing in members outside the household, naughty).
Even families who are sticklers for a lounge suit dress code on 25 December might switch that for loungewear in 2020. So we’re likely to see loads more families depicted in matching novelty pyjamas and far less glitz and glam. This is particularly true because that sub-genre of Christmas advertising where people dressed in sparkly partywear neck prosecco and chin vol-au-vents is shelved for another 12 months.
That doesn’t mean a glitterless Christmas. There is an argument that we will need sparkle when everything around us isn’t sparkling — but it will have to have a basis in the reality of 2020. In fact, there are many brands who are likely to take escapism and absurdity to heart, from the comical treats of T K Maxx to the emotional-led epic of Coca Cola.
Pared-back production budgets, shifting focus
Relatedly, campaigns will need to be sensitive to the situation of the brand itself. If a business has laid off thousands of employees, for example, it would need to think carefully about going massive with a glitzy Christmas campaign. While the message about recessions being a bad time to cancel marketing campaigns is being taken on board, the no-expense-spared productions of yore are likely to be pared back.
With a move to more responsible spending, many brands will have been exploring truly targeted communications. This of course doesn’t mean the big brands won’t push to get their big ads on TV, especially at a time when live TV viewership will be high, but there will be a lot more thought going into other strategies too.
Looking to the future
Many brands will not want to dwell on what has been a tough year. So the final prediction I’m making is that some braver brands will express the ‘good riddance 2020’ vibe that so many of us feel and look forward to a year when the new normal is, well, the normal that we’re all missing now. Here’s to being together again soon for real.
This article originally ran in Little Black Book in November 2020.