The release of UK Christmas advertising during the beginning of November marks the start of the holiday season for many in the country. DuBose Cole of VaynerMedia London, assesses what changing consumer attitudes to a post-Covid environment could mean for brands. 

As the first few weeks of the month see the emergence of Wham!, Mariah Carey, John Lewis and others onto the media around us, it’s easy to assume that a brand is primed to ‘win’ the holiday season before Black Friday is even starting. However, we don’t live in normal times and this won’t be a normal Christmas for consumers or brands. The lingering and varied effects of COVID-19, supply chain uncertainty and that extra year of waiting for in-person festive cheer are set to change how the holidays unfold – the bulk of which will only be felt after most Christmas ads traditionally air.

The shifting post-Covid future

We’ve divided the UK consumer landscape by Covid attitudes, looking at consumer perception of progress against the pandemic and its personal economic and health impact – creating five segments:

  • Rebuilders (2%): those whose own situation is at risk due to Covid and who believe the country is still struggling against it.
  • Left behind (5%): those who see the country progressing, but their own situation stagnant or declining.
  • Neutrals (69%): those who have yet to hold a solid view on the post-Covid future for themselves or the UK.
  • Thrivers (3%): those who are progressing, but don’t feel the country has against Covid.
  • Rethinkers (21%): those who are unaffected and feel we are strongly recovering.

Over the course of most of this year, these segments stayed relatively static – with the bulk of the UK confused about what a ‘post-Covid’ future might hold, a worried minority and a segment of optimistic ‘rethinkers’ ready to change their post-Covid lives. However, in the past month, we’ve seen the worried minority begin to diminish (Rebuilders shrank from 4% to 2% in October) increasing the numbers of those neutral or positive about a post-Covid landscape.

These shifts look to continue in November as we distance ourselves from the darkest parts of the pandemic and become more optimistic – however if talk of a winter lockdown becomes more concrete, they may reverse. Changes in post-Covid public perception have significant impact on various aspects of the holiday season, with more optimistic segments more likely to spend, change jobs or life situations in the new year and be less worried about attending pubs, restaurants and social gatherings. Small changes in the optimism of the post-Covid landscape now can spell big changes for our behaviour in December and onwards into January.

Increasing optimism hits decreasing stock

An increase in the optimism, or at the least neutrality, of the British public’s perspective looks to be countered by Covid’s lingering disruption of global supply chains, transport shortages and disruption from Brexit, all of which are already subtly limiting the availability of a variety of products in supermarkets and retailers. The Confederation of British Industry recently reported that stock levels are at record lows for retailers across the country. As demand increases across November and into last minute Christmas shopping, supply doesn’t look likely to keep up – with possible shortages of key products or cherished table staples.

For brands, it’s about the holiday long game

Christmas ads are famously high impact, but notoriously long in their development, with stories of agencies starting discussions in January, shooting in July and deploying in November. The need to forecast what is going to resonate with a wave of uncertainty that hasn’t subsided is a challenge. This doesn’t mean Christmas ads are dead or that a few won’t capture the hearts of the British public, but it does shrink the target for success, as well as the window for how long a successful ad matters.

In recent years, Christmas ads spoke to the Christmas we want to have in November, not the one we actually experience in December. When the disconnect between these is small, there is greater longevity. From what we’ve seen this year however, the conditions are there for things to change rapidly across the next two months. Treating a Christmas ad as part of a campaign which has parts that can adapt with consumers, instead of the entire campaign, can increase longevity this year.

For brands like our client Heinz, the cultural conversation around the season can already bear fruit. Heinz’s ‘Christmas Dinner in a Can’ limited edition Big Soup is the perfect foil for Daily Mail articles about freezing Christmas dinner now and provided a moment of levity among holiday worries – selling out in hours. 

Brands that can move with the shifts of this season – providing alternatives to deeply missed Christmas favourites, speaking to the optimism of those who strive to move beyond Covid or supporting those who still feel mired within it – will be the ones best positioned not just to be spoken about in November’s ad blitz, but also appreciated and engaged with through December’s uncertain holiday season.