The incredibly consistent and highly effective journey over ten Christmas campaigns makes the John Lewis Gold-winning IPA Effectiveness paper a must-read, writes WARC’s Lucy Aitken.

‘Shop early, start wrapping, enjoy Christmas’ is the latest imperative from the British Retail Consortium. It’s no doubt anxious about the cumulative effect of the pandemic and lockdown at such a crucial time in the retail calendar.

There’s no denying that Christmas in the UK will look different this year, and not just because of COVID-19. Glitter is being phased out for environmental reasons. Others are already calling it an e-commerce Christmas as two-thirds of people plan to do all their Christmas shopping online, according to Redpoint Global.

But rejoice! There will still be a John Lewis Christmas ad! Over the last decade, this has become a feature of the festive season in the UK. And the Gold-winning IPA paper, confidently titled John Lewis: An amazing decade, by adam&eveDDB and ManningGottlieb OMD, documents why Christmas has been such a crucial part of the retailer’s resurgence.

Christmas is crucial

Bear in mind that 40% of the UK department store chain’s annual profits come from Christmas sales and it’s clear why it’s such a pivotal part of the calendar. A strong Christmas performance sets up a good trajectory for trading the following year and usually means bigger bonuses for staff. (NB. This year the bonus was scrapped in September 2020 for the first time since 1953 due to store closures during lockdown.)

When adam&eveDDB were first appointed in 2009, there was no such thing as the John Lewis Christmas ad. Appointed with the objective of boosting declining sales, no one could have predicted what would happen over the next decade.

10 years of Christmas advertising

As the paper, by Charlotte Wood, Senior Planner, adam&eveDDB, makes clear: “Sustained creative ‘purple patches’ are exceptionally rare in advertising. Many brands can create a single great campaign, but few achieve a full decade of consecutive ‘hits’ as John Lewis has.”

And it’s not just an impressive awards haul: John Lewis has grown 4.4 times faster than its competitors.

The paper is an excellent read, offering five clear lessons for marketers. For this Opinion piece, the focus is on one: the power of consistency.

Consistency, consistency, consistency

John Lewis is a textbook example of how consistency helps build brands over time. The strategy has been consistent: John Lewis is the home of thoughtful gifting. Commercial, marketing and communication objectives have been consistent. And the eagle-eyed will have also noticed its consistent magic formula: “Small children. Lovable characters. A ‘rug-pull’ twist. An emotional soundtrack.” 

Crucially, while consistent, this formula also has a fresh take every year, so it doesn’t risk looking stale. And due to John Lewis establishing a particular style to its ads – even using the same directors – they are instantly recognisable: 80% recognise and correctly attribute a John Lewis ad, according to Kantar data.

Embrace emotion

Let’s be honest now: who’s had ‘something in their eye’ while watching a John Lewis Christmas ad? (‘The bear and the hare’ got me, though I had a toddler at the time and was sleep deprived, OK?)

While showing feelings is historically considered pretty un-British, Christmas is the one time of year when Brits find themselves letting down their guard a bit. Although, as Kate Fox writes in her excellent book Watching The English, the default for many Brits during the festive season is ‘bah humbug’, John Lewis has successfully cut through. The way the ad quickly became a much-anticipated ‘event’ shows Brits soaking up its emotional story year after year, even if only to mock it for being overly sentimental and check out the piss-takes on YouTube instead.

By upping its emotional ante, John Lewis now has the most emotional advertising of any retailer by a country mile (or 4.2 stars versus the retail norm of 2.2, to be precise – thanks System1).

Breaking with convention

While consistency and using emotion to brand-build are rapidly becoming part of the retail playbook, the paper points out that John Lewis, that bastion of middle England decency and free coffee, is actually partial to a spot of rule-breaking, albeit with consistency, mind. Two of the ways it does so: the brand and any featured products appear only at the end. And, in the era of our over-documented ever-shortening attention spans, the ads last more than a minute. Take that, TikTok.

Democracy in action

The John Lewis Christmas campaign brief is open to the agency to submit their spin on ‘thoughtful gifting’, bringing consistency to the process. Some 400 ideas are submitted and then whittled down to a shortlist. The whole process takes a year. This is my favourite visual from the entire paper (mainly because the idea of the entire agency arguing over the soundtrack throughout October is so entertaining).

Timeline of the John Lewis Christmas campaign

A shot in the arm

Glitter or no glitter for Christmas present or future, as the paper says: “It's hard to imagine Christmas without the John Lewis ads. To the public they’ve become a much-loved part of Christmas.” But more than that, John Lewis has encouraged other advertisers to rethink how they approach the festive season. “We're proud of the shot in the arm our campaign has given to the UK ad industry,” claims the paper. There’s a profound thought in there about taking pride in UK advertising, perhaps because there are so few ads that can sincerely call themselves ‘an event’. 

In fact, it’s relatively rare for mainstream advertising to be featured in the press, unless a brand’s getting its knuckles rapped by the ASA. Few ads get shared at scale or get talked about over Christmas dinner. But in a year where we’ve been missing the things that usually bring the nation together (knocking all The Apprentice candidates, a surprise win at The Olympics) my money’s on the John Lewis ad being bigger and better than ever this Christmas.