Kantar Millward Brown research into the last three years of TV Christmas ads in the UK explores what successful spots do, and what distinguishes an effective strategy at this time of year from ads at any other time.

The John Lewis Christmas advert is out, and the public seems to be enjoying it, despite the constitutional crisis that rumbled alongside it last Thursday. It is a brand with serious pedigree at Christmas, and is one of the few brands that can lay a claim on the idea of ‘owning’ Christmas. But a list of the ads from the last three years that have hit the right notes with consumers shines a light on the effectiveness of Christmas strategies.

Those are:

From 2017:

Amazon’s Give


Aldi’s Kevin the Carrot



John Lewis’s Buster the Boxer


Lidl’s Surprises



Amazon Prime’s The Priest and the Imam



Warburtons’ The Giant Crumpet Show


Why do they work?

Effective Christmas ads do three things:

  • They tell great stories
  • Their messaging is meaningful
  • The branding is clear

These attributes, though simple, are the most important in delivering advertising that is both successful for sales and builds the brand. This is according to new research by Kantar Millward Brown, which asked consumers to review TV ads between 2015 and 2017, scoring each on 12 factors that are proven to motivate people to buy, and build a strong brand in the long term. These factors include ‘Involvement’, ‘Enjoyment’, ‘Persuasion’, ‘Relevance’ and ‘Different from others’.  

Methodology combined modern facial expression analysis, to record immediate emotional response, and a wider analysis against Kantar’s database of viewer response to thousands of year-round UK ads.

The research showed that brands telling emotionally powerful stories have a better chance of being noticed. This is unsurprising: the continued success of John Lewis’s continually award-slaying advertising attests to the effectiveness of an emotionally-charged hero film. So much so that the John Lewis Christmas ad has become an event, a kind of icon in the UK. This is also key: the ads that work best are the ones that people want to talk about – and I mean normal people: civilians who can’t necessarily name the agency that made the ads.

At their core, they tell stories. The Kantar research found that storytelling was a feature of 80% of Christmas ads between 2015 and 2017, compared to the 40% average for the rest of the year.

These stories have changed perceptibly. Brand and agency focus now eyes the idea of a meaningful communication. What does that mean? Christmas advertising has, in recent years moved away from a product focus and toward big concepts like love – with a notable exception, this year, of Marks & Spencer. However, it’s important not to overstate the importance of meaningful messaging, which works well for some very big brands. Nearly half of ads at Christmas go for a storytelling communications strategy, more than the 30% of regular ads that do the same.

Interestingly, Christmas ads subvert advertising orthodoxy in an important way: just 10% are “well branded”. With the average for the rest of year hovering at around 30%, why do advertisers neglect the basics? Again, John Lewis has a lot to do with this, but so does the grocery chain Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer, and Aldi’s ongoing Kevin the Carrot. The Christmas ad has become the time of year when brands try to push the boundaries of their advertising. It’s a symptom of occasion events, in which brands are competing in a different register: think the Super Bowl in the US, or Ramadan across the Islamic world. Christmas in the UK has become an advertising event, one in which listicles featuring big brand’s efforts play depressingly well. 

Kantar observes that this boundary pushing is both an opportunity and a risk for brands. Those who succeed and tell a resonant story stand to do well. If, however, you’ve a turkey on your hands, then the likelihood is that the story may leave people feeling good about Christmas, but not do much for the advertiser.