What brands are planning for Christmas 2020, according to new research from the Ozone Project.

The most wonderful time of the year has become the most unusual, with the majority of the UK currently in lockdown. So many pivotal moments have been cancelled across the past eight months, the only certainty for many is that Christmas will, in some guise, be celebrated come the 25th of December.

An abundance of expert commentary on the festive season, all set against anecdotal evidence from 2008-09, suggests the Christmas period is relatively recession-proof. The meteoric rise in online shopping will undoubtedly continue at the same time as cautious consumers look for the best deals, pre-Christmas sales and bargains. 

We’re forecast to continue spending heavily on food and drink this year, although what we buy may change. That might mean trading the big turkey for a number of smaller options or treating ourselves to more premium ranges and labels. 

With its massive societal impact, the pandemic will undoubtedly shape our existing Christmas traditions, and perhaps create some new ones. Some will be enforced - for example, more virtual celebrations or numerous micro-gatherings rather than big parties - while others may evolve to include things like our renewed sense of community spirit and an increase in meaningful gifting.

The Twelve Weeks of Christmas

At Ozone we represent nine of the UK’s biggest premium publishing groups, reaching 99.9% of the UK’s online adult population across more than ninety different websites. The ability to analyse reading trends from our publishers’ user data provides a very clear indication of when consumers switch into Christmas mode - and each year we see a rapid scaling of those interested in Christmas content from early October. 

This trend is replicated across many of the content types you might associate with the festive season, with significant volumes of readers turning to Family-based, Shopping & Gifting, and Deal/Bargain related content.

Beyond this, it would take a very brave person - and someone much smarter than me - to forecast too far into 2020. So to help us build a better picture, we’ve been surveying our advertiser and agency customers to get a flavour of how they think their consumers will spend a COVID Christmas and how festive marketing plans have evolved as a result. 

When we asked the first set of questions in late September, little did we think that six weeks later we would be in the midst of a second lockdown and asking the same questions again. Almost 400 responses later and the results make for interesting reading. 

Is a Blue Christmas on the horizon?

In our first wave of questioning, 53% of our clients thought consumers would be maintaining or increasing spend this Christmas compared to last year, a figure that increased to 57% when we asked the same question going into Lockdown 2.0. Perhaps the arrival of the first Christmas ads has resulted in an increase in optimism for the season?

A similar pattern is reflected in advertising spend projections, with over 60% of brands and agencies originally anticipating their spend to be the same or greater than last year’s. When we followed up with the second wave of questioning, almost three-quarters of respondents believed the lockdown would have either a positive or zero impact on their seasonal spending plans. 

It appears advertisers now have a much greater handle on the levers they need to pull to maximise their opportunity during the pandemic - a stark contrast to the sharp and sudden recalibration of plans we witnessed back in March. 

Our second wave results show that 76% of our customers already had an element of contingency in place for the festive season, largely thanks to plans created for the regional and local restrictions that had already come into play, with a further 17% being prepared for a full lockdown scenario this Christmas.

Let the tills ring out for Christmas

Spending data from last year’s Black Friday highlights the product categories most likely to take the greatest share of spend: toys & gaming, technology & computing, home & giftware and fashion & accessories. When we twice asked our clients what categories they thought would be the big winners this year, the results each time reflected this pattern from 2019. 

While pointing to a degree of stability, there was one notable outlier; fashion & accessories. Despite being a top spender last Black Friday, only one in ten of our customers felt 2020 would present the category with the greatest opportunities – perhaps unsurprising when the ‘stay at home’ orders have kept most of us from roughing up our best outfits.

At Ozone, we also see interesting patterns in content consumption aligned to these categories, with areas like Technology seeing significant readership growth particularly through October and November as consumers finalise their Christmas wish lists ahead of the final sprint of December spending.

All I want for Christmas is...

Thankfully these results point to a degree of brand preparedness and cautious optimism for a holiday season that will be like no other. We certainly hope that Christmas 2020 - with all its uncertainty and quirks - will merely be seen as a crisis case study and not the norm in years to come.