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Are retailers too focused on Christmas advertising?

Now we are almost a quarter of our way into 2019, it’s interesting to look back at retailers’ advertising techniques from the festive season. Nowadays, Christmas wouldn’t be complete without the anticipated launch of retailers’ blockbuster ads – for 2018, John Lewis collaborated with Elton John and Sainsbury’s aired a theatrical ad “The Big Night”. It’s not hard to believe that Christmas ad spend for 2018 was at a record high of almost £6.5bn. But are advertisers too focused on Christmas advertising?

With competition growing fiercer, and consumers and media critics alike becoming harsher, retailers should ensure any learnings from the expensive Christmas period are applied to other retail events throughout the year like Valentines Day and Easter, all the way through to Black Friday. While Christmas is still a crucial event in the marketing calendar, it has also become a saturated space within advertising so retailers should plan effectively across key annual events in the year head. By using data insights from 2018 Christmas and Black Friday advertising campaigns, retailers can understand performance and optimise spend to reduce waste, increase ROI and hit brand KPIs across key annual events for the year ahead.

What can we learn from the stars of advertising?

When it comes to airing Christmas ads, timing is everything. Festive offerings are debuted earlier each year, with Argos airing its seasonal ad for 2018 on 2 November. It’s essential for retailers and their ad agencies to develop strategies focused on particular hours of the day, weeks or months. These strategies need to be bespoke to the viewing habits of their target audience and to the retailers’ product or service, something that M&S took into consideration. Chris Rowe, chief executive at M&S, explained that moving away from the big blockbuster campaign, taking a greater product focus, helped resonate with customers and improved sales. Take John Lewis’ approach for Christmas 2018 too – by releasing its Elton John ad digitally before it aired in a prime time 9:15pm TV slot, the ‘partners’ effectively maximised their rebrand.

However, according to research, Sainsbury’s failed to capture consumer engagements with its Christmas ad and reported a 1% drop in sales for 2018 – interestingly much of this comes down to the decision to reduce promotional activity around Black Friday, proving how important a year-round TV strategy is. Barclaycard also released data showing a 12% drop in the amount spent by 1pm (GMT) on Black Friday, however the volume of transactions was 15% higher than the previous year. This insight is vital when considering changing the hours, days and channels of a spot purchase in-flight or for future campaigns.  

To find out which slots are likely to drive response and increase ROI, retailers can use “Time of Day” and “Day of Week” reporting dimensions. This determines whether consumers search for a product after seeing it aired on TV at a specific time. It also enables retailers to see whether a target audience is converting late at night or early in the morning, maximising ad spend during these periods.

Making TV’s effectiveness work all year

One powerful factor of the Christmas creative is its emotiveness. Some Brits were even moved to tears by the works of adam&eveDDB and McCann. Yet the golden quarter is also a time of intense rivalry for retailers, and with a vast array of channels at the fingertips of savvy consumers, it’s more important than ever to get the right TV ad format. Traditionally, Christmas ads are long-form when first aired, but it’s common for complementary, short-form versions to be produced as well.

In 2018, Sainsbury’s reinvented the 30-second spot by enlisting the director of hit film “The Greatest Showman” for its two-minute Christmas ad. These ads offer more time for narrative, emotional resonance and ultimately higher brand recall. Lidl, meanwhile, opted for a 20-second ad, which was more than enough time to showcase their budget price points. Short-form video ensures the versatility of an ad through enabling distribution across multiple platforms, particularly mobile. This is a format that brands could use for other national events, like St Patrick’s Day, summer seasonal promotions and Halloween.

Developing omni-channel strategies


TV’s power to advertise and raise awareness, especially when combined with digital, was evident in Iceland’s Christmas ad for 2018. The brand repackaged a short film by Greenpeace, which depicted the destruction of an orangutan’s rainforest habitat due to palm oil growers. This ad was later deemed ‘too political’ to be aired on TV, but uproar followed promptly across social media due to consumer demand to see the ad aired.

TV’s symbiotic relationship with digital allows brands to target and engage demographics that might otherwise have been hard for them to reach. Second-screening behaviour is instrumental to this relationship, with close to 80% of UK viewers using a smartphone, tablet or laptop while watching TV. With TV’s mass audience and its ability to maximise brand awareness, this medium has become a great driver of both offline and online response.

TV ads give retailers a greater boost in the festive season than in any other period but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t also be reflecting on these learnings, developing strategies and focusing ad spend during other periods of the year. Through gathering accurate insights on market behaviour – such as search activity, purchases and social media interactions – retailers can create targeted audience segments. This allows them to instantly match ad formats and content with consumer needs and current context throughout the entire year. It gives retailers the chance to maximise engagement, brand recall and, ultimately ROI for 2019.


Marlene Grimm, data and partnerships manager, TVSquared

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