2015 Christmas campaigns: The winners and losers

The crucial Christmas trading period for the major retailers is over, their financial directors have counted up the gold in the coffers and they have released the official trading figures.

How did the Christmas campaigns compare in the battle of the retailers?
How did the Christmas campaigns compare in the battle of the retailers?

A vast amount of work, resources and money is directed at creating campaigns whose primary aim is to persuade the public to spend as much of its festive budget as possible with them, rather than a rival retailer.

This time, it was mainly the retailers that opted for bold, innovative and creative campaigns that won out over those that opted for a more conservative approach to the festive period.

John Lewis, Sainsbury's and Aldi all reported an uplift in Christmas trading, with Sainsbury's taking the unusual step of directly crediting the success of its campaign for its figures. By contrast, retailers such as Marks & Spencer, Morrisons and Debenhams, which took a more safety-first approach, did not achieve the necessary cut-through with the public.

It should be noted that the overall trading environment over Christmas has been a difficult one with the British Retail Consortium describing the final quarter of 2015 as "disappointing", after it reported a 0.9 per cent year-on-year increase in retail spending. 

PRWeek and its expert consumer panel analyse the winners and losers in the annual battle of the retailers to find out whether the campaigns were worth the effort or if they merely flattered to deceive.

Winners



John Lewis

With its previous efforts, the retailer has effectively created a landscape of public expectation for a campaign that fires the starting pistol on the Christmas period. This was evidenced by the fact that it was trending in second place on Twitter in the UK before it even launched and then trended worldwide at number one within two hours of its launch on 5 November. And that was before it was even aired on television later the same day.

The harder the retailer tries, the more the public expects and this year’s effort - a two-minute film about a little girl’s attempts to connect with a lonely old man on the moon – continued to dominate the share of voice on social media throughout November and December. The film was created by adam&eveDDB and received nearly 24 million views on YouTube. Once again, the retailer was rewarded for its efforts, with a 5.1 per cent hike in like-for-like sales in the six weeks to 2 January announced on 6 January.

The expert panel’s view

Chris Hides

Chris Hides (pictured above), managing director, M&C Saatchi PR
The benchmark for Christmas advertising and it did it again with Man on The Moon. It brought it fame and a host of opportunist imitators, which all added to the awareness – a critical component of the mix of factors that led to good results.

Frankie Oliver, strategic comms consultant
While I think the John Lewis ad was a true winner, I think it fell seriously short of its huge potential as a through-the-line campaign. The campaign wasn’t property amplified and its presence on the John Lewis site and in the stores seemed like an afterthought. I’d question if the marketing and advertising teams were working holistically together on this campaign. I think the ‘productising’ of the campaign could also have been done so much better. 

James Gordon-MacIntosh, managing partner, Hope&Glory
John Lewis has created a moment – alongside the Starbucks Christmas Cups and the arrival of the Coca-Cola trucks – that signifies the start of the festive season. In a world where we don’t gather around Morecambe and Wise on the sofa, we instead gather around the John Lewis ad on Twitter. It’s a remarkable achievement for the PR team, in the unveiling and ensuing column inches devoted to it.

PRWeek’s view

The campaign: Whether you bought something or not as a result of the campaign, there was no way on Earth (sorry) that you could have missed it. Excellent talkability, once again, and it took the brave step of addressing the sobering issue of loneliness and isolation among the elderly with its charitable link to Age UK. 
Return on investment: A significant uplift in sales, which includes a hike in tech sales of nearly 10 per cent, although slightly lower growth than last year. Delivery on all counts. 


Sainsbury’s 

Last year’s big-budget spectacular to commemorate the spirit of Christmas in the trenches during the First World War raised expectations of something similarly epic this time, but the retailer chose a new tack by resurrecting the children’s favourite Mog, with the help of celebrated author and illustrator Judith Kerr. The story, in which Mog dreams of a ruined Christmas only to be saved by the family’s friends and neighbours, provided the platform to its key line: that Christmas is for sharing. It was the only serious competitor to the John Lewis juggernaught for talkability and it relentlessly carved a place out for itself in the public conversation after launching on 12 November, with one ICM study claiming that it beat John Lewis for positive emotional engagement with the public.

As with John Lewis, the retailer had a charitable angle with profits from sales of the Mog book and cuddly toys going to literacy schemes. The film was created by AMVBBDO and produced by FrameStore and it received 29 million views on YouTube. Like-for-like sales fell 0.4 per cent for the 15 weeks to 9 January, when results were announced last Wednesday, but there were more than 30 million customer transactions in the seven days before Christmas – up 2.6 per cent year-on-year. In a rare move for retailers, the supermarket directly credited the "huge success" of the campaign with contributing to its trading figures.  

The expert panel’s view

Frankie Oliver

Frankie Oliver (pictured above), strategic comms consultant
Judith Kerr clearly lived and breathed every second of the brilliant production hand-in-hand with Sainsbury’s through to the creation of the book and the toy. As a result Mog-loving viewers were given a seriously good treat this Christmas that made them love Sainsbury’s all the more. The ad shows that great, truly authentic storytelling really does sell. 

James Gordon-MacIntosh, managing partner, Hope&Glory
In part I think the Sainsbury’s ad was a success because it took everyone by surprise. The Royal British Legion outing in 2014 attracted as much opprobrium as it did praise. So by the time Mog hit our screens, there was something of a shockwave that Sainsbury’s created and then rode admirably with this shift in direction.

Chris Hides, managing director, M&C Saatchi PR
One of the most popular and best performing Christmas ads using Mog the cat, adapted from a book written by Mog creator and author Judith Kerr for the ad. The book was put on sale with proceeds going to charity so full marks for extending the idea. 

PRWeek's view

The campaign: This one crept up on you and, in social media terms, it was analogous to the fable of the tortoise and the hare, eventually surpassing past Man on the Moon for YouTube views, while failing to come close for share of voice on Twitter. Perhaps, one day, Sainsbury’s will win the battle of the retailers. It’s certainly a contender. 
Return on investment: It seems cruel that sales were down over the whole quarter but at least it was rewarded with a deserved uplift in Christmas week sales. 


Aldi

The discount retailer very cleverly capitalised on the trend for parodying the John Lewis Christmas campaign with a pastiche man-on-the-moon looking through two telescopes, one at premium high street prices and the other, its discount version. By doing so, it combined two principles: tapping into the existing zeitgeist while appropriating a little for itself and setting out its stall as a discount retailer of good quality products. It was viewed two million times on YouTube. The campaign was put together by McCann Manchester with PR by Weber Shandwick Manchester. Aldi saw an uplift of 13.3 per cent in sales in the 12 weeks to 3 January, announced on Tuesday last week.

The expert panel’s view

Frankie Oliver, strategic comms consultant
Aldi did a great spoof of the John Lewis ad that I think might have done more for it socially than its main ad did on TV. This is great challenger-brand ad spoofing at its best. If Virgin was a supermarket, it would have done this campaign.

James Gordon-MacIntosh, managing partner, Hope&Glory
It was a success because it had cheek and it had wit. While the 'favourite things' spots were a continuation of its brand campaign, its John Lewis spoof was a masterstroke and raised a smile – even from John Lewis.

Chris Hides, managing director, M&C Saatchi PR
A brilliant lampoon of the John Lewis ad showed great confidence but also a cracking sense of humour. It was one of the best ways of answering the creative challenge of how to compete with John Lewis. I'm sure showing more personality, as well as product and price, will have played its part in making its Christmas merry.

PRWeek's view

The campaign: It’s brave to spoof the market leader in creative Christmas campaigns and expect to live to tell the tale. People laughed and when they laugh, they remember. A great effort. 
Return on investment: Aldi saw the biggest uplift in sales of all the featured retailers and we’ll take a guess that the campaign cost significantly less than that of its larger rivals. 

Tesco

Tesco had a torrid year in the run up to 2015 and the bruised retailer decided on a back-to-basics approach to promote its core tag line 'Every Little Helps' in a series of short films starring Gavin and Stacey star Ruth Jones as well as Ben Miller, for the second year running. The films, launched on 9 November, failed to achieve the talkability enjoyed by John Lewis and Sainsbury’s on Twitter but at least one of them racked up a respectable 860,000 views by the time the tinsel was taken down. The films were created by BBH and Tesco’s UK sales rose 1.3 per cent on a like-for-like basis in the six weeks ending 9 January, the retailer announced last Wednesday.

The expert panel’s view

James Gordon-MacIntosh

James Gordon-MacIntosh (pictured above), managing partner, Hope&Glory
A return to good old product promotion albeit with a humorous creative wrapper. The brand went back to doing what Tesco has always done so well and highlighted how the retailer’s 'Every Little Helps' promise simply makes life easier for families during the festive hell. Few retailers understand mums and families better and, this year, it showed and paid off.

Frankie Oliver, strategic comms consultant
Tesco won with this campaign because it gave us a family and a storyline we wanted to watch versus another price promotion.  It also played on good old-fashioned family values that show children doing their best to help their hardworking parents, even if they are in their thirties and still haven’t left home.

Chris Hides, managing director, M&C Saatchi PR
Tesco has had a Christmas ahead of expectations, which it put down to the effort invested in developing the right range of products for customers. With its advertising it went for a change, developing a series of creatives as opposed to one big set piece. Given that the ads featured its Finest range and Free From range, you could conclude that the campaign played its part. 

PRWeek's view

The campaign: It felt like a re-run of previous campaigns and the story did not seem to resonate widely beyond Tesco’s core audience. 
Return on investment: It may not have the ingredients of a great creative campaign but it scored where it counts and surprised everyone with its financial results. Tesco isn’t dead after all. It was just resting. Sighs of relief all round in the boardroom. 

Losers



Marks & Spencer

The ‘Follow The Fairies’ campaign last Christmas won awards for its story of two bewinged do-gooders granting the unspoken wishes of the public, so this year’s effort felt distinctly flat by comparison, although it did feature a dynamic soundtrack and a clear focus on products. The problem was, there was no real story for people to talk about and following its launch, on 6 November, it did not achieve more than a one per cent share of voice on Twitter, when compared with the other campaigns. The campaign was a collective effort from Unity, AKQA, Mindshare and RKCR/Y&R. Like-for-like sales at M&S fell 2.5 per cent in the 13 weeks to 28 December, it was announced on 7 January, along with the news that Mark Bolland, its chief executive, is to quit.  

The expert panel’s view

Chris Hides, managing director, M&C Saatchi PR
Not a great Christmas for M&S but to its credit it was trying to do something a bit different from some other retailers with this campaign – it chose to forego the soft focus, warm lighting and snowfall and go for something that packed more of a punch.
  
Frankie Oliver, strategic comms consultant
M&S has gone backwards with this ad. M&S ads used to have an epic quality that much like John Lewis had a premier moment. But sadly no more. A product ad with a chart-topping song is no longer enough to drive a commercially successful Christmas. It's a real shame we didn't see the fairies again. 

James Gordon-MacIntosh, managing partner, Hope&Glory
Let’s be honest, there was no Christmas ad campaign that on its own was going to make up for an unseasonably warm winter for the high street mainstay. Its festive outing, complete with its exaggerated interpretations of Christmas moments, felt a bit of a mish-mash – part high fashion and party wear, part food, part furnishings, part gifting. As a result, nothing really stuck or stood out and this spot left little that was truly memorable.

PRWeek's view

The campaign: It felt like a let-down compared with last year but 2.5 million views on YouTube is not a dead loss.   
Return on investment: The drop in sales means rather that the alarm bells rather than the cash tills are now ringing at this mainstay of the high street. 

Morrisons

Morrisons stuck to safe ground in a film that played up the message that it produces more of its food products in store than its rivals. It decided on a traditional approach to propagating the campaign it launched on 6 November, using outdoor, print and broadcast media. The store told PRWeek at the time that it did not have a specific PR element to promote the campaign. Perhaps that is why Morrisons achieved less than one per cent of the share of voice on Twitter, when compared with its rivals, and just 62,000 views on YouTube. The film was produced by DLKW Lowe. Sales at Morrisons rose 0.2 per cent in the nine weeks to 3 January, it announced last Tuesday.

The expert panel’s view

James Gordon-MacIntosh, managing partner, Hope&Glory
In a world where everyone is talking about price, Morrisons played the 'value' card and attempted to convince the nation that its approach is perhaps worth the perceived little bit extra at the till. As has been announced this week, the retailer has a long way to go, but with a stable Christmas and their cost-cutting programme well advanced, Morrisons feels like a brand back on the right path.

Chris Hides, managing director, M&C Saatchi PR
This year was a bit of a turnaround for Morrisons with its first lift in Christmas sales for four years, and I’m sure that not using Britain's favourite Geordie duo in the advertising will have reduced the advertising budget a bit. A decent ad selling the in-store experience along with the emphasis it places on the quality of the products. 

Frankie Oliver, strategic comms consultant
This ad told us some great facts about Morrisons' products. But the production values weren’t high enough for Christmas and it made Morrisons look even cheaper than it probably is.

PRWeek's view 

The campaign: A modest film with modest engagement. It's always hard to know what your rivals are going to do but a good maxim to live by might be: go large, or go home – or at least be cheeky if you can’t go large. 
Return on investment: The modest film, with its modest ideas and modest views, achieved a modest bump in sales. At least sales didn’t go down. 


Waitrose

When it launched on 4 November, Waitrose focused on telling people the story of how it brings together the best premium food products from its suppliers to create a Christmas table anyone would be proud of. Beyond that, there was little for the public to talk about, and it achieved just 2,000 mentions on Twitter in the first week following the launch of the film, although it did receive 670,000 views on YouTube. The film was created by adam&eveDDB, which also created the John Lewis film. Like-for-like sales fell by 1.4 per cent in the six weeks to 2 January, it was announced on 7 January.

The expert panel’s view

Frankie Oliver, strategic comms consultant
While this ad brilliant showcased the lovely food you can buy at Waitrose, I found it a bit dull. It was beautifully shot but there was nothing surprising about it. I think I wanted Heston to do something dramatic with a Christmas pudding. He's a magician in the kitchen. So let's see some magic, Waitrose. 

James Gordon-MacIntosh, managing partner, Hope&Glory
The challenge for Waitrose is summed up in its strapline: 'Whatever makes your Christmas.' It’s all a bit 'something for everyone' really, isn’t it? A bit democratic. Just as Waitrose has been embraced by – or at least seeks to appeal to – the nation as a whole, rather than the 'overheard in Waitrose' audience, it has lost the thing that made it magic: that touch of indulgence you want at Christmas.

Chris Hides, managing director, M&C Saatchi PR
Food and drink is a major battleground at Christmas and the Waitrose ad had all of the ingredients that you'd expect the Waitrose Xmas ad to have: families, great food, a drop of Heston, snow, jazz and candles. It enjoyed a record Christmas so the mix clearly did the trick.

PRWeek's view 

The campaign: A snazzy, jazzy soundtrack and a strong focus on the high quality food it sells was pitch-perfect for the middle-class clientele that makes up its customer base, but it’s doubtful the campaign won Waitrose new customers. 
Return on investment: The problem with having a big brother is that they steal your chips. Perhaps John Lewis diverted some of the festive budgets intended for the supermarket.  


Debenhams

The department store embraced a multi-channel approach to its Christmas ‘Found It’ campaign, launched on 6 November. The key plank was a film using Dawn French and James Nesbitt among others, and showing people opening the perfect gift while the voiceover explains the motivation for buying the present. But Debenhams cleverly extended its campaign with a strong PR element by using a competition to encourage customers to use Instagram and Facebook to share the gifts they have found, for a £1,000 prize. It also continued the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag ‘foundit’. The film was created by JWT. Like-for-like sales rose by 1.8 per cent in the nine weeks to 9 January, it announced last Tuesday.

The expert panel’s view

James Gordon-MacIntosh, managing partner, Hope&Glory
Unusually for a festive campaign, the retailer ran its strapline for the second year running, perhaps in the hope that it could own the concept and embed a social behaviour. The trading figures suggest the approach paid off – engaging socially, tapping into a behaviour and activating it and supporting that with ATL drivers had the desired result. A sign of the role activating an existing audience through social can play.

Chris Hides, managing director, M&C Saatchi PR
More product than brand in this straightforward campaign. There was nothing in it to really set it apart, which is what a truly successful retail Christmas ad needs if it’s going to be heard above all of the other noise in the market.

Frankie Oliver, strategic comms consultant
This ad seemed to be made by category brand managers at Debenhams as opposed to the world class ad agency it had hired. Debenhams, we know you sell Jasper Conran and John Rocha bags and nice teddy bears and undies. But telling us that again isn't going to give you a bumper Christmas.

PRWeek's view 

The campaign: It was not the most exciting of the featured campaigns and, with little over 50,000 views, not the most watched either, although there was decent use of social to keep its horse running until Christmas day. 

Return on investment: Debenhams achieved a bump in sales. A respectable effort. 

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