The excellence of festive campaigns should teach us that brand engagement is not just for Christmas

November has just started, but ad junkies are already talking about the blockbuster face-off between John Lewis and Marks & Spencer this Christmas.

Brand engagement is not just for Christmas, writes Mark Borkowski
Brand engagement is not just for Christmas, writes Mark Borkowski

PR is deployed to whet consumer appetites by leaking morsels, as if we couldn’t picture what is in store for us. An adorably toothless child in a well-furnished house befriends a fantasy figure with a particular cause for sadness. The figure is a metaphor for the magic of childhood refracted through a wistful gauze of adult memory; we know this because the soundtrack is a popular song from 10 years ago, covered bitter-sweetly by a breathless chanteuse.

Beneath the confident festive formula, there is nervousness among top brands. Sainsbury’s ended a near-40-year relationship with its ad agency despite a run of glossy Christmas ads such as last year’s ‘Mog’ activity. But the supermarket is not the only high-profile retailer to be concerned that millions spent on two months of the year (only to see brand awareness drop soon after) may not be the most strategic use of resource.

Seasonal tearjerkers aside, does anyone really love a brand? In asking this question in the final months of 2016 – a year of rupture and divisiveness – it becomes clear that the usual rules for engaging the public seem as relevant as Old Norse. Impressive as many Christmas campaigns are, there is danger in assuming consumer love can be switched on like fairy lights. It is not brand ethos or culture that engages people but the products. Folks will get mad as hell at the cult of Apple but will jump into rivers of vomit to rescue their iPhones.

Let’s just say your agency manages to make your client’s voice audible above the Yuletide babble – what then? The issue of how PR can help brands stay relevant has given rise to a conflict between the churn of content and the need to engage new audiences. To stay topical is to run a marathon seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Consequently, there is a temptation to focus energies on producing new ‘creative’ content for the sole purpose of justifying a share in the promo budget, rather than breaking out of the brand echo chamber.

The empowerment of micro-channels has neutered traditional media – which is odd if you consider that only 23 per cent of people in the UK have a Twitter account, while more than 60 per cent get their news from newspapers and magazines. A look at this year’s Cannes Lions reveals countless examples of the blurred lines between the PR function and digital marketing and content creation. Many had devised ingenious ways of talking about themselves to their peers – and their videos have a million-plus likes to prove it. But if a campaign is trying to reach a 60-hours-a-week teacher in Newham, Radio 2 or The Sun are still going to be more likely points of access.

The thing to celebrate about the festive season is that campaigns genuinely reach out to the widest possible audience. After Brexit and the transatlantic ripples from Trump, we could all use a cuddly penguin. The message for communicators is that engagement shouldn’t just be for Christmas.

Mark Borkowski is founder of

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