If there’s one dominant theme from the 2016 supermarket Christmas campaigns, it is: ‘stick to what you know works’.
Overall, most major retailers reported positive trading during this festive season. While it’s difficult to say how much should be credited directly to the festive campaigns, there were certainly fewer Christmas turkeys from the retail giants in 2016.
It comes amid a more positive mood among UK retail generally over the festive season. According to the British Retail Consortium (BRC), last month saw a 1.7 per cent year-on-year rise in retail spending, compared to growth of 0.9 per cent in December 2015.
"Despite the slow start to the Christmas trading period, the week itself was a bumper one and exceeded expectations," said BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson, pointing out that food sales were particularly strong.
Below, PRWeek ranks the campaigns from seven major supermarket and retail groups in descending order, looking at the creativity of the campaigns themselves, social media engagement and – crucially – financial performance during the most wonderful time of the year.
1) John Lewis
John Lewis did it again. The retailer once more marked the unofficial start of the festive season with the release of its annual campaign, and the stats are eye-opening. The ‘Bounce’ Christmas video, launched on 10 November, had generated 56m views across YouTube and Facebook by 15 December – dwarfing last year’s Man on the Moon campaign, which received 24m over the whole festive period. By mid-December, the campaign also notched up almost one million shares, 520,000 ‘likes’, while ‘Bounce’ had 240,000 mentioned on Twitter by that date, according to Brandwatch data – 89 per cent of tweets mentioned happiness. The heartwarming campaign focused on a little girl and her dog who love to bounce - and their joy at the Christmas present of a trampoline. The integrated campaign cost £7m overall. Creative agency adam&eveDDB, which made the previous year’s Man on The Moon and 2014’s Monty the Penguin, was once again behind the most recent execution. John Lewis outperformed the market over the period, growing like-for-like sales at department stores 2.7 per cent in the six weeks to 31 December.
Andrew Bloch, founder and group MD, Frank PR
"Expectations were understandably high, and this year's ad didn't fail to deliver. John Lewis gave a masterclass in how to create an integrated campaign via innovative use of Snapchat and Twitter stickers, a partnership with Sky, and a virtual reality experience on offer at its Oxford Street store. The intensity of effort that clearly went into making all the marketing channels on offer work so hard, is a reflection of what it now takes to cut through and make a meaningful impact during the biggest sales period of the year. The fact that John Lewis outperformed the market again this year is an indicator that its approach is still effective."
Misha Dhanak, co-founder and CEO, The Romans
"Once again, John Lewis retained its position as the annual klaxon of Christmas. Given the volume of noise and brand love that Buster the Boxer generated through a far-reaching integrated campaign that considered every customer touchpoint available to John Lewis, supported with a myriad of additional promotions and in-store activity, it is no surprise to see like-for-like sales increase in the run up to Christmas. Woof."
The campaign: John Lewis showed once again it has the magic formula for a cracking Christmas campaign. Tapping into fundamental human emotions but without feeling overly saccharin or clichéd, Bounce is a true festive delight, and the amount of engagement on social media suggests it struck a chord with a broad demographic.
Return on investment: The John Lewis festive juggernaut continued, and while £7m is not an insignificant outlay, the sales growth suggests this was absolutely value for money.
PRWeek score: 9/10
2) Marks & Spencer
After last year’s rather flat campaign, which focused on products rather than narrative, M&S returned to story-telling mode. Mrs Claus was the James Bond-like hero in the retailer’s integrated campaign, flying across London in her helicopter to give a present to little Anna, magically delivering a white Christmas as she leaves, in a film by ad firm RKCR/Y&R. Mrs Claus took over M&S’ Twitter and Facebook feeds after launch, responding with personalised messages, helped by a 10-strong social media team. After launch, #LoveMrsClaus was trending third on Twitter, UK-wide. The film received 14 million views across YouTube and Facebook, by 15 December, along with 120,000 ‘likes’ and 110,000 shares. It had 54,000 mentions on Twitter, with 89 per cent expressing happiness. After last year’s dismal festive period for M&S, the company said 2016 was its best Christmas in six years – like-for-like sales grew 1.3 per cent in the 13 weeks to 31 December. Like-for-like clothing sales grew 2.3 per cent, after falling six per cent in same period in the previous year.
"Marks & Spencer really ramped up its efforts with this year's Christmas campaign in an attempt to win back its core customers. They put the spotlight on Mrs Claus as a stylish, festive, 55-year-old woman. The efforts were worthwhile – the ad won the hearts and minds of customers and the retailer reported its best Christmas in six years."
"One of my favourites; the red dress saved the day at M&S."
The campaign: A creative return to form, Mrs Claus ticked lots of boxes with a confident, engaging narrative and a strong female protagonist. The lesson: people want a story at Christmas. Bringing back a likeable central character or characters, as in 2014’s PRWeek Award-winning Follow the Fairies campaign, was also a good move, supported effectively on social media.
Return on investment: The campaign helped M&S return a very decent trading performance after a challenging festive period in the previous year.
PRWeek score: 8/10
Waitrose’s Home for Christmas campaign focused on a young Scandinavian robin travelling across land and sea to be reunited with his feathered companion. The video, created by adam&eveDDB, achieved 10 million views as of mid-December, of which nearly seven million were on Facebook, where it also received 72,000 shares and nearly 160,000 ‘likes’. It’s in contrast to the previous year, when the unmemorable What Makes Your Christmas campaign was more of a straight-bat showcase of festive wares. Waitrose had a good Christmas trading-wise; like-for-like sales rose 2.8 per cent in the six weeks to 31 December, boosted by one-day promotions for seasonal staples such as Champagne and crackers.
"The Waitrose ad was a warming story that spoke to the spirit of togetherness in the festive season. It stood in marked contrast to last year’s ads which aimed to showcase Waitrose food but was deemed a bit dull and did little in terms of engagement. The revised approach was rewarded with a 2.8 per cent increase in sales in the run up to Christmas."
"Visually stunning and with a beautiful score, the Waitrose campaign certainly silenced the room in my house when it played. What was particularly classy was the accompanying children’s book, aptly penned by Michael Morpurgo, with a copy donated to every primary school in Britain (that’s 30,000 copies) as well as proceeds from in-store sales going to Crisis."
The campaign: Home for Christmas was stylish, beautifully shot and emotional without being corny or over-stated; a good fit for the Waitrose brand.
Return on investment: The campaign seemed to strike a chord with Waitrose’s well-heeled target audience, contributing to the growth in sales.
PRWeek score: 8/10
Aldi’s Kevin the Carrot campaign starred the eponymous vegetable and his adventures at the Christmas table, eventually meeting Santa for the bearded one’s deliveries. The video easily trumped the previous year’s John Lewis spoof, with 6.3m views by mid-December, mostly on Facebook. It was also shared 32,000 times and received 93,000 ‘likes’, although it received just 2,700 mentions on Twitter. Aldi said sales grew 15 per cent in December against the same month in 2015. It did not release same-store sales growth figures, although the company said these were "strongly positive". Sales of its Specially Selected premium range (including products such as Argentinian Malbec, mince pies and a 30-day aged roasting joint) rose 27 per cent.
"For the first time this year, Aldi embraced the storytelling technique that has proved so popular among its rivals, and Kevin the Carrot, a vegetable with its own Twitter account, was the star of the show. The ad received a disproportionate amount of media attention and consumer engagement, and Aldi have been rewarded by a total sales increase of 15 per cent."
"Aldi’s campaign was timed really well in the race to launch – no mean feat - and therefore got a lot of early Christmas attention. Their cryptic launch of Kevin the Carrot was especially clever in creating intrigue in the campaign, which has paid off at the tills."
The campaign: Aldi hit the right festive notes with this one. In Kevin, the campaign had a quirky but loveable and memorable protagonist with wide appeal. The video was also a good showcase for Aldi’s Christmas range, underlying the message that the budget supermarket group’s festive products are on par with those from its more expensive rivals.
Return on investment: The sales lift says it all, but growth in the premium lines suggests the campaign’s message about product quality resonated with shoppers.
PRWeek score: 7/10
Last year Morrisons played squarely on the message that it makes more of its own products in store than other supermarkets. This year the campaign delivered the same message with more creativity, launching a series of short films under the tag line Morrisons Makes It. One film depicts children answering general knowledge questions with Christmas-themed answers; another shows family members finding inventive places to store festive goods. The campaign amassed 163,000 views by 15 December, with around 3,500 ‘likes’ and 1,400 mentions on Twitter. Morrisons said it had its best Christmas sales in seven years. Like-for-like sales exceeded expectations at +2.9 per cent in the nine weeks to 3 January.
"Morrisons’ strategy was to launch a series of Christmas ads as opposed to the one-off blockbuster approach favoured by some of their retail rivals. They used their ads to continue the 'Morrisons Makes It' story as a way of reinforcing their point of difference as a foodmaker and shopkeeper. With sales figures at a seven-year high, it appears that this approach has paid off, and as CEO David Potts puts it helped Morrisons ‘find their mojo’."
"The Morrison’s approach stood out for creating more than 'one big ad' but each piece of work reinforced the same thing: the provenance of their food. This single-minded focus on what makes them stand out from the other supermarkets appears to have been a great success."
The campaign: Last year PRWeek described Morrisons’ 2015 effort as "a modest film with modest engagement". The 2016 campaign was a clear improvement, injecting enough creativity to generate more interest. Social media engagement was poor compared to rivals, but it is sales that matter, and in this respect the campaign delivered.
Return on investment: Healthy sales growth suggests the company is right to stick to its core message.
PRWeek score: 7/10
The retail behemoth centred its 2016 campaign on the slogan Bring It On, and included a series of films starring the ‘Tesco family’ headed by actors Ruth Jones and Ben Miller. The initial, one-minute film saw Jones walking through aisles gradually becoming more enthused by the prospect of Christmas as she spots festive goods on the shelves. The video, created by BBH, had 1.2 million views, mainly via Facebook, as of 15 December. On Facebook, it received around 1,000 shares and 10,000 ‘likes’, and was mentioned on Twitter just over 1,600 times. Shorter follow-up films focused on other aspects of Christmas life at the ‘family’. On the trading front, Christmas 2016 was fairly good for Tesco, with like-for-like sales up 0.7 per cent in the six weeks to 7 January (food like-for-likes rose 1.3 per cent).
"Tesco stuck to a proven formula by bringing back the Tesco family, who debuted last year, for its 2016 festive campaign. This consistency in approach was matched with a consistency in sales performance, with the retailer reporting its eighth consecutive quarter of volume growth and their third successful Christmas."
"Tesco’s Christmas offering was early out of the blocks with a comparatively quieter route than some of its counterparts. But I liked the direct and positive attitude of ‘Bring It On’ and this no nonsense route certainly hasn’t harmed sales."
The campaign: Tesco’s marketing in recent years has been built on not straying too far from proven tactics, and this continued with the 2016 Christmas campaign; unspectacular, and hardly original, but a nice sentiment delivered by well-liked personalities.
Return on investment: Giving the marginal but welcome growth over Christmas, if Tesco wants slow, steady progress – in doing so, avoiding expensive blockbuster campaigns in favour of an understated and proven formula - it appears to be on the right track.
PRWeek score: 6/10
After last year’s Mog’s Christmas campaign, starring the eponymous feline, Sainsburys’ musical extravaganza The Greatest Gift was bigger and grander. James Corden was recruited for the state-of-the-art animation video, created by ad firm AMV BBDO, which follows our hero enduring the stresses and strains of the festive period before realising that what really matters is being with loved ones. The video generated 15.3 million views by 15 December, an impressive figure, although slightly short of last year’s total by that date. On Facebook, the campaign received 12,000 shares and 13,000 ‘likes’ by mid-December, and 47,000 mentions on Twitter, of which 91 per cent registered happiness. Sainsbury’s performance at the tills was mixed. Like-for-like sales in shops rose just 0.1 per cent for the 15 weeks to 7 January, while volumes were flat on a like-for-like basis. However, the firm said it had a record Christmas week, with more than 30 million customer transactions at the supermarket.
"Sainsbury's pulled out all the stops with this year's musical Christmas advert. The investment in big names and accompanying budgets fell somewhat short, with the retailer posting modest performance figures for the period. Maybe Mog the Cat will be bought out of retirement for the 2017 ad?"
"I really liked this campaign for being the most relevant depiction of time-strapped life in Britain but perhaps more could have been done to extend the conversation beyond the initial announcement of the ad. Could the retailer have perhaps offered in-store solutions to this problem they had perfectly identified, providing support/relief/entertainment for busy families in the run up to Christmas?"
The campaign: There’s not much particularly wrong with the video; it’s big, bright, and upbeat, with a nice soundtrack. The trouble is more thematic. Successful retailer Christmas campaigns in recent years have tended to tap into our emotions with universal themes, delivered with enough originality to generate discussion. The Greatest Gift fails to tug on the heartstrings, and the central message – that family is the most important thing at Christmas – feels hackneyed. The result is somewhat unmemorable and uninspiring.
Return on investment: Sainsbury’s didn’t reveal the cost of the campaign, but the underwhelming trading performance suggests The Greatest Gift didn’t quite produce the sales boost the company would have hoped for.