Big budgets, bags of joy and John Lewis to retain its crown? What PR pros expect from 2017's Christmas campaigns

Ahead of this year's highly anticipated Christmas campaigns, comms professionals tell PRWeek UK what they expect from the likes of John Lewis, Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer.

How will this year's Christmas campaigns differ from last year's efforts (above)?

Christmas is coming. And while 2017 has been fraught with tragic global events, comms professionals do not expect the major retailers to create campaigns that reflect this.

PRWeek's 2017 Christmas campaigns analysis panel instead predict that big brands will opt for messages that seek to inspire and lift spirits.

Nik Govier, co-founder at Unity, says brands should look to close the year with campaigns that promote hope and optimism for the future. "That's at the very heart of the Christmas story," Govier says.

In 2014 Unity created the #FollowTheFairies campaign on behalf of then client Marks & Spencer during what Govier describes as "a particularly dark year when ISIS was looming large".

"And that's one of the reasons why the campaign resonated so well," she says.

"In a time of darkness we tapped into that little bit of everyone that secretly wished fairies existed and reminded everyone that a little bit of kindness can go a long way."

According to David Fraser, founder at PRWeek 'New Consultancy of the Year' Ready10, brands will not be heavily influenced by global events, arguing that consumers would prefer not to be reminded of "some of the more serious things going on in the world".

Fraser says: "Christmas for many is still about magic, inspiration and family and I think people will want to hang on to that."

Ranj George, who heads the UK consumer division at global agency Lewis, says that despite "horrific incidents" this year, we should expect campaigns that channel the "insurmountable British mentality of 'keep calm and carry on'". 

Big budgets and blockbuster campaigns?

George also thinks there will be a more frugal use of celebrity endorsement this year, and a greater focus on the brands themselves.

Govier, meanwhile, expects big budgets, adding that no brand will miss the opportunity to milk Christmas "for all it's worth" and steal a march on the competition ahead of 2018.

Similarly, James Herring, founder at consumer PR agency Taylor Herring, says that because many retailers depend on this quarter to hit profit targets, budgets overall "will probably be unaffected".

However, he adds: "This is potentially a tough time for consultancies as procurement departments are going to demand more hours for less. Agencies need to stand firm."

Like Govier and Herring, Emma Hazan, global head of consumer at Hotwire, says retailers cannot afford to scrimp and save on their Christmas campaigns.

She says: "Although messaging from some retailers might include getting the most value out of Christmas, their campaigns need to inspire and excite consumers so belt-tightening their actual ad won't do that."

Value for money

While most panellists expect brands to spend big this Christmas, all believe they will emphasise value as part of their messaging.

Fraser says the best way for a retailer to "screw up" its Christmas comms is by failing to show appropriate sensitivity to social issues such as cuts to public services and the increased use of food banks.

He says: "We all know and hear the accusations of media-land being too London and middle-class centric and I think these brands ignore what their consumers are telling them and how they feel at their peril."

Given current economic insecurities, George says all retailers will "want to be seen to show value for money", adding, however, that quality and brand reassurance must go hand in hand with this approach.

George says: "There is still an aspirational aspect - consumers still feel Christmas is a special time of year and this needs to be reflected in any campaign."

Partnerships must be authentic

The PR pros also expect brands to create Christmas campaigns in partnership with good causes and charitable organisations – as Sainsbury's did alongside the Royal British Legion in 2014, for instance.

However, that campaign divided opinion on social media, with some describing it as exploitative. To avoid this, Hazan says tie-ins must be credible and authentic, arguing that without these, Christmas campaigns could do more harm than good. 

Echoing Hazan, Herring says: "With so many in on this game now the brand/charity fit needs to be 100 per cent authentic and purposeful in order to swerve consumer indifference or, dare I say, cynicism."

Will Christmas 2017 see the advent of the influencer?

Alongside good causes, Govier says it is inevitable influencers will feature more widely this year than in previous campaigns.

She says: "Every campaign will have influencers in the mix in one way or another – it's just a question of how it's balanced with other key campaign ingredients. It would be interesting to create a pudding mix of all the core marketing/message ingredients and then measure the campaigns on where they've put their emphasis."

Herring says marketers have finally caught up with "the influencer racket". He also says the "regular YouTube glitterati" will play second fiddle to less famous names this year.

"Smart marketers will get behind targeted social media channels with maybe fewer followers but demonstrably higher engagement rates or content specialism," Herring says.

In contrast, Fraser does not expect 2017 to be "an influencer Christmas".

He says: "I don't think this will play out in many of the ad creatives themselves as the big retail brands have a broad church of customers they need to appeal to. The exception could be a brand like Superdrug, which has had great success appealing to younger customers via influencer-led comms."

Fraser does concede, however, that influencer activity could increase this year via the distribution and sharing of campaigns on social media.

Will John Lewis retain its crown?

For several years the most popular Christmas campaign has been created by John Lewis.

Its 2016 film 'Bounce' trounced the opposition, achieving a staggering 56 million views across YouTube (see below) and Facebook by mid-December. As a result, PRWeek asked panellists what the retailer must do to retain its crown. 

George says: "The John Lewis ad has become a British institution. People will always compare previous iterations with the forthcoming ad, but as long as it continues to bring the unexpected that inspires people and potentially changes their attitude toward others, it will retain its crown."

Similarly, Fraser says: "John Lewis has a well-worn and trusted formula that works – a good insight (a dad building a trampoline the night before, a kid looking forward to it a month out) and a relatable creative and spellbinding music. If it keeps doing that, it's on to a winner. That said, you get the impression that Sainsbury's is coming for it."

For Hazan, John Lewis has to remember that "people love a good cry". She says: "If you get me to well up, I'm yours for another year."

Herring, however, has issued a warning: "A phased campaign that will build in the run up to Christmas is far more valuable than a viral flash-in-the-pan that burns bright and quickly fades."

Govier, too, offers a warning about John Lewis' prospects, saying: "In the cut-throat world of retail no one is safe."

While the panellists expect messages that spread joy and inspire people, it is clear that John Lewis faces stiff – and hopefully creative  competition.

In the coming weeks, PRWeek and its expert panel will be analysing the major Christmas campaigns; breaking down what the retailers (and their agencies) did well and how they can improve next year.

Read next: Retail Christmas campaigns: which were the commercial AND creative hits, according to PRWeek?

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