Say what you will about modern retail brands, but you can’t accuse them of not putting enough effort into the festive season. The Christmas advert has, over the years, become something of an institution, especially in British life. While they might have the ultimate goal of boosting sales at this peak shopping period, the ads have themselves come to take on the characteristics of presents themselves: grandly unveiled, more narratively-driven, and more lusciously-produced than what we see on our screens at any other time of year.
The message, in other words, is not just buy, but enjoy. Retail brands are communicating that, as a thank you for a year of patronage, they want to give something back. The result is that John Lewis’s annual tearjerker (for example) has become a cultural moment in and of itself.
The winter of content
As marketers, though, we know that we can never rest on our laurels when it comes to engagement and sentiment, and there are few retail brands out there which can keep seeing new returns from the same creative investment. And, indeed, the Christmas marketing blitz has kept up with the times – it seems likely, in fact, that more people will see the full versions of this year’s crop of festive ads on social media and YouTube than see it actually on TV.
One upshot of this is that it gives marketers greater scope to roll out new edits and versions across the period: once a consumer has discussed the creative on Facebook, they can be shown fifteen-second versions highlighting specific products.
At the same time, though, we have to ask whether seeking organic consumer discussion of these high-cost campaigns is the extent of the benefit we can drive through social. Over the last couple of years, TikTok has emerged a bit of a signal for the direction of travel across social platforms: by simultaneously delivering content in a seamless stream and triggering interaction on a massive scale, its remixable videos seem to combine the best of traditional video programming with social media’s openness and authenticity.
TikTok goes beyond creating discussion around something and draws its users into being active participants within it. So far, a handful of British advertisers have made this part of their Christmas campaigns, with Pret a Manger generating 1.5 billion views with its “#JoyWithPret Challenge’ last year, and M&S using it to tease its celebrity backing this year.
Experientially, TikTok can provide much richer offerings than the short story format that has come to dominate our airwaves by giving consumers a stake in the campaign and opening the creative up the emergent playfulness which internet communities excel at.
Giving and receiving engagement
Ultimately, I don’t think that all of this will eliminate what we recognise as a Christmas advert today. TikTok users, after all, are also TV watchers (and magazine readers, and Twitter scrollers, and billboard seers) and marketers need to market the way consumers consume – always on across all channels and screens.
TikTok will, however, become a regular component of Christmas campaigns and change the work that needs to go into them. To win consistently at this challenge, marketers must focus on two things. First, creative will need to become more flexible, accommodating interactive and non-linear formats while still offering a resonant emotional centre.
Second, marketers will need tools which meet the challenge of activating, managing and measuring campaigns across many channels, including TikTok. As viewers move through this new omnichannel landscape, working with all of that data will give us the opportunity to tailor and personalise their experience, inviting them into a sincere relationship with the retail brand’s story.
And that, for marketers, really is a gift.