Forget the Grinch stealing Christmas. This year, it is a cute little penguin called Monty that not only steals the show, but also the hearts and minds of the UK populace (and softies everywhere). British department store John Lewis has done it again, with a £1 million commercial (US$ 1.5m) that tells the story of a boy and his penguin pal, on the search for a flippered mate.
At the start of the two-minute spot (more a short film), we are led to believe that the animal is real, but all is revealed at the end. Monty is the child's imaginary friend, a stuffed toy in reality, who is introduced to Mabel on Christmas morning. (Let's leave alone the detail of whether it is appropriate for Monty to be "gifted" his future mate. Perhaps that's the penguin way.)
The commercial itself is cute, but the campaign is far cleverer than just a nice TV spot. Released on You Tube, the commercial has garnered nearly 13 million hits. At the close, the viewer is encouraged to visit John Lewis' Monty's Christmas website, where all manner of Monty paraphernalia awaits - you can purchase the illustrated "Monty's Christmas" book, explore Monty's 360 degree panoramic world on your computer or mobile device, download a storytelling app for your tablet, find out about "Monty's Den" in store, and of course buy your very own Monty and Mabel. You can even purchase the song from the commercial - Tom Odell singing John Lennon's "Real Love".
Almost 30,000 people are following Monty on Twitter too. (Possibly a stuffed toy has more intelligent things to say than many of the Twitterati.)
Mind you, the Monty campaign leads the field in a relatively lean year for great Christmas spots, right across the planet. Last year, UK department store Harvey Nichols had the brilliant "Sorry I Spent It On Myself". (Definitely worth another viewing.) This year though, Harvey Nix has been strangely silent.
Across the Atlantic, US retailers just never seem to capture the same warmth and originality in their Christmas communications, as do their UK counterparts. Perhaps it's the plethora of events at this time of year that includes Halloween and Thanksgiving, which means Christmas is not the only star celebration. Maybe it's not quite politically correct to support Christmas at the expense of other religious
festivals like Hanukkah.
Whatever the reason, my two best festive spots in the US this year are actually not about Christmas (directly anyway). The first one is the "Kmart Not a Christmas Commercial" that launched the season way back in mid-September.
And the second is the American Express ad for "Small Business Saturday", which I think is a very smart promotion as a lead-in to the holidays.
The other commercial I liked that I have seen so far is from Australia. Department store Myer's Christmas commercial is beautifully crafted and based on the insight that as adults we need to rediscover a child's experience of Christmas and "find wonderful".
To come full-circle back to the Monty campaign, is it worth a retailer spending all that time, effort and money on advertising and promotion for Christmas? John Lewis obviously thinks so. And they've proved it in the past. As reported by Dave Birss in The Drum, John Lewis' 2011 Christmas commercial won an industry effectiveness award and delivered over a billion pounds in incremental sales.
So the penguin is intended not only to melt hearts, but also generate cold, hard cash. But it all takes meticulous planning and stellar execution. So if you're a retailer who wants to knock Monty off his perch (or nest?), it's time to start planning for Christmas 2015.
Jon Bird is not affiliated with any of the companies or campaigns mentioned in this post. To avoid journalistic compromise, he has not included his agency network's own Christmas campaigns as part of this review.