It used to be that Christmas had arrived in advertising terms when the Coca Cola 'holidays are coming' truck chugged on to our TV screens. Not anymore. Move over the red-coated Coca Cola Santa and make way for a series of retailers lining up to get us to shop with them this Christmas.
Last year, John Lewis reportedly spent £1million making its ad for the festive campaign, with a further £7 million spent on buying advertising media. It recorded sales of £777 million in December last year. Not a bad return on investment. However, the interesting point about these figures is that the big growth area for John Lewis was in online sales, which grew by 19%. This indicates the increased complexity of the retail market at Christmas as shoppers become much more sophisticated in how they approach the festive spending season.
The newly-released advertising campaign for John Lewis this year acknowledges the complexity of the Christmas market. Note that this time the present is delivered remotely to the old man, not given personally as in previous John Lewis ads. This is a creative acknowledgement of the role that online now plays in this marketplace, which creates particular issues for John Lewis as a brand and how it uses these ads.
John Lewis does not have 'staff'. It has partners and they are, in many senses, the John Lewis 'brand'. This is not just a shop that is 'never knowingly undersold'. Its key is often that its customers are never knowingly under-served. But how do you get the partners to deliver this at a critical part of the year? How do you get them to buy into how management and advertising agencies have spent what is the partner's money? You make them part of the story.
The giver of the gift in all John Lewis ads is never just the customer. The girl in this year's ad also represents a partner making sure that the customer not only gets what he wants, but gets the John Lewis experience as well. These ads are aimed as much at the partners as they are at both regular and infrequent John Lewis customers.
Christmas is vital to retailers. The average weekly spend in the UK retail industry in December 2014 was £9 billion. December for many retailers is when money is made, but that means playing for high stakes in a highly-competitive market. So, although the media may get excited, and in some instances somewhat sanctimonious about how retailers spend millions on these 'TV ads', the retailers know that getting it right can produce an enormous return on investment and this can help see them through less festive times in the year ahead.
Selecting the right time when launching these campaigns and how the launch is constructed is vital. It's not as simple as purchasing a spot in peak-time on ITV. Even if Downton Abbey was doing the ratings it once was, catch-up viewing later in the week can blunt the 'water cooler' moment that gets everyone talking about your new ad.
Now pre-launch on social media hypes the TV rollout, and with ads like the John Lewis ones, that often contain much more detail and complexity than the average 'crash bang' retail commercial, this second showing on TV allows that more leisurely weekend viewing to work harder in gaining not just attention but active engagement, often in group viewing situations that capture what is not just one target audience but several.
Of course one might argue that if online is growing then should this still be the case? Getting online right in terms of back office systems did cause John Lewis problems last year. But 56% of its online trade is in fact 'click and collect' and if people come to the shop to collect, then the 2015 TV ad has worked and some of those people won't just be leaving the store with their online order. Or So John Lewis must hope.