The busiest time of the year starts earlier and earlier, and nowadays we also have to contend with that very American concept of “Black Friday”. A day of cut price promotions – and cut throat marketing – it has slipped into the accepted British consciousness, without even so much of a “how much?”. So called because traditionally U.S. retailers have to wait until this particular date in the calendar (last Friday of November and the day after Thanksgiving) before their bank balances turn into the ‘black’, we’re now seeing this kind of pre-Christmas sale on this side of the pond. And as committed Christmas consumers, we’re not complaining about the Black Friday goldrush. A bargain is a bargain is it not?
The annual volley of Christmas adverts now begins as soon the Bonfire Night embers are fading and the Halloween pumpkin candles are extinguished. It’s a veritable race out of the starting blocks – you snooze, you lose. And Christmas adverts are now considered ‘event television’.
As usual, this year’s winner appears to be John Lewis, with their annual mega-budget pull-on-the-heartstrings tearjearker. Just think what that alleged £7m budget could have done for Help the Aged directly? Notwithstanding, it’s a brilliant, memorable and innovative piece of advertising, which not once refers to the products they sell, or the prices they sell them at. God only knows what Don Draper would make of it (although he did love an ad that told a story).
But ultimately, it’s about branding. And by placing their brands at the heart of Christmas, retailers can sleep that little bit easier after their turkey lunch. Arguably Sainsbury’s have had the most under-rated Christmas adverts of the last few years, and you just need to look at Coca-Cola’s nationwide experiential truck tour each year, to understand the value they place on it. (My personal current favourite by the way is the Warburton’s / Muppets collaboration, who have produced an entirely warm and endearing advert for us crumpet lovers.) And it’s the Starbucks red cup season, which has somehow even managed to be controversial this year. Marks & Spencer on the other hand, just can’t seem to get it right – it’s just too desperate somehow. Magic & Sparkle? Behave yourself.
And indeed this brings me to the whole reason that brands engage in this kind of festive fist fight. Two words: competitive advantage. And it’s becoming increasingly competitive, and increasingly difficult to find your voice in a crowded Christmas market. Customers ultimately want authenticity, which John Lewis have in abundance from a consistent stream of emotional Christmas ads over the last few years. Adopting cultural holidays is a phenomenon that is widening – Valentines, Halloween, Easter, Mothers’ day. Town centres push to have the biggest, the best, the most authentic Christmas market – a trip to Manchester’s on a Saturday afternoon demonstrates their overwhelming popularity. And retail centres aren’t far behind either, with Santa’s grottos, ice rinks and Christmas lights switch-ons all marketing tools, to sharpen that competitive edge. What makes you different? Why should I spend my money at Medowhall, rather than in Sheffield city centre? Retail centres are increasingly adopting the mentality of visitor attractions, they need to be a destination, they need to attract tourists.
Personally however, I like to do all of my Christmas shopping online. In my John Lewis Christmas pyjamas of course… with a nice cold glass of coke. The holidays are coming!