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Thanks to their hotly-anticipated, awe-inspiring Christmas campaigns, John Lewis has long been synonymous with the festive season — fostering a cult following to the point where many feel Christmas hasn’t officially begun until the brand’s seasonal advert has been released.
Although many of the UK’s leading retailers have followed suit and adopted similarly emotive and whimsical storytelling approaches, John Lewis has always managed to stand out from the crowd and maintain unofficial ‘ownership’ of the season.
However, 2021’s campaign marks a departure for the brand — pivoting from their long-held positioning around “thoughtful gift giving” to “A Christmas as magical as your first”. It’s seemingly recognition of the heartache felt over the last few years, and in particular a lost Christmas in 2020 due to lockdowns.
The spot features an extra-terrestrial being crash-landing on earth as a hesitant youngster named Nathan introduces her to the festive season’s joys — a theme reminiscent of “Stranger Things”. But does ‘Unexpected Guest’ live up to the brand’s lofty standards, or has this well-worn formula — and new positioning — seen it start to blend in with the crowd? To find out, we tested it using our three C’s framework:
Despite the heartfelt narrative of Nathan befriending an interplanetary alien — and supporting soundtrack — being well-enjoyed, the ad didn’t elicit the same emotional response as 2019 (Excitable Edgar) or 2020 (Give a Little Love).
With the approach not found overly dissimilar to what people are typically used to seeing from John Lewis (or other Christmas advertisers), emotional engagement was dampened — with a greater volume of dull and generic sentiment in 2021.
The specific emotions elicited by the ad further reflected this, with feelings of warmth, happiness, and inspiration all significantly down versus previous years — despite positivity toward the underlying message of friendship and togetherness.
John Lewis hasn’t historically played a meaningful role in the brand’s Christmas communications. Rather, it has relied on heart-warming, story-based approaches centered around giving meaningful gifts. This style has become so embedded in people’s minds that it has itself become a distinctive branding property.
While this has meant John Lewis has historically received a disproportionate slice of the festive cheer due to their category-leading work, a combination of the factors outlined above culminated in the associations 2021’s spot evoked being less uniquely attributable to the brand than in previous years.
Two elements have forever remained at the heart of John Lewis’ Christmas communications strategy:
A relentless focus on these two areas has seen John Lewis continually reinforce its association with the Christmas period over the years and sustain emotional affinity with the brand.
However, 2021’s ‘Unexpected Guest’ was unable to transfer the same emotional appeal onto John Lewis. What originally started as an approach that differentiated the brand has evolved into one which has now become more of an expectation, rather than surprise — subsequently diluting emotional impact.
As a result, predisposition to the brand — including perceptions of the retailer being different to others — fell well-below the benchmark typically set.
“The Sea of Sameness” is a phrase often used to describe brands across a category adopting a homogenous communications strategy. We saw it pop-up frequently during the pandemic as many brands deployed an analogous method of reassuring people that “we’ll get through this together”.
This presents an ever-growing challenge for advertisers looking to capitalize on the festive period, with more and more brands utilizing touching, uplifting approaches to evoke feelings of connection and togetherness.
While John Lewis has long been the best and most iconic of the bunch, it sets a high benchmark and inspires others to attempt replicating their success. By taking a familiar — and maybe overly-consistent — approach, diluted through a less-recognizable and less-ownable positioning, 2021’s Christmas spot lacked the same festive spark we’re used to seeing from John Lewis.
This is a self-funded case study using our Ad Testing solution.