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The UK’s most effective Christmas ads of 2021

December 2021

This is a self-funded case study using our Ad Testing solution.

There’s something magical about Christmas advertising in the UK, the one time of the year where you can — hand on heart — say genuine excitement and anticipation exists around new campaign releases. At Cubery HQ we’ve tested all the major campaigns released in the UK this Christmas (21 in total), assessing not only the most creative ads, but also the most effective.

Why test ads? Because it gives marketers the confidence to know they’ll work, a chance to step outside the marketing bubble and get feedback from a diverse range of people — many of whom have little in common with those behind their creation.

What are some of the overarching themes we’ve observed for Christmas 2021?

  • Those who invested in character development and storytelling rose to the top.
  • Those who deployed less-frequently used emotions (e.g.  humor, nostalgia, inspiration) were able to lift themselves above the Christmas clutter (most brands targeted warm and sentimental feelings).
  • Those who’ve invested in long-term mascots saw the dual benefit of easy identification and instantaneous emotions.
  • A lack of consistency year-to-year, meaning lots of advertising did more for the category than brand.

To rank each ad we use the Cubery Rating, a one number composite measure which equally weights the 3 ‘Cs’ of advertising success:

  • Captivate: Does it stand out and grab attention?
  • Connect: Does it instantly recall the brand?
  • Compel: Does it motivate behavioral change?

Explore more in-depth insights at Cubery’s 2021 Christmas hub.

1. ALDI — Ebanana Scrooge ✩ 71

ALDI’s ‘Kevin the Carrot’ has been a phenomenal success story since first launching in 2016, and this year’s instalment lived up to all the hype — coming in as the most effective Christmas ad of 2021. 

Taking on a classic Charles Dickens-inspired tale, the ad sees the spirit of ‘Kevin the Carrot’ help a grumpy ‘Ebanana Scrooge’ discover the true virtues of the festive season.

The ad was a winner across each of the 3 ‘C’s’ — not only captivating viewers with an engaging story evoking feelings of warmth, amusement, and happiness, but also leveraging an incredibly recognizable (and likable) asset in Kevin.

“It's Kevin. It's a Christmas tradition to have these ads now.”

Read more about ALDI UK's Christmas Ad

2. Sports Direct — Go All Out ✩ 66

Sports Direct brought together a plethora of sporting superstars for an epic snowball fight, including many heroes from England’s 2021 Euros football team. The star-studded cast and humor lifted Sports Direct above the Christmas clutter.

While the celebrities could’ve easily overshadowed everything else, this wasn’t the case. Instead, by featuring them at the heart of the high-octane story, while showing off a range of sporting equipment and apparel throughout, Sports Direct was able to strike a unique tone which was synergistic with people’s expectations of the brand.

“Really good fun, light-hearted advert with lots of famous faces.”

Read more about Sport Direct's Christmas Ad

3. Morrisons — Make Good Things Happen ✩ 66

Morrisons’ 2021 Christmas spot exemplified the power of great storytelling. Departing from the more generic in-store setting and family-oriented theme of 2020, Morrisons stepped it up a notch in 2021 — telling the story of two children discovering ‘Farmer Christmas’, and his magic helpers, who are responsible for bringing the freshest food to homes for Christmas.

The ad paid homage to the important behind-the-scenes role played by many people in delivering, stocking, and preparing the fresh festive food available at Morrisons. This message was wrapped-up in an entertaining and warm-hearted production that built strong emotional affinity for the brand.

“Loved that it was about the supply chain and people that grow/supply the food. Relevant in current times. Quite heart-warming.”

4. Tesco — Nothing’s Stopping Us ✩ 64

Tesco had another Christmas cracker in 2021, following on from its successful ‘No Naughty List’ spot in 2020.

Though not as distinctive as 2020, Tesco deployed an iconic backing ballad from Queen — aptly titled ‘Don’t stop me now’ — to set the tempo as the ad sarcastically illustrated how COVID wouldn’t be getting in the way of a big Christmas celebration this year.

However, backlash to some elements — including Santa needing a COVID passport — prevented it from having even broader appeal.

“It's high energy and there is a very good use of Queen as the song. Plus, it highlights topical news stories that make it seem relevant for 2021.”

5. O2 — We’re Better, Connected ✩ 63

Building on its newly-introduced brand mascot, ‘Bubl’, O2 created a fun-loving story featuring the little robot and his army of friends moving — or rather, stumbling — from door-to-door to gift data to those in need.

‘Bubl’ warmed hearts and put a smile on people’s faces, highlighting the brand’s commitment to ‘connect the disconnected’.

“I like the O2 robot Bubl and his friends. Plus, the generous plans to support others.” 

Read more about O2's Christmas Ad

6. Waitrose — Best Bit Of Christmas ✩ 62

Following Waitrose and John Lewis releasing joint-Christmas campaigns in 2019 and 2020, they both went it alone in 2021.

While prior years had seen the duo follow John Lewis’ pioneering creative approach, Waitrose moved away from this strategy in 2021 — instead making food the centerpiece.

The fun-filled story featured common Christmas tropes being gazumped as the main character, actress Ashley Jensen, tells viewers that Waitrose food is in fact “the best part of Christmas”. Ashley’s continued attempts to make food the star of the show was found unique and amusing.

“I like the main actress — she is funny and relatable. The range of food was delicious.”

7. Marks & Spencer Food — Percy Pig ✩ 62

In a first for the brand, Marks & Spencer brought to life iconic ‘Percy Pig’ this Christmas. With some accidental help from his fairy friend, Percy Pig magically emerges from beneath the Christmas tree before embarking on an adventure to discover the range of gourmet foods available at M&S.

While the showcase of food didn’t build stronger predisposition to M&S, viewers were warm toward Percy — his seamless link back to M&S highlighting the potential offered as a brand asset.

“Focused on some of the M&S Christmas food that's available to buy from their store. I also loved seeing the iconic Percy Pig in the advert.”

8. Lidl — Big On Christmas ✩ 58

Lidl took a futuristic look at Christmas, departing from the brand’s animated approach in 2020. The ad took viewers through a loop of the exact same dinner party scene, each time becoming more futuristic. While many found the approach humorous and attention-grabbing, the repetition did also grate on some people.

With the main character wearing more-and-more futuristic versions of a Lidl branded red/blue/yellow Christmas jumper, viewers were clearly clued into who the advertiser was.

“It made me feel excited for Christmas. I liked the whole space theme — definitely added a unique touch.”

9. Boots — Bags Of Joy ✩ 57

Doctor Who star, Jenna Coleman, featured in Boots’ short-film this year, with the 3-minute cinematic production incorporating elements of fantasy, fun, and festivity.

While the Boots-branded bag (and array of gifts it magically produced) acted as a clear focal point, it was better-remembered for its Mary Poppins-esque superpowers. And while eliciting feelings of warmth and happiness, the ad featured only few intense emotional peaks to retain viewer engagement to a high level throughout.

“It was trying too hard to be a great John Lewis like Christmas advert but was tedious and way too long.”

10. Marks & Spencer — Anything But Ordinary ✩ 56

The second of M&S’s Christmas ads in 2021 wrapped up the fashion and magic of Christmas in a musical-themed production, taking viewers through a range of Christmas festivities as characters strut their stuff.

While the backing track and Christmas tropes couldn’t have captured a much more festive feel, not everyone was able to keep up with the high-energy tempo. Though some cues were present, the brand ultimately lacked a clear and meaningful role in the narrative, leaving many confused as to what it had to do with M&S.

“Didn't highlight what was being sold/ why customers should go to Marks & Spencer.”

11. John Lewis — Unexpected Guest ✩ 54

John Lewis has been a fixture at the top of our Christmas rankings in years gone past, touching people’s hearts with its emotive and whimsical storytelling.

However, while 2021’s narrative — comprising of an extra-terrestrial being crash-landing on earth before she’s introduced to the wonders of Christmas — was still enjoyable, it ultimately lacked the same spark of previous years.

The approach was instead seen to be duller and more generic, subsequently delivering associations that weren’t as uniquely attributed to the brand. As a result, despite eliciting feelings of warmth due to the underlying theme of togetherness and friendship, emotional engagement was more muted than in years gone past.

“I'm a bit bored by John Lewis doing the same sort of thing, especially the tedious slowed down version of an old song.”

Read more about John Lewis' Christmas Ad

12. Vodafone — Gift Of Connection ✩ 53

Vodafone adopted a similar strategy to competitor O2, centering their campaign around the brand’s charitable efforts — specifically its commitment to donate mobile data to those facing hardship.

Though viewers resonated with the message, the way it was brought to life was found lackluster. Championing regular people (dressed in Santa costumes if you were paying close-enough attention to the reflections) travelling to Vodafone stores to donate their old sim cards, ultimately lacked the same evocative response as O2.

“Just a boring Christmas ad.”

Read more about Vodafone's Christmas Ad

13. McDonald’s — Imaginary Iggy ✩ 52

McDonald’s evolved its ‘Reindeer Ready’ platform in 2021 with ‘Imaginary Iggy’, a story highlighting the wavering relationship between a young girl and her imaginary monster friend as she grows up, before having her memory triggered again years later — while sitting in McDonald’s, of course.

While the Pixar-esque story, culminating in the girl’s childlike wonder being reiggy-nited, was a bit of a tear-jerker, it also generated significant confusion. McDonald’s had little to do with enabling the positive outcomes shown, something which the 2020 spot did a better job of in comparison.

“Not sure what the girl’s relationship with the character [had to do with] McDonald’s.”

Read more about McDonald's Christmas Ad

14. Coca-Cola — Real Magic ✩ 50

Coca-Cola is no stranger to the art of long-form storytelling, especially during the holiday season — and this year was no different. ‘Real Magic’ tells the tale of a young boy bringing Christmas joy to an entire block of flats by building a makeshift chimney — a conduit for delivering touching gifts to lonely neighbors.

While some were enamored with the heart-warming story, many others were left feeling bored. This was further compounded by Coca-Cola’s tenuous role, which as a result meant the ad did little to build meaningful difference for the brand.

“Far too long-winded and irrelevant. It took ages to find out what was happening and not really clear it was for Coca-Cola.”

15. Argos — Christmas Is On ✩ 49

Argos said ‘Baubles to last year’ in 2021, going big this Christmas with a quirky, high-energy production which paid homage to the people that really go all out during the festive season.

While the fast-paced montage and backing track sought to draw viewers in from the get-go, it didn’t hit the mark. Overall engagement was flat, and while visuals of the catalogue and gifts available at Argos cued some into the brand, it otherwise lacked a clear and unique link back to Argos. 

“Odd. It was as if they had thrown lots of different video clips in a bag and then tipped the whole lot out. A real jumble.”

16. TK Maxx — To The Maxx ✩ 45

Similarly to Argos, TK Maxx pushed Christmas “To The Maxx” in 2021, featuring a young boy — inspired by his eclectic boots — wowing onlookers at a school concert with his remarkable piano playing abilities.

However, while the high-energy production grabbed viewers’ attention, much of this was for the wrong reasons. The over-the-top theatrics were found irritating by a quarter of people, further compounded by the nearly 2-minute runtime. There was also confusion, much of which related to the ad’s lack of relevance to TK Maxx.

“All of it, incredibly annoying and didn't showcase TK Maxx well at all.”

17. ASDA — Spectacular ✩ 44

ASDA’s ice-skating spectacular took viewers through many familiar aspects of Christmas, including school concerts, office parties, and of course family dinner. Unfortunately, it struggled to strongly engage viewers, with the frenzied progression through multiple scenes detracting from narrative comprehension and emotional engagement.

Despite framing the story in-store, and featuring uniformed staff throughout, people didn’t feel the brand played an overly-active role in facilitating the events which transpired.

“It was very 'hectic and busy' and left me feeling overwhelmed that I stopped paying attention by the end of it.”

18. Sainsbury’s — Christmas To Savor ✩ 42

Sainsbury’s attempted to tap into the excitement of family gatherings resuming again in 2021, taking a snapshot of the festivities taking place in the dining room of one house, and showing a slow-motion recital of all the chaotic, relatable moments occurring simultaneously.

However, even as the freeze-framed scenario and cinematic display rolled on, this wasn’t enough to keep viewers glued to their screens, with the focus on family gatherings seen to be largely generic and not uniquely linked to Sainsbury’s.

“I don't want to see it. It's dated. The obsession with family gatherings for Christmas is tiring.”

19. Amazon — Kindness, The Greatest Gift ✩ 41

Amazon moved further away from its highly effective (and highly recognizable) singing boxes in 2021, instead continuing down the emotive storytelling path first deployed last year — a decision which resulted in it dropping down the Christmas rankings.

Although the conclusion featuring a young woman receiving a touching gift evoked some warmth, it lacked the same emotionally charged climax of 2020. Many instead found the resolve flat and downbeat, which hindered how memorable Amazon’s role was perceived to be in enabling the eventual outcome.

“Grim, not colourful and music is depressing — not festive at all.”

Read more about Amazon's Christmas Ad

20. Very — Very Best Excuse ✩ 36

Very was the earliest entrant to the festive celebrations this year, releasing its spot prior to Halloween. While the ironic Christmas carol attempted to build humor by making light of this fact, the ad elicited overwhelming negativity.

Despite integrating the brand name throughout the carols, the lyrics went over most people’s heads. As a result, the ad ultimately left many feeling irritated and confused about who the retailer was, and what it offered versus competitors.

“I don't think the ad communicates the concept clearly enough, not least because I had a difficult time making out the lyrics that were being sung.”

Read more about Very's Christmas Ad

21. Selfridges — Christmas Of Dreams ✩ 25

Selfridges created a surreal, game show-like montage this Christmas, a theme which was equal parts classic and futuristic.

The eccentric and abstract style and characters failed to emotionally resonate, exacerbated further by the screeching voiceover — prompting many to tune out completely.

The ad’s saving grace was that this approach is entirely unlike what anyone would ever expect of Selfridges, with ‘cheap’ associations taken away from the ad at odds with the retailer’s established high-end positioning. As a result, perceptions of fit were extremely low.

“It seemed cheap, tacky and more appropriate for a budget store.”

Read more about Selfridges Christmas Ad

Explore our in-depth insights at Cubery’s 2021 Christmas hub.

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