The potential for emotional storytelling to create and galvanise a distinct and reliable brand identity has long been understood by marketers and advertisers. John Lewis can be seen as the epitome of this form of marketing and as such its annual Christmas brand film, the benchmark to which other businesses aspire to. Here, we look at the so-called ‘John Lewis Effect’ by looking at how the company started a national TV advertising event and what small businesses can learn from such adroit brand marketing.
Understanding brand identity and the John Lewis Effect
Like all brand marketing, John Lewis’s brand marketing distils a set of values through a distinctive and compelling narrative arc. Evoking familiar Christmas themes of family, friendship and the act of giving, this style of filmmaking has evolved into one that is reliably uplifting and tear jerking. Key to its success is the ability of the company’s advertising to never appear formulaic or trite. It is at once, emotionally consistent and constantly reinventing itself.
There is a lot that small businesses can learn from John Lewis’s Christmas brand marketing and I will go into some of the specifics shortly. Perhaps the most striking characteristic that can be seen throughout the years, though, is that it has always put brand messaging behind its perennial mission to capture the spirit of Christmas. In this sense it has created a precedent that many brands now strive to follow: story first, brand second.
Bears, hares and monsters called Moz
John Lewis’s annual Christmas brand advert has done that very rare thing in marketing and become a national event. By creating advertising around Christmas that completely demotes branding in favour of well structured narrative and emotional resonance, the company has in fact created one of the most powerful and enduring brands in the UK.
Before we look at what small businesses can learn from the masters of brand marketing, let’s remind ourselves of the evolution of John Lewis Christmas advertising over the last decade.
2007 – Shadows
2007’s Christmas ad was a very clever way of showcasing John Lewis products, without trying to actually sell them to us. None of those familiar emotional tugs evident at this point.
2008 – From me to you
Once again, John Lewis is cleverly showcasing its products without actually appearing to be promoting them. It does this by tying them into a wider narrative or theme. First signs of the prominence of music that will become a John Lewis Xmas stalwart.
2009 – Sweet Child o’ Mine
Products again feature prominently but they are beginning to become completely incidental to the narrative and the delivery of an emotionally pleasing climax. That emotional suckerpunch still isn’t quite perfected at this stage yet and this still inherently feels like an advert that wants to sell us something.
2010 – A tribute to givers
Featuring the first of four top ten singles to come off the back of a John Lewis Christmas ad, Ellie Goulding’s cover of Elton John’s ‘Your Song’ shows the direction the company is going in, in terms of tying the narrative arc to original covers of well known songs.
2011 – The long wait
By almost doubling the runtime of their Christmas ad in 2011 (a bold move that would have cost the company more to run the commercial), John Lewis was able to tell a complete story and create enough build up to deliver the most heartfelt and effective emotional resolution to date.
2012 – The journey
An undoubted nod to Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman, by 2012 a clear John Lewis brand style can be seen evolving; one that puts giving at the heart of its Christmas message. Again, a potent and effective use of music to really bring the concept to life.
2013 – The Bear and the Hare
John Lewis’s first foray into animation, the Bear and Hare will be seen by many as the moment JL Christmas advertising became a national event. Universally acclaimed and a huge break in terms of style and approach to what has proceeded, the 2013 ad showed the company’s willingness to take risks and not stick to the script.
2014 – Monty the Penguin
Riding high on the success of the Bear and the Hare, Monty the Penguin again hits all the right buttons. Clever use of a realistic CGI Penguin and another standout cover song (John Lennon’s ‘Real Love’ sung by Tom Odell) the Monty ad was another runaway success for the company.
2015 – Man on the Moon
Dubbed ‘sadvertising’ by some in the media, JL’s 2015 Main on the Moon ad was brave in that it addressed themes of isolation and old age alongside the now perennial theme of Christmas giving. The result was a somewhat mixed reaction, but a nonetheless potent piece of advertising.
2016 – Buster the Boxer
Perhaps as a reaction to some of the negativity around Man on the Moon, Buster the Boxer puts animals centre stage again, with an ad that opts more for the comic than it does the poignant and moving.
2017 – Moz the Monster
Returning to a more heartfelt theme after 2016’s slapstick Buster the Boxer, this year’s ad has received a mixed press from Marketers with some fearing it is beginning to feel a bit formulaic.
What can small businesses learn from the John Lewis Effect?
Different companies will have different brand identities so what works for John Lewis might not work for you. That being said, whilst small businesses won’t have anything like the budget to produce brand films like John Lewis and put them in front of such huge audiences, there are some very useful lessons their Christmas marketing can teach.
One of the key characteristics of John Lewis’s advertising and a crucial element in the delivery of such potent emotional storytelling is a powerful and relevant soundtrack. JL marketing can be seen as a masterclass to any small business tying to tie brand narrative to soundtrack. Of course John Lewis have gone that extra step and sourced established artists to sing covers of well known songs (resulting in four top ten hits). Whilst this remains unfeasible for small businesses it does show how far going that extra step in sourcing music can take you.
Creating compelling story arcs isn’t easy and requires a great deal of time, ingenuity and skill. By studying John Lewis’s advertising (especially post 2010) you can see just how developed these narrative arcs are. To deliver such effective emotional climaxes requires your characters and motivations to be setup well in the first place. As we’ve seen, music can play a big role in achieving this.
John Lewis’s use of children in its advertising has followed in the footsteps of so much Christmas advertising that has come before it. The connection between Christmas, childhood is one of pure nostalgia. Of course, the use of nostalgia may not be appropriate to every company, especially those that wish to nurture a more corporate image associated with technical expertise and reliability (often B2B brands may fall into this camp). That being said, Christmas is the perfect time of year for evoking childhood nostalgia and that’s a theme that can play well in so many ways if it’s done well.
Animation can open the door to a whole world of themes, styles and narratives that cannot be achieved with live filmmaking alone. Most notably in JL’s Christmas advertising is its use to anthropomorphise animals and creatures, whether that’s in full cell animation (Bear and the Hare) or lifelike CGI layered on live film (Monty the Penguin, Moz the Monster). Whilst the budget for these films is undoubtedly considerable for a small business, there is a lot that animation can achieve with even a relatively modest budget.
For a company the size of John Lewis, to allow such free creative rein in the production of its brand films, whilst maintaining a sense of marketing relevancy and corporate sensibility, is a testament to the determination of the company to set itself apart. It’s a lesson in brand identity formation that all small businesses would all do well to think about.
Evelyn Timson is managing director of Aspect.