How John Lewis stole Christmas

Posted By Axonn on 11th November 2016

Marketers are gearing up for one of the most lucrative seasons of the year, with Christmas now just around the corner. One brand that has managed to make Christmas its own for the last few years is John Lewis, thanks to its emotional adverts.

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[Image credit: John Lewis]

While most TV adverts tend to be a bit of fun and something you might happen to catch while watching the X Factor, John Lewis has managed to make its Christmas adverts into an event. This year, the build up to the release of its latest festive offering has been huge, with countdowns, memes, and hashtags springing up all over the place.

It really does seem like John Lewis has cracked Christmas, but how has it managed to turn a TV advert into a national event that some seem to look forward to more than December 25th?

From stocking fillers to hampers

John Lewis took a break from TV screens back in 2004 and didn’t launch another advert on our telly boxes until 2007, which saw its biggest ever seasonal campaign. Its Shadow Christmas advert was a simple yet clever idea that most people thought was a bit of fun.

While the advert was certainly clever, it didn’t result in the hype that it experiences today. The next year’s offering was much the same in terms of reception – although the cuddly mouse it shows at the end did sell out fairly quickly – with its strong focus on presents not really differentiating itself from the adverts being put out by other brands.


[Image credit: iStock/evgenyatamanenko]

It was 2009’s Christmas advert that was the real turning point for the company, due to its playful and slightly emotional depiction of Christmas. Not only did the folk cover of Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine – performed by Taken by Trees – start getting a lot of hits and downloads, but John Lewis saw an increase of 12.7 per cent on 2008’s Christmas sales.

The advert shows children opening gifts on Christmas morning intended for adults and still being excited. At the end, a little girl is shown to be a young woman in reality, adding a touch of nostalgia with the tagline ‘Remember how Christmas used to feel?’ and managing to tug at the heartstrings of viewers across the UK.


[Image credit: istock/fotostorm]

Nostalgia as a selling point

Following on from the success of its 2009 Christmas campaign, John Lewis realised that it was onto something and followed it up with yet more nostalgia – as well as soulful covers of well-known songs.

Each of its adverts has a heartwarming element that almost everyone can relate to, whether it’s trying to wrap presents without their recipients seeing, counting down the days to Christmas or going to great lengths to ensure a loved one gets the perfect gift. Whereas earlier adverts had been more product focused, its later offerings were about the people – or animated bears – and the act of giving.

The result is a few minutes of relatable content that makes people laugh, smile or cry, and sometimes all three at once. In doing this, John Lewis has managed to set itself up as the traditional Christmas retailer of the people, showing that it understands how people feel about Christmas and ensuring people that it feels the same.

John Lewis has managed to perfectly profile not only its previous main audience, but also anyone who has a love for Christmas without using the same tricks or tired tropes that many other campaigns continue to rely on.


[Image credit: iStock/evgenyatamanenko]


Although John Lewis has successfully managed to break away from the image of Father Christmas and family gathered around a roast turkey on December 25th, its main focus points are not entirely original. After all, the idea of giving gifts, spreading joy and peace to all is so closely intertwined with Christmas that it is hard to know where it all started.

Instead, the brand manages to tell a story that features a twist designed to invoke an emotional response from viewers, and it does this incredibly well because it understands them.

For example, its 2011 Christmas advert was a familiar tale. It showed a young boy eagerly awaiting Christmas morning and trying to do everything he can to make it hurry up, including rushing his dinner on Christmas Eve in order to get to bed early. While viewers would relate to this due to the eagerness they felt as children and expect that he was impatient for his own presents, the advert ends with the boy ignoring his own pile of gifts and instead taking one into his parents – cue happy tears.

Even when the brand moved away from human protagonists, starting with its 2012 advert (which I personally think is the best but I did walk down the aisle to the music it used so I’m probably biased), it still retained this storytelling element, making its adverts so much more than just clever product placements.


[Image credit: iStock/JackF]

No forced selling

Not only has John Lewis shown itself to be a superb storyteller, a master of nostalgia and the one to beat for persona profiling, it is easy to argue that the reason its adverts have been so popular during the Christmas season is that they don’t focus on selling products.

While the adverts do feature products – usually a champion one, such as a stuffed penguin or telescope – they don’t force them down viewers’ throats like too many adverts do.

Consumers expect brands to try to sell to them at Christmas, which can cause them to switch off. Instead, John Lewis puts the focus on the magic of Christmas and why the season is so special rather than shouting in big neon letters ‘BUY ME’. This refreshingly different take has proved successful and the company has seen increases in Christmas sales year-on-year since adopting the approach.

It is this more relaxed approach to sales, combined with the other elements discussed, that turns a TV advert into an event rather than something you tune out or fast-forward.

So what can marketers take away from this? The main thing is to understand your audience and what they respond to. It is this that can drive an entire strategy or a single idea and ensure it stands out from the crowd for the right reason.

Christmas may be a big time for marketers and brands, but it is also a time of year where advertising becomes saturated and consumers become disengaged. Taking a leaf or two out of John Lewis’ book and ensuring that your brand is saying the right thing to the right people will not only help you stand out in December, but it could increase engagement and awareness all year round.

If you can work in a dog on a trampoline somehow too, that’s probably not a bad shout.