Holiday adverts vs. 2020: How the biggest brands stack up in the year of the pandemic

Holiday adverts vs. 2020: How the biggest brands stack up in the year of the pandemic

Friday, December 04, 2020
Allison Hamilton

The holiday season can be magical for all those lucky enough to celebrate, relax, embrace time with loved ones, and indulge in cozy festivities for days on end—especially working professionals who need a welcome escape from their daily grind. The growing tradition of joyful holiday ads only enhances that sense of escapism.

But this has been no ordinary year. Between the pandemic, politics, and hugely significant social justice issues, consumers are reassessing the ways they view, choose, and interact with brands. COVID-19, for instance, has shone a spotlight on brands that have navigated these uncharted waters with empathy and authenticity, and cast aspersions on brands who tried and failed (or, worse, didn’t even bother to try). After all, the way brands respond in times of crisis and unrest can say a lot about them and can either help grow or damage relationships with their customers.

While many businesses pivoted to a more serious and empathetic tone earlier on in the year, surveys suggest that by December consumers are more receptive to entertaining and optimistic ads that focus on the spirit of the season. Yet brands have to remain strategic when it comes to balancing their values and empathy for audiences with a satisfying amount of festive spirit for 2020 holiday campaigns.

So, now that the holiday season is well underway, let’s see if the most anticipated adverts have lived up to expectations. Because we’re all about measurable media, we’ve assigned scores to each advert in the following categories:

  • 🎅 Festivity/holiday cheer
  • ❤️ Brand values and social responsibility
  • 😷 Awareness of audience and pandemic
  • 😢 Number of tears earned

 

John Lewis, “Give a Little Love”

One of the pandemic’s silver linings has been the kindness we’ve shown to one another, which is the focus of John Lewis’ campaign this year. The story progresses through a variation of illustration styles, following characters through wintery scenes extending acts of kindness to strangers and reminding us of our greater connection and the impact we have on one another’s lives. We’re not crying, you’re crying…

The British department store chain was inspired by the way the British public has upheld these values over the past several months. The campaign also raises funds for alleviating food poverty and supporting families in need through charities FareShare and Home-Start.

John Lewis has long used sentimentality to create emotional connections with its audience. It is now a core element of their brand identity and this ad certainly maintained that quality while shifting to reflect the reality of 2020 in a natural way. With a heartfelt message and support for much-needed charitable efforts, John Lewis has certainly met our expectations.

  • 🎅 Festivity/holiday cheer: 7/10
  • ❤️ Brand values and social responsibility: 10/10
  • 😷 Awareness of audience and pandemic: 9/10
  • 😢 Number of tears earned: 4/10

 

Coca Cola, “The Letter”

Grab your Kleenex for Coca-Cola’s tear-jerker of a holiday ad. The story follows a father leaving his remote job to journey through the world’s harshest environments, reaching the North Pole to make his daughter’s wish come true.

“In a year when the world needs holiday cheer more than ever, Coca-Cola is celebrating the gift of presence—over presents—through a seasonal campaign launching in 90-plus countries including the United States,” reads the brand’s campaign press release.

The ad does a great job tying in the traditional Coca-Cola holiday branding (featuring their Santa Claus and Christmas truck) with messaging a global audience would appreciate during these times, promoting hope and unity. In previous years, the brand has focused their ads on spreading uplifting messages around the meaning of the season, and while this year’s ad features a similar mentality, it strikes a more dramatic and sentimental note than we’re used to seeing from Coca-Cola.

Although it’s an appropriate change in mood to best follow an intense and emotional 2020, we were hoping for a larger initiative that would have been especially impactful coming from a globally recognized brand.

  • 🎅 Festivity/holiday cheer: 6/10
  • ❤️ Brand values and social responsibility: 5/10
  • 😷 Awareness of audience and pandemic: 7/10
  • 😢 Number of tears earned: 8/10

 

Disney, “From Our Family to Yours”

Disney’s ad follows the story of the close relationship a grandmother builds with her granddaughter over the years, centered around elements of the holidays the woman enjoyed since her childhood in the Philippines. Disney, naturally, did a good job of tying in the importance of family. It is, after all, a fundamental theme that underscores many of their films.

Disney is one of the world’s most powerful brands because it has been able to attract a loyal fanbase of all ages. Since its inception, it has harnessed the power of emotional storytelling, its audience’s desire for nostalgia, and focused on creating magical experiences to transcend narratives in its content and marketing. As a 2015 Forbes article put it: “Disney’s ‘content marketing’ strategy goes in reverse compared to most brands. Meaning, where most brands start with a physical product and then build a story around it in the form of ‘content marketing’, companies like Disney do exactly the opposite.”

Having trouble recalling last year’s Disney advert? This was Mickey and co.’s debut Christmas campaign. Despite the holiday’s magic and nostalgia, there had never been a Disney holiday advert in its 97-year history. Even so, Disney entered the game with a strong presence and represented their brand in true Disney spirit. As expected, they kept real families at the heart with all proceeds from the ad’s accompanying song supporting the Make a Wish foundation.

  • 🎅 Festivity/holiday cheer: 7/10
  • ❤️ Brand values and social responsibility: 10/10
  • 😷 Awareness of audience and pandemic: 5/10
  • 😢 Number of tears earned: 10/10 (Pass the tissue!)

 

Amazon, “The Show Must Go On”

Meant to convey the resilience shown throughout this year, Amazon’s ad certainly hit the mark when it comes to reflecting on the pandemic and our innate need to rise above. The ad portrays a young ballet dancer who spends every spare minute practicing for her leading role in a winter production, only to have it canceled as government restrictions tighten.

The story is relatable, echoing the realities of the pandemic as all our plans, hopes, and goals have been delayed (with artists among those most affected). It’s a beautifully directed piece, although we feel this could have embraced the festivity of the holidays a bit more while maintaining the same impact. Without the few twinkle lights and light snowfall during the last scene, this could have taken place at any time of year. Amp it up a little, Jeff!

In recent years, Amazon started developing a theme of happy, playful, musical-style commercials complete with smiling packages singing along through the scenes. This year they diverted in favor of something they likely felt would be more impactful, yet stayed true to their core message: finding a solution for any type of problem. Unfortunately, while it was a lovely message, this fell short for us in the social responsibility category. With Amazon having made record-breaking profits this year (in Q3 2020 it earned 196.7% more than it did in Q3 2019), we would hope to see the brand embrace the meaning of the holidays and the spirit of giving; perhaps with a donation to aid struggling artists or even small business fulfillment price breaks.

  • 🎅 Festivity/holiday cheer: 4/10
  • ❤️ Brand values and social responsibility: 4/10
  • 😷 Awareness of audience and pandemic: 10/10
  • 😢 Number of tears earned: 6/10 (Pass the tissues!)

 

And the winner is…

It’s not easy to balance festive escapism and the world’s rebooted priorities, but these brands did a commendable job against heightened expectations. Who came out on top? For us, Disney’s “From Our Family to Yours” takes the cake. Although it misses a tieback to the unique circumstances the world finds itself in, the sentimentality, true reflection of the Disney brand, festive holiday-driven story, and greater charitable purpose easily earns it top rank.

A special shout goes to John Lewis’ “Give A Little Love”. The ad keeps the brand’s British audience at the heart of the story while using a central theme of spreading kindness during the pandemic to reinforce the meaning of the holiday season (with a philanthropic cause as the cherry on top).

So, what can we learn from these giants of advertising?

  1. Take a local approach but maintain a global view 🌍

    With COVID-19 impacting everyone across the globe, it’s crucial to keep the bigger picture in mind and consider how the world is experiencing these circumstances all at once. At the same time, however, the way the pandemic has affected our local communities is unique, with each continent, country, and city facing different restrictions and realities. This makes it incredibly important to make sure you appropriately reflect how your local audience is currently living and coping, helping to create an authentic connection with your business, as we saw with John Lewis.

  2. Be consistent with holiday traditions 🎄

    Let’s face it, we’ve all been anxiously awaiting the holiday season for a much-needed break from 2020. While it can be tempting for brands to use this opportunity to focus on empathizing with the public, consumers remain fixated on fundamental holiday narratives. Mix together some holiday spirit, nostalgia, family, and “goodwill to all” and you’ve built yourself a solid foundation for success.

  3. Consider your brand’s values—and your audience’s 🤝

    Taking time to understand how your audience’s expectations are reflected in your campaigns will really set the stage for how they are received. Brands who not only work on actively supporting their customers but also make an effort to support their communities and causes that reflect their values will have the greatest impact on consumers’ hearts (and wallets). It’s easy to spread positive messages around the holidays, but if you’re looking for authentic consideration and brand loyalty, consumers will want to see you put your money where your mouth is.

Until the next time, happy holidays and onwards to a bigger, brighter 2021!