Too much Elton, not enough John

The retailer's Christmas campaign lacks festive cues and scenes of human connection, allowing rivals to encroach on its territory.

Over the past 10 years, John Lewis & Partners has gained an enviable reputation for creating some of the most effective Christmas ads on our TV screens. Its impressive run of awards and consistent boost to sales at Christmas has made it the reference campaign for the wider industry.

But this year’s "The boy and the piano" received mixed views from the British public. Despite using one of the most iconic British musicians, singing one of his most iconic songs, many consumers felt it was too much Elton John and too little John Lewis. More importantly, though, they felt it was missing that all-important Christmas spirit.

Consciously, we seem to be in agreement that this ad – which is a departure from the usual heart-warming and tear-jerking narrative – failed to get our festive pulses racing. But does that mean it missed the mark in terms of being an effective piece of communication?

Sometimes, even ads that we actively dislike can actually be very effective and highly memorable. One of the primary indicators of communication effectiveness is the extent to which the content is encoded – or stored – into memory.

That's because memory encoding correlates strongly with future decision-making and actions, including purchase behaviour – but what we remember isn’t the same as what we like. Rather, successful memory encoding is driven primarily by three subconscious responses: narrative, emotional intensity (either positive or negative) and personal relevance.

In this context, we were interested to see how this year's John Lewis campaign worked at a subconscious level and how it stacked up against some of the more traditionally festive Christmas ads that were released this year.

To do this, we ran a neuroscience-based study, tracking the second-by-second brain responses of 100 participants as they watched a selection of this year’s Christmas ads: Waitrose, John Lewis, Lidl and Heathrow.

What we discovered suggests that the emotional space once indisputably owned by John Lewis is in danger of being colonised by some of these other brands. There is still a very real impact associated with traditional Christmas cues – both symbols and emotions – that other brands are delivering, even as John Lewis moves further away from its more emotional and overtly festive style of advertising.

Heathrow, for example, drove a particularly strong emotional response among viewers through its use of emotion, character and narrative. There’s a strong linear narrative thread and the bear characters have close and affectionate interactions with each other – ramping up the sense of personal relevance for viewers and driving deeper engagement. At Christmas, a time recognised for closeness and kindness, these depictions may be particularly meaningful and significant for viewers, giving them profound emotional impact.

The Heathrow ad also uses numerous well-known Christmas cues, such as a tree, stockings, presents and Christmas lights – causing viewers to emotionally engage with the story of the bear family making their way home for Christmas.

Waitrose and Lidl also successfully harness the Christmas spirit in very obvious ways – focusing heavily on family scenes and human interactions, as well as elements of humour in Waitrose’s case.

In contrast, John Lewis noticeably lacks these important festive cues and scenes of human connection for a large part of the narrative. The focus is very much on John's career, as opposed to the notions of togetherness, love, family and compassion that characterise Christmas for many Western cultures. Although the scene switching (characteristic of a lot of John Lewis ads) successfully keeps memory engaged, presenting plenty of new information for the brain to take in, the emotional response is characterised more by negative emotional withdrawal than by approach.

What this means is that the emotional and very Christmassy heartland that belonged to John Lewis has potentially been opened up to others. And the danger for John Lewis goes further than an ad that maybe doesn’t perform quite as strongly as it might have done. For years, John Lewis has been the default brand for emotional Christmas advertising and, as such, has benefitted not just from its own adspend but from that of others. If a competing retailer trying to "do a John Lewis" failed to register its branding strongly, for example, the brain’s default position would be to attribute the ad to the brand best occupying the appropriate emotional space – namely, John Lewis. By vacating the emotional Christmas space, John Lewis will start to lose out on the very real benefit of this secondary attribution.  

So, although "The boy and the piano" had a lot of the essential ingredients necessary for a powerful piece of communication, by missing out on those crucial festive cues that elicit a strong emotional response, it edges John Lewis away from its Christmas heartland and potentially leaves a vacuum for other brands. Time will tell – and John Lewis have got it right many times before – but it feels rather like they’ve played an intriguing cameo role this Christmas, potentially leaving a vacancy for someone else to take the starring role.

Heather Andrew is chief executive of Neuro-Insight

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