Original ads rare gift at Xmas – but every year they arrive earlier

If retailers had their way, Canadians would be decking their halls with boughs of holly while still pruning their roses and working on their golf game. Scott Neslund, managing director of Starcom Worldwide in Toronto, says holiday advertising is launching earlier every year.

If retailers had their way, Canadians would be decking their halls with boughs of holly while still pruning their roses and working on their golf game. Scott Neslund, managing director of Starcom Worldwide in Toronto, says holiday advertising is launching earlier every year. ‘It used to be that campaigns would come on right at the beginning of December, then it was the end of November and I think we’re clearly in a pattern now where early to mid-November the campaigns start.’ While an early ad push doesn’t turn consumers off, Neslund says what does get them hot under the collar is when in-store signage and decorations go up early.

But we can expect that early in-store transformation to Christmas to continue, says John Torella, retail analyst with J.C. Williams Group of Toronto. In Canada, he says Christmas programs start with the point-of-sale change in early to mid-November, with Christmas windows coming first because they take the longest to install. That is followed quickly by advertising.

Retailers may want to kick start their busiest season of the year as early as possible, but Torella says shopping is taking place later each year.

‘Where stores used to see some early semblance of Christmas sales in early November, they’re finding more and more that it’s peaking around the first week of December – Dec. 8 or 9. Christmas is actually six weeks of business, and [a retailer] has to get all six weeks.’

That aside, Torella predicts that this year’s Christmas sales will see around a 4% increase over last year. Retail sales in December 2001 were $25 billion, up 5.8% from December 2000, according to Statistics Canada.

‘We think certain categories will do better than others – anything to do with the home, entertainment, technology, travel, learning, essential experiences will all do well. Certain areas of the country will do better than others. The Prairies are leading the pack right now.

‘And we think certain retailers will do better than others. Those that have traditionally been leading through the first nine months of the year will continue to do that, which means we’ll see Wal-Mart, Loblaw’s, and Holt Renfrew maintaining their leadership and share.’

So what advertising strategies are best for driving Christmas sales? Here’s what the experts say:

Brett Marchand, president

Roche Macaulay & Partners, Toronto

It’s not surprising clients and agencies are focused on the holiday season given that it represents as much as 50% of advertising budgets. After all, consumers are primed to spend with many items on their list and a short timeline to execute it.

I see two basic strategies being employed. The first is to associate the brand or product with the holiday season, often by painting warm, fuzzy scenes of family settings (Canadian Tire ‘Bows, Ribbons & Trees’) and sometimes by just gratuitously associating the brand with Christmas (Corona, Telus and Staples campaigns). The other is to find a way to relate the product or service to a real problem or issue consumers have during this festive time (Sears ‘Christmas Carollers’ and Wal-Mart ‘Christmas Junky’).

All seem like viable strategies but none seem to have a lot of standout campaigns.

[The emphasis in holiday ads should be] something unique that elevates the brand instead of bringing it down. I love when there is something to relate to but it takes an untraditional approach. The best example is the U.S. ad for Discover Card where a guy is trying to compete with his neighbour to decorate his house for the holidays and keeps getting completely outdone.

In a pool of mediocrity, one of my two favourite Canadian campaigns is the Rogers/AT&T ads with the elves. I particularly like the elf in the bathtub. Great casting. Assuming they are trying to get teenage boys to bug their parents for a cell phone for Christmas, I think it works well.

My second favourite is the Future Shop ad. I relate to the pressure to buy something for someone you want to impress. My wife isn’t easily impressed. I love the pay-off of the ad where the guy suddenly, spontaneously says ‘I love you’ after opening up his plasma TV. I did that when my wife bought me a mountain bike.

Christmas timing is tough. It always seems to come fast and furious. My opinion is to produce as many great ads as you have and can afford. Ideally that is more than one, especially if your weight is heavy. (I’m already sick of the Rogers ads that I said I liked earlier).

[When should Christmas ads begin running?] That’s easy to answer in the U.S. Get awareness up for Thanksgiving. In Canada, snow = Christmas is coming = time to spend. How accurate has the Farmer’s Almanac been lately?

I don’t think media mix is significantly different at holiday time than any other time of year. Given the short window of opportunity, my feeling is more media is better. Surround the consumer with your message versus overload them in one medium.

Stephanie Lett, marketing business manager

London Drugs, Vancouver

We don’t change our strategy at Christmas time. We talk to consumers in a way we think they appreciate – and we test that to make sure that it is true. We find humour works as long as we’re poking fun at ourselves, not at our consumers. For us, Christmas is just another season. Busy? Yes, but another season.

We send out a Christmas catalogue the first week of November. It features all the higher-ticket items – computers, cameras and the latest and greatest in small appliances, as well as cosmetics and fragrances. We know people look for it because one year I decided to [send it out] three days later and I got about 700 calls and never did that again.

We decorate our stores after Nov. 11 and that’s when Christmas really hits for us. We stick with that and it works.

Flyers start after Nov. 11 and we do television. Our TV this year is all around that franticness of Christmas shopping, with someone who shops at London Drugs having a good time when everyone else is not.

Scott Neslund, managing director

Starcom Worldwide, Toronto

Holiday advertising is not as easy to develop as some people think. There are a lot of people who think you just need to get a Santa Claus and something cute and it’s over and done with. There’s a lot of competition around that period. You’re in clutter [because of] the number of ads on TV. You’re in clutter in terms of theme messages so I think it’s more difficult to stand out. It’s very tough to make ads appealing because people see so much of it.

Generally speaking [when it comes to ads that work the best during the holiday season], we’ve noticed two different categories that are very effective. One would be on the emotion and the spirit of the holiday season, that really makes you feel good about the holidays, makes you cherish what the holidays are all about. That tends to be very good for a brand-building campaign.

The best example I can think of is the Coca-Cola Caravan of Lights where they show the Coca-Cola trucks lit up with Christmas lights and as they go through the town, lights go on through the town. It’s got great music and makes you feel very good. It’s very effective for building the brand.

The second category is the gift-price strategy – what kind of gifts you can buy and what kind of price the retailer is selling it at – all wrapped around a Christmas theme. The advertisers that really hit it out of the ballpark are the ones that are able to combine both. I think Canadian Tire is an example of someone who has a good brand theme and message but yet there’s a nice pricing strategy that goes along with it.

The two media that get underutilized in the holiday period are outdoor and radio. Simply because people are out shopping, you can really be effective with those two media, but they tend to get overlooked because people tend to think TV first. Another medium gaining momentum for holiday advertising is the Internet because every year shopping on the Internet goes up. You can bring your message to consumers on the Internet [who are] already looking to order gifts for the family very effectively.

During the holiday season an advertiser is usually best off if they focus on one message or one spot. Where it’s acceptable to advertise using more than one piece of creative is when you have different products or brands you have to advertise. Maybe that focus is sweaters in one ad, jackets in another. But if it’s still wrapped around the brand theme, it’s okay to have multiple executions, [but] we recommend to clients that they focus on just one.

[With a heavy media schedule] it comes back to the likeability of the ad. We’ve noticed that Christmas or holiday ads are very likeable. The frequency is not an issue because viewers love to see their favourite commercial during the holiday season. When the likeability scores are average or below, frequency can hurt the campaign.

Marisa Guerrera, communications manager

Diesel Jeans, Montreal

We don’t do any Christmas advertising. We don’t really feel that we have to do anything differently for that time of year.

At Christmas everyone is out shopping. If you look at a Diesel store, the windows do change for Christmas so obviously they have a bit of a Christmas feeling to them. But as far as actual advertising, we don’t pitch a holiday concept hoping it will drive in more traffic.

I find less and less that [fashion brands] are doing holiday [specific] advertising. I don’t think it [benefits] the brand, aside from the Gap, which I consider to be separate because it really is a mass market one-stop shop for the family.

But other [fashion] brands lose a bit of brand identity when they do a Christmas ad. It’s like they’re trying to bank on the holiday thing and if you’re a strong brand you shouldn’t have to resort to that.

[Internet advertising] makes a lot of sense especially right before Christmas. I don’t have time to run out or I want something really perfect that might be hard to find. I’ll just go online and pick it up and it makes it much easier.

For example, I just got [an e-mail] from Bloom Cosmetics [an Australia-based company]. I don’t usually have time to read long e-mails but I still checked out the entire e-mail. They called it Tinsel Time and showed different gift packages they had for Christmas. They offered gift-wrapping. They have really cute graphics and the packaging is great.

Under normal circumstances I might have overlooked this brand but because they sent me this e-mail I’m likely to make a purchase now because it’s fresh in my mind and it’s so easy.

I also got an email from Amazon.com promoting free shipping on purchases of $39 or more. These are great sites where they drop you a line or two to let you know what’s happening for Christmas. People don’t have time on their hands anymore like they used to, especially at Christmas time. It’s a nightmare for a lot of people to go shopping in a mall.

John Torella, retail analyst

J.C. Williams Group, Toronto

I think the most successful retailers are those that are combining both the emotional and rational reasons to shop with them. So you have the combination of emotional-type media – television, coloured magazines, catalogue, brochures, and direct mail – that are very much about the brand. Good examples are Canadian Tire’s Christmas campaign, Holt Renfrew and [companies] like that. You’ve got to have a balance between the emotional and the rational – the reasons why I should shop with you, selection, price, service, things of that nature, which are more typical of flyers and run-of-press newspaper advertising.

The winning retailers have a combination of all those. They secondly do it with some creative flair and spark, again referencing the Canadian Tire television campaign. Wal-Mart is also doing an excellent job of the emotional appeals of Christmas, as is Holt Renfrew with its Christmas book and Christmas windows.

Retailers have to know what the hot items are going to be for Christmas, particularly in the areas of toys and fashions where if you don’t have that right toy, you’re going to be out of luck. That’s what retail is about, anticipating those kinds of things.

Shelagh Stoneham,

marketing consultant

Stoneham Marketing Management, Toronto, Ont.

Changing a brand advertising campaign to leverage the season can be folly unless the brand is trying to address a specific consumer need or insight. Most brands appear to do holiday spots with no consumer insight, just tacky Christmas trappings with obvious and trite conclusions. The end result is a Christmas spot that makes the client feel good until they realize they are the only one noticing the spot, and they experience another ‘soft retail quarter.’

Unless you can identify a consumer insight that can be articulated through a strong creative execution, stick with your basic brand campaign. At the very least your brand won’t appear to be targeting stupid people.

What works depends on your target. Either traditional with expected holiday icons to appeal to softhearted, softheaded mothers or take a stab at humour. The jaded, sarcastic approach may offend some, but you’ll likely have a better chance of breaking through the clutter. It’s easy to get caught up in the spirit of the season. However, the product or service should always stay front and centre. The creative should be a derivative of the product not the season.

Many ads are flogging the same old products with a Christmas bow or Santa hat. We don’t need to see a refrigerator with a bow on it or a vacuum cleaner sporting a Santa hat. Consumers see right through it. However, suggestive gift giving for certain product categories makes perfect sense.

For a female target, you’ll want to start advertising mid-November, latest. For a male target, you may want to wait until the day before Christmas Eve.

Marc Stoiber, creative director

Grey Advertising, Toronto

I think the best commercials have a real human insight and they have some sort of emotional way of getting us to drop our defences. Those are the two most important things for Christmas advertising, or any advertising. Especially at Christmas time because there’s such an assault on us.

The advertising that stands out to me, I believe it was a year back, is when Zellers had the mom who had everything prepared but she didn’t have her skirt on. The reason that worked for me was because there was a real human insight in that. I know that lady, she’s my mom and she does everything to perfection. She wouldn’t notice anything as obvious as not having her skirt on because everything has to be perfect for Christmas. It’s such a basic human insight that works really nicely.

I also love Hallmark Cards – they are masters at doing the sappy stuff. So many [other advertisers] when you see their sappy stuff, it just falls flat because you see that their emotion just isn’t genuine.

It’s very dangerous territory. Everybody wants to do beautiful, heart-wrenching Christmas advertising and 99% of the time it falls flat on its face because the true human emotion isn’t there. They’re letting their strategy show.

The new Telus stuff that [Taxi] did is great – the monkeys giving telephones as presents. They’re actually showing off the product really well, and not flogging it. They’re just saying look at this great new phone and the wonderful things it can do. At the same time it has a charming piece of music that makes me feel good in this season of clutter and busy-ness and insanity. It gets to the point and has a cute way of delivering a very simple message. It’s got an idea to it and I think it works.

Canadian Tire – I think they try to do heartfelt emotion but it comes across as a little too generic…and sort of mid-America emotion. I think they miss the mark as far as Canadian emotion goes.

Hudson’s Bay – the lady who keeps wondering if she should give her secret to her mother-in-law – just seems a bit too pat and well worn. [The Hudson's Bay blanket colours down the side of the screen] is a great branding device. It’s a very busy commercial. The only way I know that’s a Hudson’s Bay ad is those colours up front. They grab my attention. Inside that fat commercial is a thin commercial trying to get out.

The new Zellers – the little kids with the talking toys, the little broccoli super hero and the Barbie that only has a tennis outfit [from Grip]. I love that stuff. Hats off to them. The spots are low budget. They tap into great emotion with a little kid trying to convince mom to buy them something. There’s no fat on these ads. They are just simple, straightforward, get to the point and leave me with a smile.

[Are consumers turned off if retailers start flogging Christmas too early?] I think people build up a strong shield around Christmas time because there’s just so much stimulus – Santa here and elves there.

If you look at the monkeys [for Telus] and you look at the little kids [for Zellers], they are so simple and fresh that I think they cut through the crap and they get people to lower their defences for 30 seconds.

You look at Canadian Tire with that song – ‘we’ll start with you,’ people throwing snowballs and these sappy vignettes – and you go ‘yeah, yeah, I think I’ll go to the bathroom.’ It’s just conventional.

Absolutely no genuine emotion in it. Your logo here. I could stick a milk logo there or a turkey for $2.99 logo on it.

[Check out some of the holiday spots at www.strategymag.com's screening room.]