Like many apparently time-honoured traditions, the John Lewis Christmas advert is actually a pretty modern invention.

The first of the current run was aired in 2007, with the inclusion of cover versions beginning a year later (with The Beatles’ From Me To You, fact fans).

The 2009 appointment of long-running agency partner Adam & Eve saw the trademark features slot into place one by one: the cover versions got slower; the imagery and messages became ever more sentimental; the products featured less and less prominently; and the budgets grew ever larger (culminating in 2015’s £7 million epic The Man in the Moon).

And through it all the marketing industry watched, captivated; and one-by-one the other retailers responded in increasingly similar cinematic style.

Big and beautiful brand advertising ruled Christmas.

Something new?

On the face of it, 2018 looks pretty much business as usual: John Lewis has Elton John; Sainsbury’s its Christmas Play (and ‘that’ plug moment); and Tesco asks How Do You Do Christmas?

All featuring a cover version, naturally.

But I think the most interesting advert of 2018 is by actually by Marks & Spencer.

At first glance the ‘Must-Haves’ advert seems pretty unremarkable. Like John Lewis it has its celebrities (although Holly Willoughby may be slightly flattered in the celebrity stakes by a comparison with Elton John). Like Tesco and Sainsbury’s it puts family life front and centre. And at its heart is a cracking tune, courtesy of Tom Jones.

But its real significance only becomes clear when you compare and contrast it to their Paddington advertisement from the year before. Because the 2017 Paddington advert really was beautiful. Everyone loved it and it won a bucket-load of awards.

Which meant everyone was talking about the M&S brand.

But unfortunately they weren’t buying anything, and M&S’ Christmas sales were a washout.

More product, more airtime

M&S’ 2018 response has been so fascinating because in one subtle but important sense they seems to have begun a reversal of those long-running Christmas advertising trends.

This year, unlike last, M&S products take centre stage in their advertising.

In fact the 2018 ad features 15 times as much M&S product as last year, with the company describing it as a deliberately more commercial approach designed to drive sales.

And not only that, but instead of spending the whole marketing budget on simply shooting (and CGI animating) their advert, M&S has instead decided to spend the cash on actually airing it.

As a result, M&S director of marketing for clothing and home Nathan Ansell says that customers will see the advert 10 times more often than last year’s.

“It’s a more efficient use of our spend. The world has moved on [from blockbuster ads]… The most important thing is that people remember the product and come out and shop.”

Products and sales? Well fancy that!

Marketing for growth

Now, you might argue that this is simply a natural reaction by Marks & Spencer to their 2017 sales washout (and in many ways is just taking on board lessons from challenger retailers like Lidl and Aldi).  But their 2018 approach also appears to chime with something happening more widely in the marketing industry.

Take Coca-Cola, another company that has hardly been averse to brand and brand building over the last 100 years or so. Last March Coca-Cola scrapped its Chief Marketing Officer position, appointing instead Francisco Crespo as Chief Growth Officer.

Speaking to marketing press recently, global vice-president of creative Rodolfo Echeverria explained:

“Marketing in Coca-Cola is meant to drive business. The basic elements of awareness and winning awards at the Cannes Lions Festival no longer satisfies us.”

And going one step further, he added:

We have always been big but now we are obsessively pursuing growth not in the sense that we want to be richer but in the sense we are looking at those consumers who are not our consumers right now. We’re asking “How can we grow? How can we satisfy more and better consumer needs?”

Aha, there’s that theme again. Fewer resources spent on image and awareness, and more on satisfying consumer needs with products and pricing designed to growing sales.

A flight to value?

So is this the beginning of the end for ‘brand’? Of course not!

I’m not saying that brand no longer matters, and nor are Marks & Spencer and Coca-Cola. Goodness only knows that each in their own way has been at times a best practice example of how to build and leverage powerful brands in competitive markets.

Brand is a complicated concept, and difficult to pin down – just take a quick look at how many definitions you can find online. But however you define it, brand still matters.

Brand creates recognition, awareness, customer loyalty and price premium. It reduces barriers to purchase, ensures favourable receptions for new products, and can make a vital contribution to creating and sustaining a competitive market advantage.

So it’s hardly surprising that for decades the brand has been king, with brand loyalty the most sought after business asset of all.

But times move on, and perhaps brand loyalty isn’t quite what it was.

Yes there are companies out there who continue to thrive on brand loyalty – Apple, BMW and perhaps even Coca-Cola themselves. But in many if not most markets, B2C and B2B alike, it does seem that consumers are becoming less brand loyal.

With 24/7/365 internet access to comprehensive product information, side-by-side comparisons, price checkers, user reviews and more, better informed consumers are more willing and able than ever to hop between company brands to find the product (or service) with the specific practical and emotional benefits (or ‘value proposition’) that best solves their problems and meets their exacting requirements.

So with consumers increasingly focused on finding each ‘perfect’ purchase, and companies like Coca-Cola pushing ever harder for business growth, perhaps Christmas 2018 really does mark the start of a significant transition.

Away from all those cute children and CGI animals, perhaps what we’re witnessing this Christmas is the start of a move away from big brand marketing, and towards some rather more commercially-minded fundamentals like the product and its value proposition.

 

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