Consistency and Creativity – John Lewis’ Juggling Act

The John Lewis Christmas ad may not top our market research charts every single year, but since we’ve been testing Christmas ads its seasonal blockbusters have only once slipped below the 3-Star boundary. This year is no exception – it’s 2017 ad, Moz The Monster, scored 4-Stars in our ad test, indicating an ad set to achieve continued share growth for John Lewis. Its consistency, as much as its quality, help keep John Lewis the most-anticipated commercial of each Christmas.

The downside of this consistency, according to the critics, is that John Lewis ads can begin to feel formulaic. Their universe of thoughtful gifting, childlike wonder, and enticingly cute creatures begins to seem predictable. For instance, Moz, this year’s star, has a friendship with a young lad that’s superficially quite similar to the partnership between 2014’s Sam and his penguin, Monty. So it’s no wonder that reviewers, on the hunt for originality, look for commercials which they feel can take John Lewis’ advent crown.

But advertising is a commercial business as well as a creative one. Consistency doesn’t always lead to predictability: it can also build Fluency and Feeling, by giving audiences what they want and expect in an emotionally satisfying manner. In this reading, Moz and Monty’s surface similarities are a good thing – if you can remind your audience of a stellar 5-Star ad like Monty, why wouldn’t you?

We can see the benefits of consistency when we look at two of the most prominent rivals for John Lewis’ position as the Christmas ad to beat – their sister company Waitrose and their competitor Sainsbury’s. Both these ads also came out last week and we have tested them for the FeelMore Xmas listings. And both are trying something different and ambitious.

Waitrose broke the mould last year with one of the most dramatic Xmas ads ever, a thrilling film of a robin’s journey home which mixed magnificent landscapes with scenes of peril as well as sentiment. It got a deserved 4-Stars, and this year’s follow-up also had plenty of wildness, with its story of revellers stuck in a snowed-in pub. It’s another strong ad, and its originality has won it plenty of critical praise. But according to our long-term brand monitoring tool, it fell just short of matching last year’s commercial, scoring a high 3-Stars.

Sainsbury’s meanwhile try something very different, cramming comic observations about a typical Christmas into a two minute singalong, specially written for the supermarket. The ad uses the monochrome look and orange text of Sainsbury’s current “Live Well For Less” campaign, but the karaoke format proved very divisive for viewers, with a low Neutrality score in our test and relatively high Happiness and Surprise cancelled out by a big dose of Contempt. The result is a high-intensity but low scoring ad: 2-Stars.

The mixed fortunes of these more original takes on the Christmas ad suggest that John Lewis are wise to play to their strengths and balance consistency and creativity. Christmas is a traditional time of year, and for all the grumbling over “typical Christmas ads” we see from some viewers, it’s advertising tradition that often scores highly.

But rivals shouldn’t lose heart either. It’s often the case that 2- and 3-Star ads can be improved with relatively small changes. Sainsbury’s viewers found the song annoying, and some Waitrose watchers found the ad’s story unlikely. If the former had created more Fluency by basing its song on something people already knew, or if the latter had clarified a couple of plot points to make the story smoother, their more novel takes on the Christmas ad might have performed far better. After all, it might only take one 5-Star ad to start a new Christmas tradition.

Written by Tom Ewing, Head of Communication, System1


At System1, we help the world’s largest advertisers make confident, creative decisions that lead to transformational business results. Our powerful ad testing platform (Test Your Ad) and our idea testing platform (Test Your Idea) help brands predict the commercial potential of ads and ideas. Complementing TYA and TYI is Test Your Brand, our brand tracking tool which measures the impact of ads and ideas on brand health, ensuring long-term brand growth through predictive success.
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