Why Brands Should Unwrap a Fluent Device for Christmas

This week saw the Christmas ad season kick into gear with our first 4-Star and 5-Star ads. This level of ad is rare – according to our market research platform, only 4% of ads hit the 5-Star peak – and represents an ad with an unusual emotional impact. That doesn’t mean they’re always blockbusters. In fact, in some ways two of the high-scoring commercials this week couldn’t be more different. One is a cheerful 30-second spot with a very basic storyline, the other is a high-budget storytelling epic starring a character loved by British kids for generations. Step forward, Toys’R’Us’ “Geoffrey The Part-Time Reindeer” (5-Star) and M&S’ “Paddington And The Christmas Stranger” (4-Star).

Toys ‘R’ US – Geoffrey the Part Time Reindeer

Toys 'R' US - Geoffrey the Part Time Reindeer

It’s also interesting that both these ads have the same basic plot. Santa needs help, and only our animated animal hero can provide it. This isn’t exactly the most original story (there’s a pretty famous tale involving red noses along these lines) so what in the execution is making the ads an emotional hit?

To find out, we’re going to focus on how the ads use Distinctive Assets. A term originally coined by Professor Byron Sharp, these are anything owned by a brand which is instantly recognisable and associated with that brand. Distinctive Assets are what builds Fluency for a brand, crucial for helping it stay distinctive and even charge a price premium if it wants to.

For a great example of a Distinctive Asset at play in a Christmas ad, take a look at this year’s effort from Very.co.uk, the online catalogue site. It was also a 4-Star winner in our test.

Very - Get More Out of Giving

The asset here is the glowing pink present, which Very use in all their ads and here is what partly drives the plot. Over time, Very.co.uk have established this pink present in people’s minds and in this case allows them to spend less time talking about the brand and more time telling an emotional story. Their investment in Fluency unlocks more potential for Feeling.

There’s a particular kind of Distinctive Asset which is very powerful in advertising. We call it a Fluent Device – a character or slogan, used repeatedly over time, which drives the drama in an advert (i.e. the ad wouldn’t work without it). Think “Should’ve Gone To Specsavers” or Alexandr Orlov the Meerkat for great recent UK examples.

We presented some work on Fluent Devices at the IPA last month which proved how useful they are for long-term brand growth. So with Christmas being the time of year when UK ads get most attention, using a Fluent Device would be a smart move for a brand.

Geoffrey the Giraffe has been Toys’R’Us’ mascot for years. He’s a Distinctive Asset alright. In fact their 5-Star ad is heavy on the Distinctive Assets, as it also makes great use of the memorable Toys R Us jingle.

But is Geoffrey a Fluent Device? He’s certainly being used as one – a brand-owned character whose adventures drive the action along. But there’s not as much history of using Geoffrey here as in the US, where he was the star of several ads. So maybe he’s a Fluent Device in waiting – and with this level of emotional response, Toys R Us would be well advised to use him again next time they advertise.

M&S- Paddington & The Christmas Visitor

So what about M&S? Their ad uses Paddington, who they don’t own, but otherwise ticks all the boxes of Fluent Devices. He’s instantly recognisable, he drives the action of the ad, and he’s well-loved. But he has no actual existing association with M&S. If M&S were to make several Paddington ads, he’d qualify as a “Hired Device” – an existing celebrity or character being used by a brand as an emotional ‘quick fix’.

In our IPA work we looked at Hired Devices too, and we found that the ‘quick fix’ can get quick results. For short-term activation effects, Hired Devices worked really well. For longer-term brand building, as you might expect, they weren’t nearly as useful according to our brand monitoring tool. M&S have a really strong emotional ad this year, and will reap some benefits, but it’s an open question whether it’ll be them or Paddington who see the long-term benefit.

Keep updated with our weekly FeelMore50 UK Christmas Newsletter.

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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