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In The Spirit: The Best Holiday Advertising of 2015

Holiday advertising is a great chance for brands to connect, but it needs careful handling of tone and story. Here are the brands that did it best in 2015.

Reading Time:10 mins December 11, 2015

This time of year, brands have countless different directions they can take with their holiday advertising. Iconic holiday-themed campaigns litter the history of the genre, so there’s a lot to live up to. With that added pressure comes a lot of opportunity.

Much like during the Super Bowl, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are a time when consumers will actually pay attention to the ads they are seeing on television. It’s a simple positive reinforcement loop; since these are the ads that have been entertaining and worthwhile in the past, we unconsciously start to pay more attention. And with more attention being paid by audiences, more marketing resources go into the creation of these ads, and so on and so on…

But what to do with those extra resources?

One thing for certain is that making the most of them requires an acute understanding of your brand, audience, and the nature of the surrounding noise in your industry. Brands can survive making the mistake of being a bit on the sappy side – or even a bit on the crass side – but above all else, their holiday marketing needs to rise above the noise and be memorable.

Here are some examples from this year (so far) that have the best chance of staying in our minds and hearts for years to come. Are we missing any that you loved? Let us know in the comments!

John Lewis #ManOnTheMoon

It’s hard – especially in a two-minute spot – to establish an emotional connection with your audience. That’s why many brands simply opt for comedy. After all, if you shoot for emotional gravity and miss, it’s a pretty terrible look for your company. Missing the mark with your comedy can leave a little bit of a bad taste in the mouths of your customers as well – but it doesn’t last in the same way.

One company that has consistently won this high-stakes, drama-in-advertising game is British retailer John Lewis. The company works with extremely creative marketing agencies to create commercials that feel cinematic and measured, earning the right to tackle their heavy subject matter. In this ad, an adorable young girl (as Adweek points out, it’s never a bad idea to use a child’s perspective) forges a connection with a lonely elderly man stranded on the moon.

The premise is far from realistic and that matters not one iota. Because of the skilled direction and set design, the implausibility is the furthest thing from our minds. By the time the (admittedly clichéd) tagline – “Show someone they’re loved this Christmas” – appears, we’re fully engaged in the world of the ad, heartbroken by the man’s loneliness and inspired by the determined kindness of the young girl.

Edeka German Grocery Store

This ad, much like the ‘Man on the Moon’ example from John Lewis, capitalizes on the audience’s natural inclination towards sympathizing with the elderly. In this case, though, the general tone is much more one of dark comedy than of uplifting innocence. Think more Woody Allen, less Pixar.

In this case, the elderly man involved is shown enduring multiple lonely holiday seasons in successive flashbacks – his children are grown now, and their busy careers have left them unable to return home during the holidays. So he repeatedly spends Christmas alone, contemplating on how much his grandchildren must’ve grown in the time since he last saw them. So what does the poor guy do? He fakes his own death to bring the family together, of course.

This kind of holiday advertising works because of its careful handling of tone and atmosphere. When the hoax is revealed, he simply shrugs and asks, “How else could I have brought you all together?” Black comedy, emotional subject matter, and controversy are difficult for one commercial to reconcile in less than two minutes, but in this case it all works well. The ad is generating significant buzz throughout Germany (and the advertising industry in general), and its message certainly hits home.

A Holiday Film by Coach #GiveCoachOrElse

Another tried-and-true holiday advertising tactic is presenting the traditionally avuncular character of Santa Claus in a not-so-traditional setting. In this case, Coach (via agency vets Droga5) makes him the victim of a North Pole home burglary. While enjoying a gentle December 26th evening at home, relieved at the completion of yet another hectic Christmas morning delivery schedule, he is relaxing with a glass of milk when a strikingly fashionable female visitor appears at the door. After knocking him almost unconscious, she stalks confidently over to his iridescently lit cabinet of Coach bags – because Santa definitely has a cabinet of Coach bags, right? – and plucks the item of her choosing. Before leaving, she – smirking – removes her name from the ‘Naughty’ list and adds it to the ‘Nice’ one. As the scene fades, ol’ St. Nick catches his breath while adding a little something to his glass of milk.

Ads like this one work so well because the brand gets to present itself as both familiar and daring, two particularly audience-friendly attributes. The scene wouldn’t be out of place in a Scorsese film, and gives the impression that a Coach bag is the perfect gift for that person in your life who kicks ass, takes names, and isn’t afraid to give society’s sacred cows a little bit of a jolt every once in a while.

(If you have a few hundred dollars to spare, that is)

Apple – Someday at Christmas with Stevie Wonder

Of all the well-loved icons in the past century of American pop cultural history, Stevie Wonder just might reign supreme. Through decades of sold out tours and more Grammys won than any other male solo artist in history, he’s drawn unanimous praise and good will from audiences the world over.

So putting him – and his singular talent – to work for a Christmas ad is never a bad idea.

Apple features him duetting with fellow soul singer Andra Day on “Someday at Christmas,” a number originally released by Wonder all the way back in 1967. Throughout the performance, the two are collaborating with younger family members via GarageBand, the popular recording software that comes built-in on all Apple devices. The fact that they are recording live highlights how easy and intuitive the application is, and the familial collaboration is truly heartwarming.

Finally, it doesn’t hurt that this happens to be a supremely talented bunch.

Microsoft – Spreading the Spirit to Apple

This has been an interesting year for brand collaborations. Back in August, Burger King tried to organize a branded armistice with their rival McDonald’s (although it’s not much of a rivalry based on sales). McDonald’s ultimately declined, but the buzz generated was a win for both brands (and for World Peace Day).

With the holidays approaching, Microsoft decided to take a page from Burger King’s recipe book and offer an olive branch to their version of the far-more-successful rival: Apple. Since the two companies each have major offices on 5th Avenue only a few blocks apart, Microsoft sent a group of employees – backed by a renowned children’s choir – over to Apple’s side of the street and had them sing carols for the exiting employees. The resulting video is both funny and endearing, giving Microsoft a chance to take a step back from the battles that it can’t win (smartphone and tablet supremacy) and win some well-earned good will towards the battles that it can (software).

The creative heads of advertising agencies across the globe highlight these weeks on their calendars every year, and it isn’t because they’re excited about the gifts. The reality is that holiday advertising is the most important time of year for big brands to make their mark – and they’ll pay top dollar for the best creative teams to help them do it.

While these examples show how diverse the results can be – from the darkly comical to the straightforwardly uplifting – one thing remains true across borders and industries: you’ve got to create something that’s memorable.

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