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Christmas in summertime: creative lessons for unseasonal festive planning

30 Aug 2018  |  Heather Andrew 
Christmas in summertime: creative lessons for unseasonal festive planning

Neuroscience and marketing expert Heather Andrews reveals the creative techniques that maximise brain response and help brands produce the most effective Christmas advertising

Summertime: a time for sun, sea and sleigh bells for many in the advertising industry.

While the rest of the country continues to enjoy late summer warmth, planners and creatives are working overtime to complete the scripts, visuals, soundtracks and media strategies that will move the nation in a few months’ time.

Their work through the summer months will become the face of Christmas to come – and the lead-time for their work indicates just how much creative finessing and preparation goes into the crucial festive period.

We know that creative work can have a huge impact on brands at Christmas. Some ads are eagerly awaited and effectively declare the start of the festive season, but more crucially for brand-owners, annual brand profitability can be dramatically impacted by the performance of their Christmas communication.

So for creatives who are trying to turn their thinking away from sunshine to snowfall, research conducted by Neuro-Insight into the best Christmas ads of recent years has identified four creative lessons that can be called upon to stop festive briefs from turning into advertising turkeys.

Overcome the “John Lewis effect”

John Lewis has, for some years, created stand-out Christmas advertising in the UK; it’s unsurprising to see other brands wanting a slice of the mince pie. Its ads have employed a winning formula, telling a story which tugs on the nation’s heartstrings, enhances brand perceptions and dramatically boosts sales.

From the brain’s perspective, what the John Lewis ads do so effectively is to deliver emotion in the content of an intriguing narrative, in which the brand plays an integral part.

Both emotion and narrative are key drivers of “memory encoding”, the process by which the brain stores information in a way that can impact future actions. Provided the brand is a key part of the narrative, the engaging story that is encoded into long-term memory will be attributed to the brand and is likely to impact purchase behaviour.

Whilst this formula has been deployed successfully by other brands – German supermarket Edeka moved many to tears in 2015 with its heart-warming advert featuring a lonely old man – creatives should be wary of following too closely in John Lewis’ footsteps.

This is because of how our memory works; building a picture from individual ‘snapshots’ of the ad to recreate the content at a later date. If the brand behind the ad doesn’t feature prominently in these snapshots, then the brain may well remember the story but not who the ad is for.

It’s bad enough to leave a memory unbranded in this way, but worse still for copycat advertisers - if our brains take on-board a message that isn’t clearly branded, they will tend to attribute it by default to the category leader, or whichever brand springs to mind first for the kind of feelings or stimulus the brain is taking in.

In this instance, emotive Christmas advertising that doesn’t clearly communicate the brand, is likely to be contributing to the brand equity of John Lewis.

So, how can you ensure your brand doesn’t get lost along the way? From the brain’s perspective, ads can benefit by taking account of a number of devices that are likely to engage the brain and ensure that the correct associated brand cuts through.

Mind the 'Conceptual Closure' gap

‘Conceptual Closure’ is the process that the brain goes through when it has finished absorbing a piece of information, or linked series of events.

Conceptual closure can be triggered by an explicit event ‘boundary’ such as the obvious ending of a narrative thread, or a more implicit event boundary such as a door closing, a light going off, or a person turning and walking away from the camera.

Event boundaries like these cause the brain to think that a series of events has come to an end, and trigger a processing pause when the brain is focused internally and is, for a second or two, less receptive to new external information.

Quite often, the end of a narrative will drive conceptual closure and, if an ad’s only branding appears at the end of the story, there is a strong likelihood that its appearance will coincide with the processing pause and the branding will, effectively, be missed.

The effect of this can be ameliorated by positioning final branding to coincide with the resolution of the narrative, rather than immediately following it, or by ensuring that branding cues are woven into the narrative throughout an ad.

Burberry’s ‘Festive Film’ of 2015 is a great example of the latter; distinctive Burberry clothes and accessories appear as part of the narrative right the way through from the very beginning. This approach avoided the risk of relying on end branding alone, and increased the likelihood of the Burberry brand being encoded into memory at both a conscious or sub-conscious level.

Build a human connection

Human connections are fundamental to our social make up. We’re naturally attuned to interpersonal interaction, and this comes through loud and clear when we look at brain activity in response to moments that involve human connections.

These moments tend to elicit activity in part of the brain associated with personal relevance; simply seeing other humans interacting increases an ad’s level of personal relevance to viewers.

Notonthehighstreet’s humourous ‘Thoughtful Gifts’ campaign from last year leveraged this effect well, and appealed to viewers’ sense of humour too. Making the viewer laugh or smile is a highly effective form of emotional engagement which can benefit brands or products that are convincingly integral to the emotional message conveyed.

Intrigue the audience

Finally, our brains love a puzzle to decipher. Some of the most successful TV ads are presented in story format, with implied questions and answers for the viewer to follow, and the gradual unfolding of narratives like these can keep the brain engaged for longer.

BBC One’s ‘Supporting Act’ campaign from 2017 executed this particularly well; initially, the story isn’t overt and obvious, with the viewer intrigued as to what’s going to happen next and where the film is going. The lack of dialogue and recurring characters add to this, and the human interaction between father and daughter combine that all-important element of personal relevance into the story.

The final payoff is when the narrative reaches its conclusion and the brand name is revealed. In this case, BBC One’s branding appears at the exact right moment – the point of resolution, when the brain is most engaged and intrigued to discover who is behind this piece of content.

Understanding how certain creative techniques can maximise brain response can help brands in their quest to produce the most effective Christmas advertising.

Above all, there’s more than one way to skin the turkey, and it certainly doesn’t have to be all about following the trends set by John Lewis.


Heather Andrew is UK CEO at Neuro-Insight

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