Why John Lewis' Elton John campaign marks a turning point

21 November 2018 / Philip Slade
Advertising, like everything else in popular culture, works in cycles, and we’re witnessing a very interesting shift in tone and genre this year. For me, John Lewis’ latest effort, which has been making the headlines, epitomises this shift.

This year, the John Lewis campaign focusses on the story of Sir Elton John, one of the UK’s most celebrated popstars. The film, The Boy and the Piano, begins with Elton receiving his first piano as a Christmas present, before tracking his journey from playing in the pub all the way through to global superstardom.

The campaign may seem tangential to the John Lewis brand at first glance, but there a number of intrinsic connections when you look more closely: big, emotional storytelling and a cut to the product ending with strong gifting cues (in this case, a Yamaha piano, a new £800 product line added for 2018 - and yes Lidl we hear you, you’ve got a bargain bin version). Clearly, John Lewis is hitting its true audience demographic in 2018.

What’s significant about this campaign is that it marks a departure from traditional Christmas advertising and marketing. In recent years, Christmas campaigns have sometimes felt very contrived, desperately trying to strike a cutesy, feel-good tone, often feeling like a Love Actually knock-off. John Lewis/Adam & Eve have recognised that consumers are finding this style of Christmas adverts tiresome, finally, and with their own ad, have attempted to move beyond it.

Of course, John Lewis’ campaign isn’t just a promotional opportunity for the brand, but also for the celebrity. There’s no doubt this is excellent for Elton John’s brand, especially in view of his upcoming “retirement” tour. If the advert had included a “Buy O2 Priority tickets for Elton’s farewell tour”, or a plug for his biopic, Rocket Man, which is out at the end of next year, would anybody have flinched an inch? In fact, I wonder if there are any commentators out there wondering if John Lewis have been played somewhat?


What’s happened elsewhere…


Elsewhere, Sainsbury’s have unwittingly become the fall guys in this year’s race for the festive ad crown, having produced yet another Love Actually knock-off Christmas advert. John Lewis’ star-powered execution is certainly streets ahead of this clichéd morass. But perhaps it’s cruel to judge this work so negatively. After all, it’s easy to forget how bad the previous generation of Christmas adverts were, and the fact remains that making engaging product adverts is tough.

For Twitter folk complaining the John Lewis advert isn’t festive enough, I’d say this: then why are you hailing a repurposed Iceland/Greenpeace film about the use of palm oil? In that one, there are certainly no trees, baubles, or joy. However, there’s no doubt that this is a fantastic example of the power of creative advertising. Last week, the budget supermarket’s Christmas advert went viral, attracting more than 30 million views after supposedly being banned. Clearly, the brand had a strategy in place to exploit the process of advice and clearance at Clearcast, so they could use the “ban” to win the public’s sympathy, even if the content eventually made it to television anyway.

Combining the general sentiment of the advert with the emotion around Armistice Day also represented a neat move, helping to grab the attention of audiences. The message was incredibly well-crafted, and the tone was just right for digital platforms. The digital push has saved the brand around half a million compared with the cost of running it on television.

What’s beyond doubt is that the activity has helped reposition Iceland in consumer minds, as they ditched the typical seasonal product push on party food and prawn rings. Only the cynics among us would point out that Iceland’s stance is confined to its own-label products and not the vast array of branded products they sell (with palm oil used as standard). Now, emptying those shelves - that would be really brave.

Looking ahead

I predict next year’s wave will be very product-focused, a bit like Glastonbury’s fallow year. With Brexit uncertainty fuelling low consumer confidence in the run-up to Christmas, retailers are already diverting spend from TV to online media according to WARC/AA figures, with TV spend expected to decline in 2018 by £44m to £1.43bn. Interestingly, M&S are already treading a safer, product-focussed path, after last year’s offering starring Paddington Bear failed to have the desired impact on struggling high street and retail sales. Looking to brand ambassador Holly Willoughby to promote the festive season’s must-haves, the retailer has successfully homed in on consumers’ awareness of the size of their wallets. Not a Yamaha piano in sight.