Our partners over at Kantar recently released their annual report into the UK’s seasonal advertising. As in previous years, Affectiva’s Emotion AI technology was used to understand consumer responses to the biggest ads of the Christmas period–and the report makes fascinating reading. (You can download the Kantar report here.)
The stand-out question for me was this: why aren’t ads like this all year round? As with the Superbowl in the US, or with big sporting events like the football World Cup, advertisers seem to pull out all the stops around big societal events–the ideas are bigger, the stories are more powerful, and the production values are higher. And as a result, the ads are better. In 2019, UK Christmas ads were, on average, way stronger than normal in terms of generating facial expressions of emotion– a key measure of viewer engagement, and which has been shown to link clearly to in-market sales success. And we’ve seen a similar result every year that this annual seasonal advertising report has included Affectiva’s facial metrics. So why don’t advertisers make ads like this all year?
It seems likely that budget is one barrier–narrative ads like John Lewis’ “Excitable Edgar” are time consuming and costly to make. But not all story-led ads have to break the bank, as ads from previous seasons, like Iceland’s Rang-Tan spot suggest. We’ve seen from previous cases it’s the power of the storytelling that counts, not the size of the budget. And even if a creative, emotional, story-led ad costs a little more–the effectiveness seems to be a lot higher, which is likely to pay back significantly in terms of ROI.
Emotional response to John Lewis "Excitable Edgar" is complex, and overwhelmingly positive
Risk-avoidance may also be a factor. Seasonal ads tend to be better on average but when they fail, they can fail in a big way. A big budget, high-concept turkey (sorry) carries a significant opportunity cost for the business, and can damage careers, so it may be that most of the time, brand teams prefer to play it safe. But this risk can be mitigated–Kantar’s research shows that if seasonal ads struggle, it is likely to be because of weak branding–they focus on telling a festive story rather than using the season as a backdrop to a narrative that dramatizes the brand’s emotional power. Telling engaging stories about the brand shouldn’t be hard – as Amazon’s seasonal advertising has consistently shown over recent years, and also as UK retailer Tesco’s showed in 2019. What the brand does is central to both campaigns, yet they are also engaging, and also capture the spirit of the season.
Finally, it may be that some advertisers simply haven’t grasped the power of emotion as a business lever yet. Perhaps some see seasonal or cultural events as a special case, where the normal rules of business or advertising don’t apply, and you have to do something “emotional” to cut through. But that’s simply not true: the fundamentals of people’s perceptual machinery, psychology and motivation are still the same all year round. So if powerful, emotional storytelling works at Christmas, it also works on a wet Tuesday in February. We are programmed to pay attention to things that make us feel something, and so a great brand story is always going to reap rewards.
Kantar’s recent project, and the Affectiva data within it, remind us again that emotional storytelling is the key to engagement, and engagement is necessary for marketing success, and that’s something for businesses to remember all year long.