Christmas advert time is here and a good time to see how different retail brands are positioning themselves and trying to show their competitive edge on their rivals.
It's been a tough year for department stores, with the near collapse of House of Fraser and Debenhams looking distinctly unwell. Even the normally reliable John Lewis announced job losses, which is almost unheard of, and have recently branded under John Lewis and Partners to emphasise their distinctive status compared with companies owned by private equity firms or large investment funds.
It’s not the budget that matters, it’s the message
Which makes it all the more surprising that they pitched their Christmas advert, The Boy and the Piano, on the theme of the power of gifts, by focusing on the career of Elton John (in reverse). It starts with the man himself sitting on a piano which then shows previous incarnations of the rock star, back to childhood, where at the age of 3 he got a piano - the same one he is now playing. In some ways it is a rather lovely video, the sound quality changes to reflect the earlier sound technology, the colours and clothes of the time give a nostalgic feel. Having watched the advert, I was reminded of my own desire to acquire a piano for my family this year.
And yet there is a problem, John Lewis don't sell real pianos and they have no reputation for selling any musical instruments. Having checked their website, they do now sell a small number of Yamaha digital pianos at £870, a sort of trumped-up keyboard, but I can't imagine Sir Elton recommending or playing those.
It is a great selling point suggesting your gifts can change lives and it works if most of your merchandise could be said to do that. A bookshop or music retailer perhaps could make that claim at a stretch, or even the shop that sells musical instruments. But this is a strange claim for a department store to make, will a hat or coat, toaster or a watch change lives?
This could have been done other ways
Perhaps they could have presented an angle to support their claim. Maybe by suggesting that a percentage of profits made from Christmas sales might go to a charity supporting young musicians or even Sir Elton's charitable trust. It is clear not all gifts change lives, and it is quite inauthentic of John Lewis, who used to be the sensible shop on the shopping mall to suggest otherwise.
They also missed an opportunity to show their distinctive position as a partnership, which they could have shown in so many ways, particularly with the subtle name change. Instead they have dedicated their advert effectively to a trailer for Elton's now well-publicised Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour for 2020, of which I saw a promotion for yesterday, and paid Elton considerably for the job as well.
Iceland gets the cold shoulder from the ASA
Meanwhile at the less fashionable end of the high street, we have Iceland's seasonal advert, or we would, had it not be banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for being too political. Iceland released this on YouTube unofficially, a week ago.
So what is the controversy? It is a short animation of an orangutan leaping round a small child's bedroom causing chaos. Why? Because his home has been destroyed by palm oil plantations. It is a story simply told and it is effective. It finishes with Iceland reaffirming its commitment to not stocking any item in their name which contains palm oil until a sustainable solution is found. The inconvenience of this decision to drop lines to stand for an ethical position is remarkable. It has got me thinking about what is in my food, spending a while to see if I could source a palm-oil free shampoo or spread. This advert is entirely authentic, and rips up the rulebook that suggests budget-cost providers are about keeping costs low and cannot make a stand for a better world.
Keeping to your values is not a new idea
What I find so confusing is that the ASA has taken a stand on this issue. It is not unusual for brands to take on political stances. The original Body Shop built their entire brand on doing that and changed the landscape of beauty products forever. If it was an advert selling Corbyn cola or Theresa May teacakes, with proceeds going to support specific political parties, you could see the politics of it all. But this is an issue which is not subject to political interpretation. A number of reliable sources question the idea of sustainable palm oil, and Iceland have made a brave commitment to drop lines, and use a powerful story to show this.
So there we have it. A story based on an authentic commitment to make a difference to the world is banned, while a charming flashback story about a gift the shop cannot sell you is approved. One inspires, the other confuses and misleads.
It is a pity as I hold both John Lewis and Sir Elton with a degree of respect, both being great and distinctive brands, but this was not the way. These campaigns also show the weakness of the ASA in this digital world, as Iceland still get the campaign online to send the message and change minds.
This is the time for reflection, I hope that more brands think about the authentic values and build on them, telling compelling stories like Iceland to bring change and distinctiveness, rather than think of multi-million pound one-off campaigns that do nothing to enhance the brand story.
Lets hope Iceland score more goals and John Lewis fewer own-goals in the coming year.