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John Lewis’ secret to winning at Christmas

dogEvery year the people of the UK (and expats in Australia) wait with baited breath for the latest John Lewis advert, marking the start of the Christmas season and the start of the Christmas competition amongst retailers.

For those who aren’t familiar with these adverts, I suggest watching past renditions before reading on; and have a box of tissues handy

So what lessons can we learn from John Lewis to bring our retail businesses Christmas success?

Tell a story: The John Lewis adverts and whole campaigns work, as they tell a simple story with a strong emotional thread. Keeping to themes that resonate with audiences at this time of year no matter what their background, such as family, sharing and the nostalgia of Christmas; the impressive thing to note about these adverts is, John Lewis do not try to sell anything. Instead, they remind us of what it is like to be a kid at Christmas by rekindling the emotions that we felt when we were young.

Of course, the fact that they are not overtly selling hasn’t stopped John Lewis from raking in the cash following the success of their adverts. The Bear and The Hare campaign in 2013 helped to boost sales for John Lewis by 6.9 per cent year on year. In 2012 they had a 44.3 per cent sales increase online following the ‘The Journey’ snowman advert.

Consider your brand’s story this Christmas; never forget the value and emotion you’re selling as well as the physical product, and communicate this across your whole ecosystem from store merchandising, to social media communications.

Keep to your unique brand message: John Lewis’s advert is successful but also profitable for the business because the adverts are aligned strongly with their brand: John Lewis is always there for you, a testament to the retailer’s longevity, and the fact that you want it to be there for you is a testament to their long-standing reputation for quality. These sorts of heart-tugging adverts don’t work half as well for the supermarkets, because no-one actively likes and trusts supermarkets in the same way that they trust a department store like John Lewis.

When you’re considering your brand message at Christmas, it’s important to choose a story that feels real to your consumer and that feels appropriate to the product you’re selling and your category.

Emotion generates shares: That authenticity combined with emotional tug is what drives people to share the John Lewis advert – 2014’s offering was briefly the single most shared video on the planet. Consider how your Christmas story can be shared and thus continue through every channel of your retail ecosystem, even if this is just a beautifully designed store window that passers-by want to take a photo of. Implemented effectively, your customers can be your biggest brand advocates.

Stand out from the crowd: Never mind that John Lewis adverts have followed a simple recipe of emotional story plus superstar pop cover, the hundreds of imitators who have attempted to capture a piece of the John Lewis pie have proven it’s not good enough to just do what everyone else is doing, or no-one will be able to distinguish you and your brand. So whatever you take from John Lewis’s success, find a new angle, your angle, and lead, don’t follow.

The soundtrack to Christmas: While the visuals and story are magical, the real magic lies in the perfect pitch of audio and visual. Nothing connects faster and deeper to our emotions than music and by using it as an emotional vehicle, it enables the viewer to reconnect with what we all yearn to feel about Christmas. When considering your instore playlist this Christmas, perhaps re-think the ‘Best of Christmas’ album that goes on every year, and consider a tailored playlist to suit your brand values, message and Christmas story.

Stay tuned for more hints and tips for getting your business ‘fit’ for Christmas over the coming weeks and congratulations to John Lewis for another winner of a campaign this year.

Vikki Weston, author of this column, is part of Retail Doctor Group’s Retail Insights team and can be contacted via email at

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