How US Retail Brands Can Up Their Digital Video Game This Holiday

The most shared holiday ad charts are dominated by British retailers. Here’s what to learn from Father Christmas across the Pond.

Ah Christmas. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, when Jack Frost nips at your nose and grandmas near and far dodge reindeer. Even for native Jewish Californians like myself.

Artists from Bing Crosby to Mariah Carey have learned to take advantage of this emotional time of year to generate music sales. US retail advertisers… less so. This season is ripe with opportunity – and the brands and retailers that create an emotional story this holiday season will be able to pop from the sleighful of ads to generate attention, engagement, and better yet – intent to buy.

When it comes to warming hearts and making viewers get misty with tears of joy, no holiday advertiser does it better than John Lewis. American readers, raise your hand if you’re familiar with John Lewis. Ok, I can’t see you, but I’m guessing there are very few upright arms on the other end of this blog post. Ads don’t need to be merry to be effective. 4 of the top 10 most shared holiday ads of all time are from John Lewis, and their 2015 installment #ManontheMoon already has more half a million shares only one week after its launch. There are no US retailers on the top 10 holiday ads list. John Lewis’ 2014 ad Monty the Penguin was shared over 1 million times and helped the master of storytelling grow its quarter-over-quarter sales by 6.9%.  

Emotions not only make people want to buy, they also make people want to share videos (even ads) in the millions, generating earned media and creating an army of brand evangelists. Word of mouth is the most trusted form of advertising there is (Nielsen) and a key driver of purchase decisions (McKinsey). Daniel Kahneman says emotions guide our desire to buy new things, until our rational brain kicks in to dissuade us in his bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow.  

Want to make the most of emotions this holiday season? Here are 7 tips to help US advertisers gain a toe-hold on the holiday ads chart and trend in retail’s biggest quarter.:

  1. Emotions run high during the holidays – so it’s easier to pack an emotional punch: One of the key factors determining whether an ad attracts 100 or a million social shares is the strength of the emotion it elicits from its audience. According to Unruly ShareRank data, around 70% of viewers who experienced an intense emotional response to an ad were more likely to buy the product. Take advantage of this and leverage the anticipation, nostalgia, warmth and happiness of the holiday season in your ads. If they’re crying, they’re buying.
  2. More story, less selling: US retailers missed an opportunity this past holiday season. The 2014 UK retail holiday ads significantly outperformed their US counterparts because UK videos told highly emotional stories, while US ads focused on price promotions. From a Calvin & Hobbes-esque narrative in John Lewis’ “MontyThePenguin” (1,012,603 shares rate) to Sainsbury’s true story of the WWI Christmas Truce (771,372 shares), these British ads generated more engagement than the top-shared US ad (from global retailer H&M): Magical Holidays featuring Lady Gaga & Tony Bennett (57,973 shares).
  3. Get your timing right: Unruly’s data shows that 44% of YouTube video shares occur within the first three days of campaign launch, and engagement drops significantly afterwards. Facebook video trends twice as quickly, achieving 86% of shares in the first three days. This doesn’t leave a lot of time for trial and error.
  4. Ditch celebs for everyday heroes: Unruly’s data and studies from leading academics (including Ezgi Apkinar and Dr Karen Nelson-Field), show that star power has very little effect on sharing success. Most of the best-performing holiday ads of 2014 featured unknown actors – so skip the lavish celebrity salaries and reallocate those funds to smart distribution for greater video success.
  5. Give people a lot of reasons to share: Word of mouth is a powerful driver for sales so give your viewers strong reasons to share your holiday ads. Key reasons to share include shared passion, zeitgeist and kudos. Holiday campaigns already have a leg up as this shopping season is the zeitgeist! If you can elicit a diverse set of social motivations, this will help maximize your video’s earned media potential.
  6. Use paid distribution to get your ad seen by your target audience: Making great creative is only half the battle! You need to make your ad discoverable to your target audience on the sites they already surf. An ad that is seen by few cannot be shared by many. During the finite holiday season, use paid distribution to slow viral decay and keep your ad discoverable until the New Year (to take advantage of holiday returns). Test your content to deliver it to the audience most likely to love it, and their purchase intent, brand advocacy and emotional response outperforms even the advertiser’s target audience.
  7. Customize your player to drive the desired action: Don’t stop with a goal of views or shares, think about the action you want to drive from your target audience and outfit the player with the relevant apps and features. For example, make recipes available via downloadable PDF from the player, include links to your online store or preferred retailers, or launch a holiday spotify Playlist to stay top of mind all season long!

The National Retail Federation, predicts the holiday season will generate nearly a fifth (or $3.2 trillion) of the US retail industry’s annual sales. US retailers love their price promotions – and if you can find a way to make them emotionally connect with your audience – using triggers like happiness, sadness, inspiration, nostalgia, pride and amazement, on top of cognitive responses like knowledge, surprise or shock, you’ll be on your way to stealing share of heart, mind, wallet and market from your competition.

Here’s a list of the top shared Holiday ads of all time – with only one American retailer on the list: 

Top 10 most shared Xmas ads of all time (updated Nov 19)

  1. Universal: Minions movie 2014 – Minions Go Caroling3,972,050
  2. WestJet: Real-time Giving 2013 – 2,221,975
  3. Kmart: Show Your Joe 2013 – 1,857,871
  4. John Lewis: The Bear and the Hare 2013 – 1,226,466
  5. John Lewis: Monty the Penguin 2014 – 1,012,603  
  6. John Lewis: #ManontheMoon: 904,528
  7. Sainsbury’s: Christmas is for Sharing 2014 – 771,372
  8. Sainsbury’s: “Mog’s Christmas Calamity”: 671,105
  9. NBA: Jingle Hoops 2013 – 564,471
  10. John Lewis: The Long Wait 2011 – 519,138