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Heartstrings or purse strings: What sells at Christmas?

More than ever this Christmas, there’s an emotional tug-of-war going on between “price” and “feel-good” advertising.

Many retailers will tell you categorically that 2011 will be a “value Christmas”. Others will counter that, while sharp deals are important in the current climate, there’s a place for Santa as well as Scrooge.

I’ve been keeping tabs on the various international campaigns coming out ahead of the “holiday season”, and the cultural clash between “value” and “values” can be striking.

Towards the “hard-ass” end of the spectrum is US electronics retailer Best Buy with their “Game On Santa” campaign. The launch commercial starts with a typical “soccer Mom” in a Best Buy store who is delighted at discovering the range of presents available under $100. We then fast forward to Christmas Eve, where Santa can find no room in the family stockings for a measly gift, because Mum has filled them up with her Best Buy purchases. Ha, you lose Santa! (The strategy, according to Best Buy is to make Mums feel like they’re “winning the holidays”.)

UK department store John Lewis opts for the softer side of Christmas with their blockbuster 90-second commercial, scored to a syrupy version of The Smiths “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want”. More like a short film than an ad, the reputedly 5 million pound production tells the story of a small boy who thinks that Christmas will never come.

When the big day finally arrives, we imagine that the boy will rip into the gifts at the foot of his bed. Instead, in a sentimental twist, he excitedly grabs a poorly (but personally) wrapped present and races into his parent’s room to give it to them. All together – aaaah! (Seriously, according to The Guardian newspaper, the ad “left the nation in tears” and has been viewed almost 3 million times on YouTube.)

And so we have one campaign about “getting” and the other about “giving”. Is it better to pull on the purse strings or the heartstrings to ensure a successful Christmas? The classic Christmas campaign should probably have a bit of both. The best (like John Lewis) first set up their campaign by establishing a common bond between brand and customer over a special time of year. Then they follow up with irresistible offers in a range of media – probably press, catalogue and on-line. Slam-dunk.

That’s the theory. I’ll report back in the New Year to tell you whether it worked in practice.

Editor’s footnote: There is also a video on YouTube about the making of the advertisement:

Jon Bird is CEO of specialist retail marketing agency IdeaWorks. Email: Blog: Twitter: @thetweetailer.

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