Christmas is a strange time of year for advertising and branding. At the first hint of fake snow on a middle-England window pane, the big brands’ marketing departments start going a bit batty, commissioning agencies to create campaigns which have little, if any, relevancy to their products, services or brand. At this time of year, it’s all about the ‘feel good factor’. It’s about creating adverts and campaigns which somehow conform to a pre-conceived idea of ‘Brand Christmas’ rather than to any kind of reality.
So, what is ‘Brand Christmas’? What do marketers really think Xmas looks like? Let’s take a look at the top 5 rules.
1. It snows at Christmas
Rule number one of any Christmas advertising: it snows at Christmas. Now this is an interesting one. In my 42 years of experiencing a British Yuletide, I can recall no more than a couple of occasions when it actually snowed. But in the British mindset, Christmas = snow.
And apparently this preoccupation with snowflakes is all down to Charles Dickens and the white Christmases depicted in his books. The theory runs that, as a child in the early 1800s, Dickens experienced a string of severe Winters. Because his childhood Christmases were white, that’s how he described the time of year in ‘A Christmas Carol’ – and that image of snowy rooftops and London covered in a white blanket has stuck in the national psyche.
2. Snowmen come to life
Ok, so we’ve established that it *always* snows in the fictional land of Brand Christmas. And where there’s snow, there’s snowmen. And obviously, these snowmen come to life, bringing joy and merriment to kids, dogs and grey-haired pensioners alike. Most of the blame for this lies squarely at the feet of Raymond Briggs and his book (and then film) The Snowman. This anthropomorphism of two balls of snow is cute…to a point…but I’m pretty sure most of us would happily never hear the dulcet tones of a pre-pubescent choirboy singing the theme tune ever again (FYI, apparently it’s not Aled Jones singing the theme – he recorded the same song later).
And if it’s not snowmen, it’s woodland creatures, bears or even penguins (thanks, John Lewis) getting the cute treatment. Penguins don’t even come from the North Pole, but I’ll let that lie for the moment…
3. Children (and sometimes bears) love giving presents
Now, as we all know, Christmas is all about giving (yes, it really is). And in the Brand Christmas universe, this philanthropic idealogy is completely embraced by small children, who revel in the joy of buying the perfect gift for their parents…yeah, I know, it seems unlikely, doesn’t it. Such a selfless act would be a wonderful and beautiful thing, but as anyone with kids will tell you, this isn’t quite how kids see Christmas.
In the mind of the average 5-year old, Christmas is the time you can reasonably demand a string of incredibly overpriced gifts from your parents AND not appear like a greedy, spoilt little brat. And kids generally grasp this opportunity with both sticky hands…as a child, I certainly did. I can remember writing the lists, composing the letter to Santa, and the overpowering desire to OWN STUFF! Or maybe I was just one of the spoilt brats.
4. It’s about peace and goodwill to your fellow man
Did we mention that this is nominally a religious festival? No? This tends to get rather airbrushed out of things in Brand Christmas. But one central conceit that does usually survive is the idea of Christmas being a time of ‘peace and goodwill to your fellow man (and woman)’.
Look at any Christmas ad and you can guarantee there will be a Brand Christmas smile on everyone’s lips, and that the story will revolve around some altruistic act where we get to feel good inside about how nice humanity really is – although if you saw the fighting that ensued on Black Friday, you might question that last part.
This year’s prime example of the peace and goodwill message is the much-derided advert from Sainsbury’s. It features the historically accurate story of British and German troops playing a game of football in no-man’s land during the First World War, and the not-so-historically-accurate actions of the plucky Tommy who manages to pass his chocolate ration to his German counterpart in the opposing trenches. The sentiment can’t be argued with: war is awful, but human beings can show great acts of kindness when they want to. But should this story be used to promote a supermarket’s brand? I’d go out on a limb here and say ‘Probably not’. You just can’t equate the carnage of WW1 with selling mince pies.
For a much funnier take on the Sainsbury’s ad, take a look at this parody from the Hot Gulp team.
5. Only our products will give you the perfect Christmas
This is where we get to the crux of Brand Christmas. Once you’ve got the snow, the talking snowman. the anthropomorphised cute animal and the message of ‘Hey, guys, let’s all be nice to each other’ shoe-horned in somehow, you’re set for the main message. And that message is ‘Buy our stuff, and you’ll have the best Christmas ever, honest!’.
Whether it’s the food you cook, the drinks you serve, the presents you buy your kids or the special gift you’ve purchased for your loved one, you need to buy OUR STUFF. Anything less will result in you having a Christmas very similar in atmosphere and poverty to that of Bob Cratchit in Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’.
The reality of Christmas
So, does Brand Christmas ring true for you? Do you recognise this perception of Xmas? Nah, me neither. As we all know, everyone’s Christmas is different. It’s not going to snow, it’s probably going to be a little cold, a little grey, a little….British. There won’t be any talking snowmen, but there may be a few grazed knees as excited kids try out new bikes, scooters and rollerblades.
We’ll all try to maintain the ‘peace and goodwill’ element….but after a few days cooped up in a house with your nearest and dearest, even the most placid of temperaments will start to fray at the edges.
But anyway, whatever you do, whoever you spend the big day with, have a great time. Do it your way. Only wear the paper hat from your cracker if you want to. Eat and drink what you like, not what the supermarkets tell you is this year’s must-have. Buy the gifts that really mean something to your loved ones – it’s the thought that counts, after all.
And have fun! Merry Christmas to you all 🙂