The Futile Christmas Ad War

U.K. retailers' big ad spending can forge a link with shoppers but won't reverse a bad sales trend.

Whether you love Buster the boxer dog, the trampolining star of John Lewis's Christmas advertisement, or want to cut Aldi's Kevin the Carrot into tiny pieces, you can't escape retailers' holiday marketing.

Store chains' television campaigns have become something of a cultural phenomenon in Britain over the past five years, particularly that of employee-owned department store John Lewis Partnership Plc, which typically features a small child or cuddly creature and a heartwarming soundtrack. They're a big deal, debuting for viewers gathered round the television to watch The X Factor, and attracting huge audiences on social media. 

They're a sparkly distraction, but they can't always determine whether the crucial holiday trading season turns out to be a cracker or a turkey. If a retailer is struggling, like tinsel covering a threadbare Christmas tree, they can't fix an underlying problem.  

Store chains are certainly happy to spend on them. 

Hey Big Spenders

Retailers splashed out on ads in November and December 2015

Source: Nielsen

It didn't work out so well for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s U.K. outpost, Asda, which topped the list of holiday spenders in 2015, according to Neilsen Co. Its promotion did little to stem its sales slide, and it was the worst-performing supermarket over the festive season.

But the British arms of the German no-frills discount supermarkets Aldi Stores Ltd and Lidl Ltd, which are expanding in the U.K. and pushing upmarket, had the best sales over the period. Their ads encouraged people who might not have tried them before to pop in for a cut-price panettone or three bird roast. They also may have persuaded consumers who shopped with them all year, but traded up for special occasions, to stick with them for their festive fare. 

Discounter Delight

Among the big spending grocers, advertising paid off for Aldi and Lidl, not so much for Asda

Source: Nielsen

But the ads have another role. In the age when it is possible to buy everything online, they're one of the few ways retailers have to differentiate themselves from rivals. Hence the emotional appeal  and attempts to create a connection between retailer and consumer. 

Another reason to keep spending is to generate a buzz on social media. Aldi's parody of the 2015 John Lewis ad garnered more than 2 million views on YouTube. 

Down With the Kids

Christmas ads' pick up on social media is crucial to creating a brand buzz for British retailers

Source: YouTube

Lidl is an estimate as of December 2015

This year's John Lewis ad already has already captured Britons' attention. There were 61,000 mentions of the store on Twitter in the five hours after the launch of its 2016 campaign, according to social media monitor Brandwatch, though it has already sparked some outrage. The hashtag #BusterTheBoxer was mentioned almost 50,000 times. It'll be worth watching whether it repeats its victory last year, helped by its campaign featuring a little girl sending balloons to an old, white-haired man on the moon.

Moon Landing

John Lewis won Christmas 2015. Will it repeat the trick this year with Buster the boxer dog?

Source: Company Reports

Next is Haitong estimate for period from October 26 to December 24 including online sales John Lewis is six weeks to January 2 2016

There are a couple of factors that might just make this Christmas different, and the ranking of holiday winners could shift.

Aldi and Lidl are likely to spend big again -- Aldi just released its ad featuring Kevin the Carrot perusing its turkey and mice pies. But the discounters are battling full stores and crowded parking lots, as well as sharper prices from Tesco and Wm Morrison Supermarkets Plc. Their sales growth is already slowing, and Kevin might not save Christmas.

Another wild card  is Tesco Plc. It's going for the same humorous approach to its campaign as it did in 2015. There was a mixed response to those ads. But this year, Tesco's underlying trading momentum is accelerating, and a successful campaign might give it a lift.

And J Sainsbury Plc hasn't shown its hand yet, as it typically waits until after Armistice Day or Remembrance Sunday. Its ad last year featuring Mog the Cat ruining Christmas was anything but calamitous: it beat John Lewis on YouTube views. With competition from a reinvigorated Tesco, and the integration of Argos, there'll be much riding on this year's extravaganza.

However much store chains spend, if their sales were already going in the wrong direction, no fluffy dog or cat can change that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Andrea Felsted in London at

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    Jennifer Ryan at

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