Dan Thwaites: how to make your Christmas ad connect

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‘Tis the season of the Christmas ad. Frosty night-time scenes, glittering magical themes and brightly wrapped boxes fill our screens accompanied by familiar or nostalgic music, all designed to pluck at our heart strings and help us go shopping.

The themes and motifs are familiar, but what is going on when it comes to influencing our minds and nudging us to feel warmly toward a brand at this time of year?

And what is it that makes us pay attention to some ads whilst others drift into the background snow and blur against the fairy lights?

There are scientifically proven principles that can help explain Yuletide success and failure, which we have applied to this year’s line-up of ads to see which offerings we think will mark out the top performers.

We use ten factors, grouped into two categories – gaining attention in the first place and keeping it enough to engage us, so it stays with audiences.

Let’s talk about attention. As humans, we’re hard-wired to respond to certain primal drivers. For example faces. Studies have shown that babies’ gaze will follow three squares arranged as two eyes and a mouth. These primal urges, Patrick, my co-founder, refers to as the 3F’s – Faces, Food & F-sex. And you’ll see that the best performing of the Christmas ads feature the first two in abundance, less of the last, perhaps for the best.

Emotional stories engage us the most – explaining part of John Lewis’s unsurprising high score, but where they really succeed is in engaging with narrative and memorability. Audiences are drawn into the story of Edgar’s travails and a dragon is different enough from the usual Christmas creatures to stand out, yet his resemblance to the hit children’s book character, Zog, strikes a chord with families across the UK.

Walkers score highly as they grab our attention with surprise as they show us Mariah Carey – who we might expect at Christmas – then take the unexpected turn to show she won’t share her festive potato snack, even with an elf.

People pay attention to what is personal to them – which is why you’ll often suddenly notice when someone says your name on the other side of a room at a noisy Christmas party. Nostalgic sounds and tunes have a similar effect. So, when Argos pairs up Simple Minds with the sense of mystery, seeing a fully grown adult playing a small set of drums, they are likely to score highly on attention. Then engage further by maintaining curiosity, as audiences wait to see how it will pay off.

Fluency and relevance also drive engagement. Fluency is making it easy for the brain to process the message or benefit – for example featuring presents (the drums) that you can buy from Argos. This is where M&S Jumpers and Ikea both score highly as the ads hero the Christmas Jumpers to buy in the first and the chintzy problem in the second.

These all score highly on relevance, too – the final of our engagement drivers. A clarity of how the message relates both to the brand / products being promoted and the benefit that the customer might receive. Two final examples here – Sainsbury’s – showing that even if they are not scoring as much as John Lewis on emotion, they can pick up through linking strongly to the store and Lidl – showing how to slipstream off other activity, reminding audiences that they can get all the Christmas stuff they want at their usual discount retailer destination.

Plotting a course for a hit seasonal spot that is entertaining, becomes a positive talking point and still reminds people that the brand or product will be a key element for their festive fun is no easy hit. But planning around human behaviours can go some way to making that easier.

With the current trend for slow-moving and heart-breaking nostalgia hitting a peak, brands are going to have to work harder to break out of the format and surprise us next year. Thinking about the psychological impact of their ads at the planning stage could mean a refreshing vision of the festive season while still reminding us why we our favourite brands bring us cheer.

Dan Thwaites is co-founder and chief strategy officer at Capuchin Behavioural Science.

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