Karl McKeever Column - December 2018

Holidays are coming

Once again we’ve had the highly anticipated unveiling of retailers’ Christmas adverts, with the usual discussion over ‘who did it best’. It’s become a seasonal event in its own right. From Elton John Lewis telling us that ‘some gifts are more than just a gift’ to Sainsbury’s tugging on the heartstrings with a nativity-themed ad. The ever-popular Kevin the Carrot is back for Aldi, while Iceland’s banned ‘political’ advert has gone viral, with its serious palm oil message resonating with thousands on social media.

So far so business as usual. But of the millions spent on these adverts, how many retailers are actually cashing in on their investment, driving carry-through of the campaigns in-store and – crucially – inspiring shoppers to purchase?

During the past few weeks I’ve made even more of a point of stopping into stores on my business travel, paying close attention to how – and indeed if – Christmas campaigns are translated in-store. And the harsh reality is that not many retailers do this particularly well.

But (as it’s Christmas), let’s start with the positives. Aldi has certainly delivered with this year’s Kevin the Carrot campaign – in and out of store. Arguably, it’s the only one that’s achieving anything close to complete consistency across all channels, using novel humour to highlight brand values in a fun festive way, all relating directly back to its theme of ‘fairytale Christmas’. Good stuff, Aldi.

Asda deserves a nod, too. There’s nothing too groundbreaking with its simple message of ‘bring Christmas home’, but in terms of segueing its campaign seamlessly in-store, it’s streets ahead of many of its competitors. The campaign is prominent and clear across its stores, effortlessly appealing to its target audience. Elsewhere, Debenhams has also done a good job of bringing its campaign to life, albeit while being more understated and less talked about than some of its competitors.

Iceland has been the big surprise of the season. The retailer may now have a TV presence, albeit with a different execution, but it’s the retailer’s cause-led Christmas campaign that has found large-scale support, especially on social media, with environmentally conscious consumers sharing its sad tale of the Rang-tan. Despite having zero television presence, the retailer has swiftly added some in-store integration, with Rang-tan vinyls applied to windows and hung from checkouts.

Many other retailers though have forgotten to join up the dots; failing to deliver a compelling and integrated Christmas brand experience. Argos, Morrisons, TK Maxx, Matalan – the list goes on. Surprisingly, John Lewis has ignored Elton John in all but its Oxford Street store. Boots’ 'Get them something that says you get them' campaign delivers a sentimental message, but doesn’t translate in-store.

Then there’s Sainsbury’s. The retailer has clearly invested heavily in its seasonal POS in-store. And in contrast to the many wider implementation challenges it seems to be facing in-store of late, the visual execution of Christmas POS at least has been delivered consistently and very well. It’s just that it has spectacularly failed to capitalise on the popularity of its advert. With zero linkage in-store, it not only represents a disconnect between in-store and above-the-line advertising, but will also no doubt have the same effect on shoppers to the brand experience of the supermarket this Christmas. It’s a similar story with Tesco. Their social media accounts are driving the message home via repeated posts, but the website is woefully lacking any mention of the campaign. Step in-store and Christmas virtually disappears within five metres.

At Waitrose this Christmas, the retailer has succeeded in ‘fixing’ its above-the-line communication with a campaign that’s resonated well and been warmly received among its target audience. In-store, it’s a very different story though. It’s also a tale of two (festive tangerine) halves for M&S. While its advert is reflected on its website and social media channels, in-store execution is inconsistent, letting the retailer down where it really counts. Much has been made of M&S’s controversial ‘must-have little knickers display’ but to me, the real crime here is how they have so stunningly missed a trick with relatively little delivery of Christmas in-store. It’s a far cry from its highly successful and brilliantly integrated ‘Mrs Claus’ campaign two years ago.

Once the central pull for shoppers at Christmas time, the store seems to have become something of a sideshow, half-heartedly reflecting retailers’ above-the-line Christmas campaigns or – worse – simply becoming a functional, unimaginative extension of their website homepage.

Increasingly, I find myself asking ‘where has the magic gone?’ Despite Peacocks claiming its happening in its store, it seems many senior leadership teams are committing the unforgivable act of overlooking the value of Christmas memories in favour of engineering costs out of the business. Forget Black Friday. Think back. How many children used to visit the ‘big store’ to see Father Christmas with their family at the start of the festive season? This was a huge ‘Red Friday’ moment for retailers. Not only pester power at its most potent, but retailers putting on a show, with store windows drawing huge crowds of excited shoppers. In turn, they were more likely to purchase in-store. These children have grown up with memories that now influence their own shopper behaviour.

I would love to see retailers shake off the shackles of expectation and instead dive into their imaginations and make Christmas a special time in retail once more. Yes, delivering an integrated campaign in-store is important. But it still doesn’t hit the right button if it’s a tired replication of what’s already been done. The physical store is the perfect opportunity for retailers to add some seasonal sparkle, bringing Christmas into glorious 3D life for shoppers. Let’s have less Christmas-by-numbers. With a little effort, stores could engage, enthral and motivate shoppers to spend. And, for retailers, that really is the magic of Christmas.

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