Christmas and Creative Thinking: The 5 Best Holiday Storytelling Campaigns of 2016 (So Far)

November 16, 2016 Taylor Holland

holiday storytelling

‘Twas the month before Christmas and all through the land,
Retailers were working to market their brands.
And what would get consumers attention during this hectic time of year?
But a heartwarming story of love and good cheer.

It’s the most wonderful—and most emotional—time of the year. For many children, it’s a season of joy and wonder. Much of that magic fades as we age, but with a little creative thinking, most adults still find ways to get in the holiday spirit: by seeing the season through the eyes of children, by indulging in bittersweet memories of Christmases past, by helping those who are less fortunate, by watching their favorite holiday movies, or by surrounding themselves with the people they love most in the world.

For those reasons, it’s also the best time of the year for marketers to use the most emotional marketing strategy of all: brand storytelling.

But many consumers have grown weary of the trite marketing content, disguised as stories, that so many brands have used in the past to wrangle in sales and create a holiday shopping experience that rivals the warmth of a home around the holidays. As a result, brands need to turn toward actual, powerful stories that leave audiences with something more than a sense of the best gifts for their loved ones this year. By making us cry, surprising and delighting us, or empathizing with how frenzied the holiday season can get, the brands that can make us feel are more likely to win our attention—and our business.

Five Digital Storytelling Examples from Across the Pond

In the US, retail stores were already awash in red and green before the leftover Halloween candy had been sold. But most American brands are still focused on Thanksgiving and won’t be releasing their holiday commercials and campaigns for another couple of weeks.

Target is, however, warning us that the holidays—and therefore holiday commercials—are coming soon. In the brand’s new video, a young girl and Bullseye the dog help a star-studded cast of superheroes, trolls, Barbies, Lego men, and other beloved children’s characters get ready for the big show.

One can only hope the brand is gearing up for a digital marketing campaign as magical as last year’s suspense-filled, multichaptered story, The Holiday Odyssey.

But in the UK, where Super Bowl Sunday is not the biggest day of the year for advertisers, the holiday season is retailers’ time to shine. And many top British brands are getting an early start, unveiling the holiday digital storytelling campaigns that consumers look forward to all year.

Here are five of the best so far:

1. John Lewis, “Buster the Boxer”

Possibly more than any other brand, department store company John Lewis is known for its annual Christmas stories. Last year’s “Man on the Moon” and 2014’s “Monty the Penguin” were among the best, most acclaimed holiday ads of all time.

This year’s “Buster the Boxer” isn’t exactly a tearjerker like its predecessors, but the emotional themes are powerful nonetheless. There’s the father who struggles in the snow on Christmas Eve to assemble a trampoline for his daughter, an unlikely ensemble of woodland creatures who come out of the woods in the night to christen the new toy, and Buster the dog, who wistfully watches the merriment through the window. On Christmas morning, when the little girl throws open the door for a closer look at her gift, Buster races past her and surprises the family by bouncing like a pro.

It’s a story about the lengths to which parents go to give their kids a merry Christmas, a story about unity among creatures who would eat each other any other day of the year, and a story about the magical things that happen during the holidays.

The lesson for marketers: when you’re telling emotional stories, you don’t have to choose just one emotion, especially when you’re marketing to a wide and diverse audience.

2. Waitrose, “Home for Christmas”

The holiday ad from supermarket Waitrose is only a few days old but is already garnering acclaim from both viewers and the media.

It’s a story about a little robin who braves the snow and rain to travel home for the holidays. He gets waylaid by close encounters with predators and almost taken out by a storm at sea, but a kind fisherman rescues him, nurses him back to health, and sends him on his way. Finally, he reaches his destination, where both his mate and a little boy have been anxiously awaiting his arrival. The two robins feast on a Christmas treat the little boy has left them, while he sits down for a holiday dinner with his own family.

It’s a story about journeying home to spend the holidays with loved ones, and that’s a story to which most everyone can relate.

The lesson for marketers: joy and wonder aren’t the only emotions people feel at the holidays. Sometimes the most inspirational stories tap into the not-so-fun feelings, like loneliness and homesickness, and then resolve those emotions with a happy ending.

3. Marks and Spencer, “Christmas with Love from Mrs. Claus”

Retailer M&S might take the prize for best creative thinking this year with an ad that puts a new spin on a very old story.

A little boy enjoys annoying his slightly older sister throughout the year, but when the family dog destroys her favorite shoes right before Christmas, her brother comes to the rescue. Rather than writing to jolly old St. Nick for help, he reaches out to the Claus family member with the better fashion sense. Mrs. Claus receives his letter, goes to her own closet, picks out the perfect shoes, and delivers them via helicopter.

The sibling backstory is a sweet one, especially when the little boy announces, “You might think I don’t like my sister very much, but I do. I love her a lot.” But the unexpected delivery from the unexpected gift-giver is what makes this story unique and memorable.

The lesson for marketers: you don’t always have to tell a new story; sometimes it’s just as powerful to reinvent an old one.

4. Burberry, “The Tale of Thomas Burberry”

Fashion retailer Burberry took a different approach than most this holiday season. Outside of the wintry backdrop, this story isn’t about the holidays at all.

It’s about the history of the Burberry brand, and a little bit about the history of England. The three-and-a-half-minute video shows how young Thomas Burberry created a new protective fabric for waterproof outerwear, how his product helped the British army survive during a cruel winter war, and even hints at young Thomas’s love triangle.

It doesn’t exactly get viewers in the holiday spirit, but the haunting song and beautifully told story are certainly attention-getters. And during a time when audiences are already inundated with holiday ads, going a different direction might just help Burberry stand out.

The lesson for marketers: brand storytelling doesn’t always have to be centered on your customers’ experiences. If you can find creative ways to tell stories about your company, you put a human face on your brand. And that’s powerful stuff.

5. Sainsbury, “The Greatest Gift”

Despite the cool animation, this year’s holiday video from Sainsbury isn’t really geared toward children, but rather toward the adults who scramble and stress throughout the holiday season.

It’s a story about a father who races around to find the greatest gift for his family members, only to discover that the greatest gift he can give them is his time and attention. Of course, his solution for being in two places at once—to clone himself—isn’t an option in real life. But it does remind us to put family first, and to stop worry about finding the perfect gifts, because that’s not really what the holidays are all about anyway.

The lesson for marketers: stop and think about what really matters to your audience during the holidays, and use that information to tell a story they’ll love.

The message is clear—brand stories that tug at our heartstrings may stand a better chance of loosening our purse strings. At the very least, they’re more memorable—and not just at the holidays but also throughout the New Year.

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