Nothing Says Christmas Like Abandoning Your Tone of Voice

Christmas is here, and with it comes a fresh sleigh-load of “event advertising.” Awards-bait pushed out by ad agencies with massive budgets, all ready and waiting to abandon a brand’s identity in pursuit of a couple of trophies and some attention on Twitter.

It’s obvious why agencies are willing to discard years of positioning, market research and consistency at Christmas - they make shedloads of money and get people talking about adverts instead of products. But are retailers and other businesses being taken for a ride?

Let’s have a look at this year’s crop and find out.

John Lewis


The tone shift:

John Lewis are the undisputed masters of the Christmas tone shift. During the year, the department store produces functional advertising focused entirely on quality and exclusivity. It’s purposeful. Then comes Christmas, everything is thrown out of the window for a switch to vague storytelling.

This year is a time-travelling story of Elton John, who is a great pianist because he was given a piano. Was it from John Lewis? Who knows. Can you buy pianos from John Lewis? Not a clue.

You can buy them from Lidl though, who do a great line in piss-taking imposter ads.

Does it work?:

Apparently not. Early analysis shows that Elton isn’t getting customers to engage with John Lewis’ ads, let alone shop there. And given that staff bonuses at the retailer have been slashed for four years running, it’s clear that Moz the Monster, the sad man in the moon or whatever mawkish awards-bait Adam & Eve/DDB churn out isn’t turning YouTube views into increased sales.


“Say hello to Rang-tan”

The tone shift:

This is bizarre. For 11 months a year, Iceland have used straightforward, value-focused adverts which explain that cheap fish fingers, frozen vol-au-vents and discount burgers are why mum goes to Iceland.

Then, in November, out of nowhere the company pivoted into a high-concept story driven advert about an orangutan who has seemingly nothing to do with Christmas, Iceland, or cheap frozen food.

Does it work?:

No. Rang-tan might have just about worked for Greenpeace earlier in the year, but despite manufactured outrage about the ad being banned due to “political overtones,” this advert hasn’t translated into higher engagement or higher sales. It’s so far disconnected from the reality of shopping at Iceland and the company’s recognised tone of voice that it’s just not working as an advertisement.

Unless of course the aim was to cause staff at advertising watchdogs to suffer abuse instead of shifting frozen sausages, in which case well done Iceland.

Coca Cola

“Holidays are Coming”

The tone shift:

It’s unfair to single this advert out, given that it’s been running pretty-much unaltered since the 1990s. But it abandons Coca-Cola’s usual tone of voice and brand identity (fresh, exciting, active) with something nostalgic.

Does it work?:

Strangely, yes. People buy more coke at Christmas (and more fizzy drinks too). Even though the sugar tax is causing a drop in overall sales of Coca-Cola, sales peak every December. How much of this is due to advertising, and how much is due to people stocking up for festive parties is anyone’s guess, as much like the supermarkets, you’d expect a soft drink company to see sales spike during the Christmas period.

So what does this all mean?

Of these three ads, only one creates a meaningful uplift in sales. And that’s because Coca Cola have been running their secondary festive tone of voice for over twenty years. So much so that it doesn’t feel disconnected from the brand’s existing identity.

But what John Lewis and Iceland show is that abandoning your tone of voice in pursuit of short term media attention isn’t neccessarily a plan that delivers instant success. Unless you’re prepared to invest in a secondary tone which you stick with for decades, our advice for Christmas is the same as it is for the rest of the year.

Identify a clear tone of voice (our workshops are a great starting point). Incorporate it throughout your marketing. And stick with it so that customers recognise and engage with it.

Don’t change who you are for one month a year, just so your ad agency can stick a gong in their customer bathroom. In the long run, it’s just not worth it.