For many major brands the Christmas advertising campaign is the single biggest marketing expense of the year. Each year, increasingly lavish festive adverts hit our TV screens with the air of a film premiere as marketers vie for a slice of the heightened Christmas consumer spend which can make or break the 12 months that follow. But what can social media marketers learn from these blockbuster campaigns? What features define a successful Christmas campaign?

The first lesson is a more general one about marketing during the Christmas period. In a secular 21st century Britain, Christmas is not portrayed as a religious holiday but rather as a unique series of moments in the life of the family. Advertising is therefore not about products but instead more about eliciting this sensation of special family moments, the way in which they become part of our memories and sense of self.

As a result, it’s not surprising to see that the overwhelming majority of campaigns feature an emphasis on family, appreciation of loved ones, and an image of Christmas as a collective ritual which defines our relationships, memories and understanding of ourselves. A significant proportion of ads feature footage either from genuine home video recordings of Christmas holidays or, otherwise, a reconstruction of such moments right down to the home video-cam image aesthetic.

Tesco provides a good example of these core themes of Christmas as a ritual which defines our fundamental familial relationships:

Sainsbury’s is thematically very similar but is more ambitious in actually drawing upon actual home recordings of families most intimate Christmas moments.

The only other major theme evident as a core element of the Christmas ad is one of the supernatural and magical, in which the world becomes somehow estranged, unknown and therefore more full of surprises and excitement. Baileys and M&S provide good examples of this second key emotion of Christmas (excitement, surprise), derived from the suspension of the everyday that comes from time off work, snowy weather, family reunions and so on.

Therefore, Lesson #1 is that the Christmas campaign is not about products but about eliciting the emotion of Christmas – which is about the overwhelming love we feel for our families and/or the excitement generated by the promise of a suspension of the everyday. Boots actually combine the two core emotions with their advert:

In any case, once these emotions are successfully elicited by the advert, the objective is then to insert the brand into this moment in a subtle manner, even simply by mentioning it quietly at the very end of the ad. That is all that is required for major brands – no bragging about value, or product ranges etc. Interestingly, the Debenhams advert is more product-focused than some of its rivals – and currently has only around 100k views on Youtube, while Baileys and M&S have 2 million and 1 million respectively.

With this fundamental starting point understood (and it must be clear to all those engaged on the Christmas campaign),  we can then move onto the specifics of what exactly social media marketing brings to the process. Since Christmas campaigns are often highly integrated (TV, web, billboards, print etc) then there is plenty of scope for social media marketing to make an impact as part of this overall strategy.

However, it is essential that social media marketers understand that when it comes to big brand Christmas campaigns, Lesson #2 is that the TV campaign is king. Given the weather and the propensity for people to spend plenty of time around the build-up to Christmas sitting in, away from the cold, and watching TV together, the TV ad is the centerpiece of most Christmas campaigns. So where does social media marketing come in?

Well, the first commonly used approach is to use social media to support the centerpiece TV campaign by delivering additional content via Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter. Sainsbury’s for example have a full 50-minute extended version of their advert on Youtube in which members of the public discuss their Christmas traditions and share home video footage of Christmases gone by (the link to this additional content is embedded within the Youtube version of the TV ad).

In fact, most of the major campaigns are also increasingly offering ‘behind the scenes’ type videos and short ‘making of’ films to generate additional interest in their Christmas ads and increase the volume of content which is available. You may think that not many people would watch this but, actually, the ‘making of’ for a good main ad typically gets more views than a poor main ad itself would. See for example the case in point regarding M&S and Debenhams – the extra footage for the former (making of, cast & director interviews etc) together has more views than the actual main Debenhams ad.

Lesson #3 is therefore simple: social media marketing should entail, as a minimum, the generation and promotion of additional video content to support the main TV feature. This content should be delivered creatively and usually via the use of an interactive version of the main ad for Youtube and other online platforms.

However, the really successful campaigns do so much more than this, creating an entire integrated multimedia experience around their Christmas ad. The best example of this, as is the case every year, can be seen with John Lewis who offer not only a big budget and high concept TV ad (this year focused on the theme of wonder, excitement and surprise – mixing it up after last year’s family themed advert) but also an exclusive pop single (sung by chart-topping Lily Allen) and competition for the best cover version video, an interactive eBook (narrated by TV and Radio presenter Lauren Laverne), a tie-in product line and also a range of in store experiences that evoke the imagery and narrative of the advert.

John Lewis main feature:

Making of:

Lily Allen soundtrack and competition winner for best cover version

Lesson #4 is therefore that there is no such thing as too much supporting and online content for a Christmas campaign. If all the material is cohesively designed and offers multiple media experiences around the core themes, then you’re onto a winner. In these situations, the opportunities for also creating product tie-ins and in-store branding that links to the ad campaign are also exponentially increased.

Ultimately, John Lewis have opened up additional lines of revenue with unique product lines (the ‘bare and hare’ toy range which represents official merchandise from their advert) which exist precisely because of their creative, integrated and committed approach to their Christmas ad campaign. I suppose the unofficial version of lesson #4 is simply ‘learn from John Lewis’…

Finally, Lesson #5 is the single most vital one for social media marketers: find ways to generate genuine engagement and user-generated content which ties in with your main campaign. Sainsbury’s have built their entire campaign out of user generated content for example – home video footage of what Christmas means (for the lucky ones, it should be noted) up and down the country. Meanwhile, John Lewis – despite having a very parent and child focused advert – still managed to engage the teenage and twenty-something generation via their use of Lily Allen for the soundtrack and ensuing cover-version competition.

Obviously not all businesses have the resources of major national brands but, nonetheless, by examining in detail how these multi-million pound campaigns work, even small to medium businesses can probably improve their Christmas social media marketing by finding which principles they can also adapt and integrate for their own brand, product range and customer base.