While holiday commercials filling the airwaves this season are heavily focused on price promotions and alluring imagery, ads that tell stories and pull at the heartstrings tend to gain the most views online.
As retailers vie for consumers’ attention during the busy holiday shopping season, their advertisements need to be creative and emotional, said Erich Joachimsthaler, founder and CEO of Vivaldi Partners Group, a brand and marketing consulting firm.
"Attention is such a rare commodity, it's coming at such a premium, that the way you cut through to consumers, to the audience, is not by saying we are better, faster, cheaper; not by having a particular claim or call to action, but by tapping into the cultural context," he told Retail Dive.
Tap into something more than sales
In the old "Mad Men" days of advertising, awareness and imagery was more important, Joachimsthaler said. Now, it’s all about creating brand salience and ensuring that your brand is top of mind when a consumer thinks about purchasing a gift.
That’s why ads like Macy's "The Wish Writer" has garnered nearly 8.7 million views on YouTube. The three-minute film features a young girl who makes people’s wishes come true with a magic pen, and is also tied to Macy's partnership with Make-A-Wish. For each letter to Santa sent through Macy's, the company gave $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to $1 million. The retailer also has a Wish Writer app and stylus pen for sale, with a portion of proceeds going toward the nonprofit.
Macy's campaign is akin to ads produced by retailers in the U.K., where holiday ads are as big of a deal (or bigger) than Super Bowl ads are in the U.S.
U.K. retailers John Lewis and Sainsbury's garnered nearly 23 million and 26 million views, respectively, for their "Man on the Moon" and "Mog the Cat" Christmas ads on YouTube. Like Macy's "Wish Maker," these heartwarming films also have accompanying merchandise and charitable partnerships.
The ads aren't promoting a specific product or innovation, but they can still work well when deployed at the right time, such as the holidays, Joachimsthaler said. And they're creative, which isn't easy to accomplish, he said, noting that creative ads have been shown to be 11 times more effective than non-creative ads.
Consumers don't have the same kind of loyalty that they used to have. With the rise of omnichannel retail, shoppers' actions are no longer as linear and predictable, he said. In their quest to make a purchase, consumers research online, stop in store, talk to friends, all points where the sale can get derailed.
"In this kind of a consumer context, these kinds of campaigns actually can be very successful, because they tap into something more enduring for people," Joachimsthaler said.
Striking the right balance
Other retail experts suggest retailers must strike a balance of alluring imagery, heartfelt stories and price promotions with their ad campaigns.
Socialbakers' list of the top 10 most-viewed holiday ads on YouTube this year include a range of sweet holiday stories, like Macy’s "The Wish Writer;" flashy imagery as in H&M's Katy Perry music video as well as ads that drive home sales like Target’s 10 Day Deal Forecast and KFC’s humorous ad promoting its $5 Fill-Ups.
"You’re investing in your brand, but you also want to make sure you have a clear message to consumers that you’re offering a strong value, so I don’t think you can go too much either way," Oliver Chen, senior retail analyst with Cowen and Company, told Retail Dive. "The problem with just storytelling is the call to action, but the problem with the price ones is too much competition just based on price."
Chen said he would produce one of each type of ad.
"During the holiday season … given the way things have evolved, you want to get the share, so you need to also give customers a strong reason to come to you," he said. "So if you could do a combination that isn’t necessarily focused on price, but giving messages on product, that’s a good way to think about it."
Target had four ads in Socialbakers' top 10 list by views on YouTube. The rankings are based on data from Nov. 1 through Dec. 14 analyzed by the social media marketing and analytics firm.
The Target ads included one heavily focused on sales and deals and one featured a current trend — Star Wars. Three of the ads are part of Target’s multi-part "Holiday Odyssey" story about three children and a dog.
The holidays are a good time of year for consumers to appreciate a retailer’s whole campaign, since there are so many ads running during this time, said Kathy Doyle Thomas, executive vice president for marketing and development at Half Price Books and chairman of the National Retail Federation's CMO Council.
Retailers often use network television ads to promote their pricing while telling the more heartwarming stories or viral films online, she said.
"We all need a certain amount of traffic drivers, messages that drive traffic to your store, especially if you’re having a discount," she said. "And then there's also the …. emotional pull. Frankly people will go in for a good deal. The Emotional pull, you’ll have good feelings about the brand and the store, and it's not like they won’t shop you, but they may not shop you this weekend."