This won’t be a shock but this year’s John Lewis TV ad is branding at its finest. It has the best elements of old school TV advertising and is an impeccable example of content marketing. These two elements combined make it inherently digital.
People often ask me what advertising works in digital. In their heads I think they are taking cue from Minority Report and conjuring fusions of data with mobile apps that do everything but make the tea. It’s probably a lot simpler than any of that; perhaps you need to do what John Lewis did. Perhaps you need to start with a bloody good idea.
Firstly; they did something so glaringly obvious it’s something that many people in the media industry have seem to have forgotten: They made a high quality TV ad that people would want to watch. Or looking at it through another lens; they created a high quality piece of content and distributed it via TV.
This is not a new thing. It’s like many of the ads of yesteryear. On the surface it doesn’t try to be digital, it just tells a very nice story, a story that you don’t have to go online to continue. John Lewis is confident enough in the quality of the content and understands TV audiences are intelligent enough to know it’s going to be on YouTube if they want to watch it again anyway; just like everything else is.
John Lewis is not alone. Another recent TV ad getting rave reviews in digital channels is the US Van Damme Volvo ad. It’s another great piece of content that people can find and share via digital channels. Both ads are good examples of buzzwords we all hear a lot at the moment: ‘Content Marketing’ and ‘Earned Media’.
Neither ad overtly pushes product, but both engage consumers through choice content and have earned significant digital media exposure through the brilliance of the execution. Lots of media folk talk about earned media but the thing many fail to realise is that you have to earn it. Brilliant content is one way to do that.
Many TV ads from the inception of commercial TV were borne from content marketing strategies. Let’s not forget that Soap Operas are named so because the first ones were underwritten by companies such as P&G or Unilever. I grew up in the 80s and so much TV advertising felt like content then. My Granddad often joked that he only watched TV for the ads. This was a time when a Pepsi ad was really a Robert Palmer or Michael Jackson music video, switch the channel and Paula Abdul and Elton John were duetting for Coke. The Gold Blend ads took the form of the aforementioned soap opera with a couple of flirty neighbours. Newspapers would even write opinion pieces on these ads earning quite a bit of media in the process.
People now flock to YouTube to actively watch ads; I guess the 80’s equivalent was the ‘Clive James on TV’ show when people would happily tune in to ITV on a Sunday night to happily watch half an hour of amusing ads.
The John Lewis ad is currently 2nd on the UK Viral Video chart for the past 30 days.
There is so much noise nowadays many marketers are running around trying to use data or clever tactics to cut through. Perhaps they need to start with a good idea. Granted; not every brand has high production budget and Christmas only comes once a year but you just need to take a look at the Airbnb ad made entirely with Vines to understand that you don’t need a Lilly Allen song and massive TV budget to make the grade.
In the 80’s it was enough to run a great piece of content and let word of mouth and broader media help spread the word. That’s exactly what happens now but digital channels and social media make the spread instant and the earned media more explosive and measurable.
John Lewis didn’t stop there though. Anyone watching the ad online and clicking through to the site to continue the story will find an interactive e book that can be viewed on mobile devices, a Christmas card making app and a link to the Lilly Allen Song. They have even made the whole thing tangible by informing of the Bear and Hare cave installation in store where kids can have their photos taken. That’s without taking into account the Bear and Hare merchandise which sold out in no time.
It’s a gross oversimplification to say that making a great piece of content is enough to cut through in the modern era but it’s a pretty good starting point.