Christmas ads and the power of storytelling

I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for sentimental. With only a slight guilty conscience I will readily confess to harboring my kid’s kindergarten works of art, old letters from friends, and photo albums filled with childhood memories in treasured locations throughout my house.  I’ll also readily admit to being a sucker for history. I was that weird kid in high school who actually loved history class, perhaps because I had several amazing teachers who didn’t so much teach, as engage us in storytelling that was captivating. It’s with that backdrop, that we take a trip to Britain, where the competition for best Christmas ads (or adverts as they like to call them), is like sport – watched closely and fiercely fought for attention. These Christmas ads and their ability to communicate on such an emotional level is based on great storytelling techniques. As marketers we can learn a lot from that.

Best pause right now to grab a box of tissues. Both of these ads will push the emotional triggers with story, images and music.

1914 Christmas Day truce on the western front

Check out Sainsbury’s 2014 Christmas ad here. This ad captures brilliantly a piece of British world history.

Sainsbury_Christmas_advertAnchored in historical events during WWI where it was documented through letters home that the front trench lines between Britain and Germany laid down arms for a 24 hr truce 100 years ago on Dec 25, 1914, sang Silent Night together, and engaged each other as comrades, exchanging small gifts from home. I remember clearly being told this touching story in my high school history class, and this commercial authentically brings the moment to life. It was made in partnership with the Royal British Legion. You can watch a short film of the story behind the Christmas ad here. Of course the chocolate bar, appearing in a hero role, was made available in its historically retro wrapper at Sainsbury’s. But before you shout bah humbug at the retail consumption angle, you should know that profits from the choc bar, made in Ypres no less, are going to charity.

John Lewis – Monty and the Penguin

There’s a good chance you’ve seen this cute penguin ad making the rounds from John Lewis, another British retailer. Currently at over 20 million views, it has all elements of an emotionally packed segment: great music, a story told through pictures, a friendship between a boy and a penguin, and a magical ending transcending the world between childhood imagination and reality. Watch it here.

John_Lewis_pneguinSo what might be the marketing take away from these two segments, other than to keep the tissue handy? I think what’s really at the heart is the incredible power of storytelling. Both ads featured a classic storytelling formula:


  1. The intro
  2. The hero versus the villain
  3. The low point
  4. Overcoming the villain
  5. The climax
  6. The outcome and resolution

They both told the story vividly through images and music, featured characters that we could immerse ourselves in for their point of view, and they were rich in the recording of everyday gestures, habits, manners and details. Really, when you analyze them from a cinematic point of view, they were mini movies.

I think there’s a powerful lesson there for marketers if we embrace it. Storytelling works. Good storytelling is riveting and universal, which brings me full circle back to that high school history class and why I loved it so much.

So here’s my question to you: What is your business or brand story? How would you make it into a 2-3 minute movie? How would you tell it in a 1-minute pitch? Those are the thoughts I’ll leave you with over the holidays.

Mary Charleson

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