What the UK’s John Lewis Christmas Adverts Can Teach Us About Tentpole Marketing

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The UK’s retail chain John Lewis has mastered the art of tentpole marketing with its annual Christmas adverts. So, what can we learn from them this holiday season?

But first, US-based marketers might have a few questions we should answer. One, who (or what) is John Lewis? Two, what is an advert? And three, what is tentpole marketing?

John Lewis is a high-end department store that originated in London in the 1800s and currently operates 49 stores in England, Scotland, and Wales. An advert, as you may have guessed, is how the Brit’s refer to an advertisement, or, in this case, a TV commercial. … We’ll get to tentpole marketing in a moment.

Have you seen any of the UK’s holiday advertising? It’s a very big deal, rivalling the buzz generated each year leading up to the Super Bowl (which is not so much about the football but more about what commercials everyone will be talking about before, during, and after the game).

Before we go any farther, watch this year’s John Lewis holiday ad. You may want to grab a tissue.

Love it? I did. Want to see more? You’re in luck. We’ve embedded a few more from year’s past at the bottom of the post.

UK’s Holiday Adverts

John Lewis started making the heartwarming holiday commercials in 2007, and these ads have become a very big deal, involving months and months of preparation, Hollywood directors, and plenty of secrecy (UK media had to sign an NDA to screen the ad), as well as plenty of speculation about what the annual release will be.

This year’s “Moz the Monster” spot was directed by Michel Gondry, the Academy award-winning screenwriter of the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

“When I told my ex-girlfriend I was doing the next John Lewis Christmas film she said, ‘You have big shoes to fill, this John Lewis commercial must make people cry, don’t forget.’ Last week I showed it to her and she cried. Phew,” he told the BBC.

Besides their growing cultural importance, the annual ads have brought a return on that investment. Each one is estimated to cost £1 million to produce, and another £6 million for the marketing promotion and TV ad buy (that is pounds, not dollars). According to The Independent, in an article about last year’s advert, John Lewis estimates that, since 2012, its sales have increased more than 35 percent, thanks to the triumph of its Christmas advertising.

“The success of a Christmas ad goes far beyond the six- to seven-week run-up to Christmas,” Jane Bloomfield, Kantar Millward Brown’s head of UK marketing, told The Independent. “Return on investment on ads is not necessarily measured only in terms of short-term sales and profits, but also in terms of how much buzz and fame the advertising can generate and the longer-term impact that has on the brand.

“The more famous the ad becomes, the harder it works for the brand, and the more opportunity for that brand to convert it into increased sales.”

And the ads appear to be working very hard for John Lewis. A quick Google search showed them earning great SEO links from news media writing about the ads. There were even news reports on when folks could watch the commercial’s initial public broadcast.

Besides the commercial and all its tear-jerking wholesomeness, the John Lewis Christmas ads have also created buzz with the soundtracks they use, which are cover songs from established hit makers. This year’s soundtrack is the Beatles classic, “Golden Slumbers,” recorded by the band Elbow. Both versions of the song usually top the record charts following the release.

To summarize: Besides making me cry, the John Lewis Christmas adverts are speculated on throughout the year, throughout pop culture, own the air time leading up to Christmas, are the standard to which everyone else’s ads are compared, and make a return on the investment in a number of different ways.

Sounds like a perfect example of tentpole marketing.

What is tentpole marketing?

The reference to the tentpole comes from the graphic representation of the marketing that comes before and after the release of a Hollywood movie. (It also looks like a bell curve for those of you who freak out at any reference to clowns or circuses.)

The idea is to build excitement before the event to get butts in movie seats, and then afterward to get people to buy the DVD and all the other associated licensed merchandise. (As Joe Pulizzi at Content Marketing World points out, Star Wars movies before The Force Awakens pulled in about $5 billion, and the licensed merch pulled in about $12 billion.)

Nowadays, tentpole occasions include big events like the Super Bowl or the Olympics, as well as annual holidays and happenings like Christmas, Back to School, and so forth. There will be a tentpole event for just about any industry. For marketing technology or marketing automation, we could consider Scott Brinker’s annual MarTech Supergraphic release to be a tentpole event, as well as Salesforce’s annual Dreamforce conference. And movies continue to market tentpole events. Good luck not seeing some sort of advertisement for the next Star Wars release.

Plan your tentpole-marketing event.

Finding your tentpole event shouldn’t be too difficult if you have a firm grasp on your business goals, your buyer personas, and your budget. If you don’t have those, you should put off tentpole marketing for at least another quarter.

If you are a B2C, you can plan around seasonal tentpole events like Easter, Back to School, and Christmas. This is true whether you’re a small business or a $25 billion business like Macy’s, which recently announced its tentpole marketing strategy. You can also get creative and leverage tentpole events not specific to your industry. Bud Light and others, for example, have done this with past presidential campaigns. You can also take advantage of a big tentpole-marketing event like the Super Bowl, even if you have a less-than-super-sized marketing budget. Progressive Insurance created a bingo app of Super Bowl marketing clichés. And Newcastle Brown Ale has scored viral hits with its Super Bowl ambush ads.

For B2B brands, it can be a little harder to identify your tentpole events. This is when knowing your buyer well helps. Are there big events that everyone in your industry attends? Or is there an event that your industry can be connected to, even loosely? Accounting and financial services and Tax Day on April 15 is one example.

We mentioned Dreamforce, which is Salesforce’s big annual event. This could be an event you co-opt as your tentpole-marketing event. Or it could be that you also host an annual event or series of events that you can build tentpole marketing campaigns around. Apple, Microsoft, Google, and the others all have their special events. For Act-On, it’s the annual I Heart Marketing Roadshows that we host. And plenty of tech companies and other startups try to leverage tentpole events such as CES or SXSW.

If you do any business in Europe, or you do business with companies that do business in Europe, then you can consider May 25, 2018 ‒ when the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) takes effect ‒ to be a tentpole event you should be considering.

Plan you tentpole marketing calendar.

Once you’ve identified your tentpole event, you next want to tackle planning out a campaign calendar for marketing leading up to the event, marketing around the event, and marketing following the event. You also want to be creative with the messaging and tactics you’re going to employ. (Of course, this is true for pretty much everything.) The advantage here is that you’re thinking creatively while you’re still planning, instead of a week before the big event. Knowing your business goals, your budget, and your buyer will help give that creativity a canvas on which to paint.

“The creative idea changes every year, but the heart of our Christmas strategy remains the same: It’s all about thoughtful gifting, because at John Lewis we feel that people can go the extra mile to find the perfect present for the one they love,” Rachel Swift, head of brand marketing at John Lewis, told The Sun. “We connect that idea with emotional storytelling to create a really powerful campaign.”

Include in your planning how you will activate your tentpole marketing across channels, including social; how you will leverage it with prospective customers and current customers; and how the rest of your organization will embrace the campaign (both internally and externally).

And if you have a marketing automation platform like Act-On, you can build out your tentpole-marketing campaigns from pre-event emails to event press releases to post-event automated programs that nurture prospects based on their engagement with your campaign.

Building out a successful tentpole-marketing event that you can one day own also takes time. Dreamforce got started in 2003 with 1,300 registered attendees. This year’s event, which wrapped up this fall, saw more than 170,000 attendees descend on San Francisco.

John Lewis has become known for their holiday videos broadcast on television networks, but these short works of art are also hinted at in Twitter posts and in traditional print campaigns, with advertisements displayed in bus stops and underground train stations.

And, just like the movies and their tentpole-event marketing, John Lewis sells the toys, books, bedding, and other products that were featured in the video.

Their follow-up marketing also includes the release of a “making of” the commercial, a reading of the story underlying the annual ad, and, with each sale of its Moz the Monster stuffed animal, a donation to a nonprofit that helps young people.

Hopefully, you now have a good idea of how to create a tentpole-marketing event for your business. If you have any questions or want to brainstorm, let us know in the comments below or ping me on Twitter @isaacsnd.

From all of us at Act-On and our families, we wish you and your families a safe and happy holiday season!

Now for those additional John Lewis adverts. Enjoy:

2016’s #BusterTheBoxer

2015’s #ManOnTheMoon

2014’s #MontythePenguin