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Nostalgia Marketing & What We Can Learn From John Lewis Ads

Learn more about nostalgia marketing, why it's so powerful, and how brands are using it in their holiday marketing videos.

You’ve probably noticed an influx of seasonal television advertising campaigns by retail brands in the build-up to Christmas. These spots tend to attract widespread media coverage and acclaim upon their release.

Just look at department store brand John Lewis & Partners, which launched their first Christmas advert back in 2007.

Their nostalgic ads have become something of an annual tradition in the U.K., and one of the signals that the countdown to Christmas has begun.

In 2011, John Lewis uploaded their Christmas advert to YouTube for the first time. Since then, the British department store chain and its London-based agency, Adam & Eve/DDB, have followed suit each and every year.

And judging by the quality of ads other brands in the U.K. have been releasing this past decade, they may have learned some important lessons from those John Lewis spots.

In this column, we’ll take a look at how these brands are effectively harnessing the power of nostalgia marketing and what you can learn from them to make it a part of your own marketing strategy.

What Is Nostalgia Marketing?

Nostalgia marketing is the strategy of evoking a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, in order to build brands for the future.

It’s the tactic of associating your company with a period or place that triggers happy personal associations for your ideal customer, for the purpose of marketing goods and products in the present.

Why Nostalgia Marketing Works So Well

Nostalgia marketing typically works well because the psychological response triggered by watching a deeply nostalgic video tends to be intense, since it is influenced by the viewer’s own positive emotions and memories.

Nostalgic content also makes advertising campaigns appear more down-to-earth and authentic to the audience.

However, John Lewis may (or may not) not have learned what works (and what doesn’t). As the data below from Tubular Labs shows, the John Lewis Christmas ads uploaded to YouTube got more views and engagements several years ago than they’ve received more recently.

And that was a troublesome trend even before the pandemic turned last Christmas into a season that most high street shops would rather forget!

Title of video Views Engagements
John Lewis Christmas Advert 2011 – The Long Wait 8.3M 43K
John Lewis Christmas Advert 2012 – The Journey 7.0M 35K
John Lewis Christmas Advert 2013 – The Bear & The Hare 17.7M 124K
John Lewis Christmas Advert 2014 – #MontyThePenguin 27.8M 130K
John Lewis Christmas Advert 2015 – #ManOnTheMoon 30.4M 163K
John Lewis Christmas Advert 2016 – #BusterTheBoxer 28.3M 123K
John Lewis Christmas Ad 2017 – #MozTheMonster 10.6M 77K
John Lewis & Partners Christmas Ad 2018 – #EltonJohnLewis 14.7M 142K
Christmas 2019 Ad | John Lewis & Partners and Waitrose & Partners 11.1M 99K
Christmas 2020 Ad | Give A Little Love | Waitrose & John Lewis 4.7M 34K


Google Trends Data For The Christmas Advert This Year

You can use Google Trends to learn some surprising lessons about interest in the Christmas advert.

For starters, web search interest in the U.K. for the search term “Christmas advert” peaked back in November 2016 and is likely to be just 38% of that level this year.


Google Trends for Christmas AdvertScreenshot from Google Trends, December 2021

And if you narrow the timeframe on Google Trends to just the last 30 days, you can scroll down and see that the top related queries for the search term include:

  • John Lewis Christmas advert (100).
  • Aldi Christmas advert (42).
  • M&S Christmas advert (20).

Now, let’s pause for a second and reflect on this astounding list of queries.

People on the other side of the pond are so interested in seeing a brand’s Christmas ad that they actually search for it – sometimes in advance, and oftentimes after they’ve heard about it from their friends, family, and colleagues.

Which Christmas Ads Harness Nostalgia Marketing Effectively In 2021?

Let’s examine some of these Christmas adverts to determine if any of them effectively harness nostalgia marketing in 2021.

John Lewis Ad’s Content Doesn’t Live Up To Viewers’ High Expectations

We’ll start with “Unexpected Guest | John Lewis & Partners | Christmas Ad 2021”.

The description of this YouTube video asks, “What happens when an unexpected guest lands in your forest? You show them how Christmas is done, of course!”

John Lewis has created a ton of related content. Maybe they have been learning some important lessons over the years.

For example, there’s an extended version of “Unexpected Guest”.

And there’s a related page on their website that provides the backstory of the “Unexpected Guest.”

There’s also a behind-the-scenes article and video on the making of “Unexpected Guest”.

And, it seems like John Lewis has learned a lesson about merchandising. Why? Because the brand’s website includes content about the special Christmas jumper, customized with a star and twinkly lights, that Nathan gives Skye.

Plus, John Lewis is donating 10% of the sales from their Christmas advert jumper to support families in need.

There’s also content about decorating the tree – with links to “Shop in the Gemstone Forrest” and “Shop all Christmas decorations.” There’s additional content about setting the table, too, with links to “Shop the advert table look” and “Shop all Christmas tableware.”

There’s even a new interactive game, “Unexpected Guest: The Experience”, which My John Lewis members get exclusive access to play.

So, everything is queued up to “market goods and products in the present” – as long as the video’s content associates John Lewis “with a period or place with happy personal associations.”

How did the brand do?

Well, according to data from Tubular Labs, “Unexpected Guest” got 2.5 million views and 17,500 engagements in its first 30 days.

That’s a worse start than any of the brand’s other Christmas adverts from the previous decade. Now, maybe this is a reflection of a dramatic shift in the mood of families and shoppers in the U.K.

Or, maybe nostalgia marketing doesn’t work as well as it once did in Dear Old Blighty.

If you read some of the 1,200+ comments on “Unexpected Guest,” you have to wonder if John Lewis has lost its touch for evoking a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past:

  • Nature bunny said, “Ah… there’s nothing more festive than a crash-landed UFO in the local woods.”
  • Wayne Prezzler said, “Let’s be honest. John Lewis will never ever beat the lad waiting to give gifts rather than receiving them. It captured an essence lost and that Christmas is more about the giving of gifts than receiving. I believe it was their first and it was definitely their best ad.”
  • Ethan Clarke said, “The 2012 snowman advert is still the best for me.”
  • Strong Coffee said, “Monty the Penguin still makes me sob like an idiot. Love the song choice on this though!”
  • Edward Osmond said, “Nothing will ever beat the rabbit and the bear.”

John Lewis replied to this last comment. Someone representing the brand said, “Those two certainly pulled on the heart strings! But glad you like Nathan and Skye’s story too.”

Key Insights:

  • It appears that nostalgia marketing still works. Tying your company to a period or place with happy personal associations to market goods and products doesn’t work if your video’s content fails to trigger that deeply nostalgic psychological response, though.
  • Plan supplemental content to get more mileage out of your video ads and enable the experience to go on.

Now, let’s evaluate this year’s Christmas adverts from some other brands.

Aldi Video Ad Combines Humor With Deeper Emotional Sentiment

According to Kantar’s latest research using facial coding to determine the power of the ad to provoke an emotional reaction, the most effective of the 24 festive adverts tested this year was “Aldi Christmas Launch Advert 2021.”

It’s worth noting that the version of this TV ad that was uploaded to YouTube got 2.9 million views and 7,400 engagements.

Featuring Kevin the Carrot for the sixth year in a row, this year’s Christmas advert has been Aldi’s most successful so far.

In fact, it scored in the top 6% of all U.K. ads in terms of being both “distinctive” and “enjoyable,” and was also the campaign that sparked the most conversation.

The description of Aldi’s Christmas advert asks, “Will Ebanana Scrooge discover his Christmas spirit?”

Um, who is Ebanana Scrooge? The brand uploaded a teaser for this year’s Christmas advert to provide the backstory for this new character.

According to Kantar, Aldi focused on traditional Christmas themes such as kindness and togetherness.

Data from their research found that 35% of people feel this Christmas is more important than last year, with a particular emphasis on friends and family, and less focus on extravagant spending.

Lynne Deason, head of creative excellence at Kantar, said,

“Aldi’s new take on a Christmas classic is a great example of how a brand can convey serious messages about purpose and social impact while still being great fun.

Aldi uses humor effectively, something especially important in a year when we all need an extra laugh, but it also has a deeper sentiment.

The clever inclusion of ‘Marcus Radishford’ highlights a worthy cause – the campaign to provide meals to those in need – without coming across as too somber to viewers.

And by borrowing from one of the most well-known and loved Christmas stories of all time, it sets out a complicated narrative without ever being confusing.”

Key Insights:

  • The most successful Christmas ads in 2021 captured a positive mood while making it highly relevant to their brands and products.
  • Those that struggled to get resonance have been the ones with sad or complex storylines, where the intended happy ending doesn’t stand out or the audience is left feeling confused.

Marks & Spencer Uses Character & Storyline To Elicit Emotion

Another standout campaign this year was “Percy Pig comes to life for the first time EVER! | 2021 Christmas Advert | M&S FOOD.”

In addition, Percy Pig along with his fairy friend discover the delicious delights of the Marks & Spencer festive Foodhall, from triple chocolate panettone to Collection smoked salmon. This video has 1.8 million views and 7,200 engagements.

Much like Aldi, Marks & Spencer relied on the help of “recognizable” characters, a tactic that proved effective in linking messages and storylines with brand names.

In this case, Marks & Spencer leaned on its well-loved and highly recognizable Percy Pig voiced by English actor Tom Holland, and the “fairy that fell off the top of the Christmas tree” voiced by British actress Dawn French.

Key Insights:

  • According to Kantar, the characters created a greater emotional reaction among audiences than previous years’ ads from the brand, contributing to its increased effectiveness.
  • Familiarity – in characters, voiceovers, and other storyline elements – supports nostalgia marketing.

Coca-Cola Has Brand Loyalty & Connection On Its Side

I asked Deason, “Which brand was the most effective at harnessing the power of nostalgia this year?”

She said, “Coca-Cola’s ad is by far the most nostalgic Christmas ad, achieving iconic status in the minds of many.”

The version of this TV ad that was uploaded to YouTube, “Coca-Cola Christmas Commercial 2021”, is unlisted, which explains why it only got 2,573 views and 22 engagements.

She added, “Coke’s festive truck sings out Christmas to most viewers, but it is also intrinsically associated with the Coca-Cola brand.  It is in the top 2% of all ads in the UK in terms of brand connection, so the success of the festive campaign will translate to long-term brand loyalty.”

Sainsbury’s Ad Supports Armed Forces And Their Families

If they want some inspiration, then I would encourage them to get their SEO, content marketing, social media, and paid search teams together and watch “1914 | Sainsbury’s Ad | Christmas 2014”.

Made in partnership with The Royal British Legion, the advert was inspired by real events from more than 100 years ago. It commemorates the extraordinary events of Christmas Day, 1914, when the guns fell silent and two armies met in no man’s land, sharing gifts – and even playing football together.

The chocolate bar featured in the ad was on sale in 2014 at Sainsbury’s. All profits (50p per bar) went to The Royal British Legion and benefited Great Britain’s armed forces and their families, past and present.

Final Thoughts

I asked Deason via email, “What happened to John Lewis this year? Why didn’t an ‘Unexpected Guest’ named Skye do better than Kevin the Carrot?”

She said, “It’s great to see John Lewis back this year with an ad that people have really enjoyed. Although not quite as emotionally evocative as some of its previous hits, it still lands in the top 16% of all UK ads and was the second most enjoyed Christmas campaign of 2021.

“Music continues to be a key driver of emotional engagement for John Lewis, its track was the second most enjoyed this year. The ad is distinctive (top 16%) and is one of the top ones which people would share with others,” Deason added.

While the role of the John Lewis brand is weaker than in previous years, she said, it always benefits from the anticipation and conversation around the ad each Christmas. The absence of an obvious must-have mascot might also impact its ability to drive traffic to the brand.

This could explain why it may not grab potential shoppers in the way it has before. Even so, Deason pointed out, it is still keeping viewers entertained, as it has done consistently over the past decade.

“John Lewis Christmas Advert 2015 – #ManOnTheMoon” is the YouTube video created by a brand in the UK with Christmas in the title with the second most engagements of all time. It has 30.4 million views and 163,000 engagements.

This video has 23.2 million views and 230,000 engagements. That demonstrates the potential power of nostalgia marketing during the Christmas season.

Unfortunately, it is no longer available.

In fact, none of the John Lewis Christmas adverts listed in the chart at the beginning of this column are available, even though they would have all ranked in the top 20 videos created by a brand in the U.K. with Christmas in the title with the most engagements all time.

That’s a great pity.

Why? There are three key reasons.

First, when people continue to watch old Christmas adverts that evoke a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past that can continue to build brands for the future.

Second, social media and paid search teams can add up to five cards to each old Christmas advert to make them more interactive. These cards enable you to link to your newest Christmas advert for your viewers to interact with.

If you’re in the YouTube Partner Program, you can add a card that allows you to link to your external website to share the latest merchandising opportunities with your audience.

And third, John Lewis should review their old Christmas adverts to discover how the emotions elicited by video content is related to engagement. As Winston Churchill said in a 1948 speech to the House of Commons, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

More Resources:

Featured image: BrAt82

VIP CONTRIBUTOR Greg Jarboe President and co-founder at SEO-PR

Greg Jarboe is president of SEO-PR, which he co-founded with Jamie O’Donnell in 2003. Their digital marketing agency has won ...

Nostalgia Marketing & What We Can Learn From John Lewis Ads

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