The holiday season recap: what brands did this year and what we liked

Valerie Niechai
by Valerie Niechai on January 17, 2018

Holidays are the sweetest time for brands. People will spend lots of money anyway, so everyone tries to help them spend it at the right place (i.e. buy products of a particular brand). Holiday marketing campaigns make use of all the means available: emails, ads, social media posts + hashtags, holiday landing pages, gift guides, etc.

Each year there are a number of campaigns that resonate particularly strongly with us. Even if we realize that those major brands pump huge amounts of money into these campaigns to manipulate with our emotions and make us spend faster with more energy. However, I was eager to check what they came up with for 2017 and also recall some of their best ads from previous years. Let’s have fun and try to figure out what we can learn from these brands.  

1. Coca-Cola: Holidays are coming.

I can’t help but start with this brand. The best Coca-Cola advert I have found for Christmas 2017 is from Coca-Cola HBC:

The video is a classy one: while everyone is struggling with their holiday duties, they are unexpectedly treated with a kind gesture that makes them breathe out and smile. Cute, sentimental, and nothing special.

Although Coca-Cola ads are not that much about Christmas trucks that we directly associate with the holiday, Coca-Cola cannot let their ever-popular trucks go. The trucks are touring Europe, from the British seaside town of Scarborough to the Polish provincial town Lublin. People are absolutely mad about this truck tour. They travel to other places if the trucks do not visit their towns, make proposals there (with the help of personalized messages on the sides of the trucks), enjoy music performances, and, of course, participate in the selfie frenzy.

Takeaway from Coca-Cola (not as much from the advert as from the truck tour): The brand took that one thing that we remember most and made this magic real – you do not see it on TV, you see it in your town! Of course it generates lots of engagement and leaves lots of happy memories (converted into Instagram photos and Facebook shares).

2. REI: #OptOutside.

Once REI, an American retail and outdoor recreation services corporation, re-invented the concept of Black Friday, they decided to follow it this year as well. The concept is pretty simple. Instead of plunging into shopping frenzy, it closes its doors for all the employees, pays for this day off, and suggests everyone should go outside and reconnect with the nature, friends, and family.

After its success in 2015, REI was back in full force in 2016, shifting its focus to hundreds of nonprofit partners and a short list of companies who build trails, protect public lands, and connect people with natural places. Since 2015, seven hundred organizations and seven million people joined in.

I remember a brilliant campaign by Subaru and REI for #OptOutside movement in 2016. On Black Friday, Subaru and REI helped shelter dogs and NYC dogs #OptOutside by providing an entire fleet of Subaru Outback vehicles to shuttle dogs upstate to a beautiful 5200-acre park. Subaru also invited dog lovers everywhere to #OptOutside with their dogs on Black Friday. Finally, the company made a donation to the ASPCA for every photo posted within this campaign.

In 2017 REI employed user-generated content to show real experiences of the people who joined the campaign. For a month leading up to Black Friday, they shared videos created entirely from #OptOutside community’s material. Plus, the site plans to connect everyone to tens of thousands of trails, outdoor experiences, articles, and advice – all curated by the co-op community, and for free. 

Takeaway from REI: We should understand that in spite of all the great things that this campaign entails, it is still a commercial thing. It makes sure that people will come to REI shops not on Black Friday but later. And being such a huge stable company, they really are able to close the doors for one day (though it used to be one of the most profitable ones).

However, it is impressive that once the company decided to do so, it let a moment become a movement. It carries such great inspiration that people actually admit that it made them reground themselves, take a breath in a busy world, and… leave it for some time. The company taps directly into the best in people. It moves them, surprises, and amuses. This is huge. And fiercely viral.

3. Lagavulin + Nick Offerman.

Lagavulin, a whiskey brand, has been reuniting with an actor, writer, and humorist Nick Offerman for a few seasons in a row already. His 45-minute Yule Log video is priceless, especially for those who adore Mr Offerman (as I do, for example). He just sits in his cozy leather chair next to the fireplace with cracking fire, drinks whiskey, and looks calmly at the camera, occasionally changing his position in the chair. Since the video was initially released, a new 10-hour version of it became available.

After that, the hilarious cooperation continued, and now we have the same-spirited low-key works for New Year’s Eve and Father’s Day, plus, a new one for Thanksgiving 2017. As opposed to the previous ones, that new ad is short and Offerman there actually speaks, but the love for whiskey remains unchanged: 

Takeaway from Lagavulin: It is actually a brilliant idea to get a popular persona for your advert who is in so much harmony with your product that it delights everyone who watches it.

4. Edeka: Weihnachten 2117.

Holiday marketing is usually of highly sentimental value. And if we are to pick the winner in this category, I will pick Edeka, a German supermarket. Each year it rocks with the amazing videos that I would even call short movies.

It is hard to forget their 2015 advert that is called "Wihnachtsclip - #HeimKommen" – which translates from German as "Christmas Carol - #Homecoming". It is about an old man who gets desperate about spending yet another Christmas alone, as his kids choose not to come. So he does one thing that brings everyone together and makes them see that there should always be time for the close ones. The video is tear-jerking and really shareworthy: it gathered 33.5 million views on YouTube within a week of posting (with 59+ million views for the time being).

The 2016 advert followed the sentimentality pattern, and it is also of very high quality and intense emotional level. It is called "#Zeitschenken -- EDEKA Weihnachtswerbung" (which translates as "#Time EDEKA Christmas Advertising") and shows how madness around holidays and those attempts to make everything ideal keep us from remembering the most important thing – spending time with the loved ones. Actually, this is what the holidays should be about.

2017 saw one more gem from Edeka – a WALL-E like video about year 2117 when seemingly post-apocalyptic Earth is inhibited by the soulless robots, and Christmas does not exist anymore. However, that one robot that is able to feel something gets determined to celebrate this holiday the way it used to be.

Takeaway from Edeka: Remember that a sentimental video is successful and memorable when it makes people see what the most important thing in a human’s life is at a particular period of time/life. Plus, if we take the example of Edeka, when we watch its holiday adverts, we do not really think that Edeka is a supermarket. Its products are present in the video, but they are so sewn into the plot that you can perceive them only subconsciously.

What else I can say: before I saw these adverts, I never knew about this brand. Now, if I ever encounter any Edeka shop, I will definitely take a look at what it has inside.

5. Samsung: Giving is a gift to be shared.

While the Internet cannot decide whether Tesco’s Christmas advert is Christian enough, let’s better take a look at the holiday advert by Samsung that somehow managed to embrace different holidays without any controversy.

To the tune of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Give a Little, Get a Little”, a diligent doorman in an apartment building tries his best to ensure all of the tenants are happy for whatever holiday they are preparing to celebrate – Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, or the Chinese New Year. Of course, he is totally humble at the same time and expects nothing in return, aside from a simple thank you or happy smile.

However, the tenants value this thoughtfulness and come together to show the doorman their appreciation. In spite of the fact that this appreciation goes in the form of a new Samsung Galaxy Note 8 (instead of his really outdated phone), the advert leaves us with very warm feelings, as if after a cup of cocoa.

Takeaway from Samsung: First: the video evokes a very serene feeling that we all can relate to at this time of the year – you are the happiest when you give (so it helps you to buy presents with more joy). Second that comes from the first: a Samsung phone will be a great gift to give.

6. Google: Santa Tracker.

Each year Santa Tracker’s features are evolving. It is even hard to call it a tracker as there is very little tracking to be done. That part of the app unlocks on December 24th. In 2017 while we waited for Santa, Google offered lots of related content to keep up a festive spirit: either a new game, or a new activity was uncovered every day leading to Christmas. A snowflake coding tool, a virtual painting tool, Code Boogie to code the famous elf dance, the world’s largest snowball fight, you name it!


New resources were also available for parents and teachers in the education page, like lesson plans, video tutorials, and educational games. All in all, all the activities were divided into three types: Learn, Watch, and Play.

On Day X you could eventually track Santa’s journey around the globe in real time. Plus, Google Assistant was always ready to answer “Where is Santa?” at any time.

Takeaway from Google: Google manages to combine this wonder of believing in Santa and tools to teach kids about the Web. Though I know for sure that adults appreciate the whole wonder fuss as well.

7. H&M: A Magical Holiday.

I didn’t manage to fully recover from the awesomeness of H&M’s Christmas commercial from 2016 directed by Wes Anderson and starring Adrien Brody, when the company has stricken again with another gem!

The advert for 2017 is no less subtle than the one from 2016, and at the same time very stylish, magical, and heartwarming (plus, starring Jesse Williams and Nicki Minaj). In it Dad makes up a bedtime story for his daughter where she plays with her chemistry kit and opens up a parallel Universe that is ruled by Santa’s evil brother who steals children’s presents. Apparently, the girl is the only one who can stop him.

It is a truly charming story that touches upon the themes of bravery, strength, and desire to help and share what you have with those who are less fortunate. Following the lead of its advert, H&M made a donation to Unicef.

Takeaway from H&M: When you watch H&M’s holiday adverts, you do not realize that this is an ad by the huge clothing-retail company. All the products are organically incorporated into the plot. It proves that marketing, especially when it comes to holidays, does not need to be in-your-face, but rather emotional, thus memorable.

8. John Lewis: #MozTheMonster.

For many years John Lewis has meant Christmas. Each year a department store chain gives us a different magical or tear-jerking story. My personal favorite is the one from 2011 about a boy who, for whole December, is highly impatient for Christmas to seemingly receive his presents. But in the end it appears that he was impatient to give presents he prepared for his parents.

Michel Gondry, an award-winning screenwriter and the director behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind + a cover of Beatles’ Golden Slumbers by rock band Elbow + 7 million budget + huge secrecy before the release = 2-minute John Lewis Advert for Xmas 2017.

It is a heartwarming story about a boy and a giant monster who sleeps and snores under the boy’s bed. They strike up great friendship and play at nights which keeps the boy half-asleep during the day. Eventually, the parents give the boy the perfect gift of a night light that helps him to get a good night’s sleep. And as we start to think that Moz The Monster is gone, the boy turns off the light and hears the familiar rumblings under the bed.

You can also enjoy the Xmas advert from Waitrose (John Lewis partnership’s supermarket chain) that is based on true events when strangers got stuck in a pub in a snowstorm and got the most of the situation by preparing a delicious meal together.

Takeaway from John Lewis: It seems that being number one with its holiday campaigns, John Lewis feels lots of pressure from a variety of companies that also got this winning formula. It was especially obvious in 2017: John Lewis was not perceived as the winner.

On the whole, the winning formula: a tear-jerking plot + children, animals, cute imaginary creatures + heartwarming aftertaste.

9. Sainsbury’s: #everybitofChristmas.

The world can’t quite forget Sainsbury’s ad from 2014 where the supermarket chain cooperated with Royal British Legion to retell one of the most touching stories from WWI (with all the profits from a £1 chocolate bar going to veterans’ charity). The ad recreated the famous 1914 unofficial Christmas truce between British and German soldiers who played football together on this day.  

Since then, Sainsburys’ adverts have continued the strong British theme, and 2017 is no difference. However, while everyone tries their best to make the world cry of emotions, the company has taken another route that also turned out quite successful.

The ad featured real people, from English actor Ricky Tomlinson to Kermit the Frog, who sing a festive song, all in all 200 real people, from London, Cardiff, Manchester, and Glasgow, with supermarket’s festive food offerings at the heart of the campaign. It is said to be an extension of the company’s concept of “living well for less” – a long-term brand campaign launched in 2011.

The advert shows an array of typical Christmas scenes (every bit of Christmas!), like nativity plays, pre-Xmas chores, in-laws coming to stay, and other rituals that any of us can relate to. And though many of them can seem a bit boring, outdated, repeating from year to year, the video makes everything look fun and dear.  

Takeaway from Sainsbury’s: Featuring real people and a variety of traditions that we all know so well is a very bright idea. When a person feels that he or she is a part of a big family, they easily convert into customers or keep loyal to the brand.

10. Marks & Spencer: #LoveTheBear.

M&S is not a newbie to using heavy artillery when launching its holiday marketing campaigns. In 2016 the company turned to Mrs Claus, a strong woman and loving wife, and made a great advert which was warm, empathic, and with a touch of humor.

In 2017 M&S went even further by signing up the cute star of acclaimed sequel Paddington 2. The ad is voiced by original Paddington and Paddington 2 actor Ben Whishaw.

In the 90-second short movie, Paddington Bear saves the day after he mistakes the burglar (who has a sack of stolen presents) for Santa Claus and decides to help him deliver those presents. In the course of their adventures, the burglar has turned to the good side.

However, a curious thing occurred after the release of the advert. At the end of the ad, the burglar gives a hug to the bear and says: “Thank you, little bear”. Apparently, some people heard it as “F**k you, little bear”, even after a few repeats, and sincerely made a conclusion that it was a menacing joke from the creators of this advert! Of course, a spokesperson of M&S declared that “He’s saying, ‘Thank you, little bear’. I think it’s really clear. We wouldn’t change the ad.”

Takeaway from M&S: Well, if you have the possibility to employ the best people in the industry and feature the stars from the recent super popular movies, then you will rock! OK, to be serious, M&S uses the same magical formula of sentimental ads that makes us cry, laugh, and say “Awwwww”.

11. Aldi: Kevin the Carrot.

In 2017 Aldi, a supermarket chain, decided to give a follow-up to the adventures of its star from the previous Christmas ad – Kevin, a cute and romantic carrot (oh my, what characteristics for a vegetable!).

In 2016 Kevin made his dangerous trip from the festive table to the fireplace to take a chance to meet Santa. After falling asleep beside a mince pie, when he wakes up, he finds himself traveling at the Santa’s sleigh. Dreams come true! Then this ad evolved into a few spinoffs released the same year.

In 2017, Kevin helped Aldi to beat John Lewis and M&S on Xmas ad social media engagement! We have to know our heroes!

In the new advert, Kevin jumps on the train and meets his love, Katie the Carrot. He has to endure the quest of reaching her through the yet again dangerous festive table. Kevin has to dodge a dead gingerbread man (a reference to the rocking at that time ‘Murder on the Orient Express’!) and flying peas before the two love birds are united.

Takeaway from Aldi: When preparing for the holiday campaign 2017, the company was in two minds: whether to take a new direction and move on or to continue a successful story. They actually had the hardest task: not only beat other campaigns, but beat their own success from the last year. Eventually, they made a smart decision to continue with Kevin because they felt pressing demand for it to come back, and they followed it.

It seems that I’ve seen a million holiday ads prior to Christmas and to prepare this post. But one never gets tired of them – there are heaps of really good stuff. And it does its work – it inspired me, made me think, and laugh, and smile, and cry a little. All these brands are now regarded more than just businesses but rather storytellers and entertainers. So, a key for success is not to hit people over their head with a hard sell but engage with them emotionally. Then they are more likely to tell friends about it and share it violently (all the campaigns are no strangers to occasion-coined hashtags).

Do you have your favorite holiday ads from 2017 or previous years? Please share them in the comments, I’m ready for more brilliant stuff!

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