The Channel That Stole Christmas

By Callum McCahon, Strategy Director, Born Social.

“Leading with a social media campaign at Christmas? Previously, this idea would have gone down about as well as telling a room full of children that Santa isn’t real.”

Ah, it’s Christmas campaign season again; the highlight of the marketing year. 

We knew they were going to look different this year, how could they not? Difficult questions of national mood, production constraints and exactly how you reflect the reality of a socially distanced Christmas remain unsolved. This year’s Christmas campaigns needed to be nimble, they needed to be budget-friendly, and they needed to be different. 

And different they are. 

The Christmas advert has long been the almost exclusive domain of TV, the only place for your showpiece, fame-driving, big-hitting advertising.  

This year it’s looking like some brands are taking a different view. Walkers are shunning a TV advert in favour of a social media campaign and Marks and Spencer are adopting a digital media focus for their clothing Christmas campaign rather than leading with a TV advert. Others will follow in taking a social-first approach to their Christmas campaigns. 

Leading with a social media campaign at Christmas?! Previously, this idea would have gone down about as well as telling a room full of children that Santa isn’t real. 

So, what’s happening here? Why is this suddenly more palatable? Is it simply a case of budgets under pressure? Or is this the end-point of a deeper shift? 

Yes, budgets almost certainly play a part here. We’re in the midst of one of the deepest recessions of our time, and marketing budgets are under huge pressure. Where costs can be cut, they will be. Social offers cost-efficiency: it’s simply cheaper to create and distribute a winning campaign on social in comparison to TV. 

Agility is also clearly a factor. With questions over mindset, mood, and tone as yet unanswered, staying flexible with idea and execution is more important than ever this year. A social-first approach allows for that, rewarding a flexible and adaptable approach over one big ‘hero’ asset. 

But yes, there is something deeper happening that makes a social-first approach more justifiable. Throughout 2020, social media has been making a strong case for lead-channel status. It’s been the place that has connected us when we’ve most needed it – for better, or for worse. Its sheer scale as an advertising platform is ever increasing. And when many brands had to lean in to a social-first approach by necessity this year, they started to understand the huge role that it has to play in their marketing mix. 

So, why such whiplash to the idea of a social-first christmas ad?

Fundamentally, social struggles with a perception issue. It’s still seen by many as a place purely for short-term, tightly targeted, rational communications. That’s an outdated view; social can be used for long term brand building work that drives fame, when used in the right way. Look at Gymshark, look at Glossier, look at MADE. Social is beginning to seriously prove its chops across both long-term and short-term objectives. It’s a place – one of the few – that can genuinely do both.

And when you start to see it like that, well, why shouldn’t social play the lead role?

Let me be clear: I am not heralding the death of the TV spot. TV clearly plays a huge role in the marketing mix and will continue to do so for many brands. It shouldn’t be a case of ‘or’, when ‘and’ will almost always bring better returns. But the assumption that social can’t build brands – and therefore can’t play the lead-channel role – is an outdated one. 

As the social-first approach becomes more common this Christmas, with it comes a huge test for the efficacy of social. Can it prove, once and for all, that it deserves its seat at the adults table? Can it drive fame, emotion, memorability at scale? Can it genuinely play that lead channel role? 

We’ll find out soon enough.

By Callum McCahon, Strategy Director, Born Social.

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