John Lewis will still win the battle of the Christmas ads, claims Oxford academic

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As the big stores and supermarkets saturate TV schedules and the internet with their blockbuster Christmas advertisements, an Oxford academic argues many of them miss the point – and might even be counter-productive –  by failing to understand their customers’ prevailing state of mind.

Professor Nancy Puccinelli, associate professor in consumer marketing at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. predicts the £7m John Lewis ad featuring Monty the penguin will attract customers to stores and, particularly if the actual shopping experience matches the mood of the ad, encourage them to spend money. However, Boots, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and even Waitrose (owned by John Lewis) may struggle to attract more customers via their adverts or encourage them to spend more.

“The number of story-based advertisements this year suggests many agencies have been eyeing previous John Lewis ads and trying to emulate them, but they haven’t understood that it’s not just about tugging at viewers’ heartstrings,” said Puccinelli, “Our research shows that a powerful element in communicating with consumers is getting the right fit between marketing messages and what’s driving their decision-making, whether it’s minimising risk or maximising pleasure.”

In a recent research paper, Puccinelli and her co-authors explained that “Back to School” campaigns often implicitly address the fear that children might be starting school without the right kit. People who base their decision-making on minimising risk are particularly susceptible to this sort of messaging. But at Christmas it is more profitable to appeal to consumers with a “promotion mindset” – those who respond to images of indulgence, and who will be open to switching to premium brands and to spending more to get the most out of their purchasing.

“With this in mind, I think that the John Lewis ad, which doesn’t really focus on specific products but does present an idealised, rather upmarket picture of a family Christmas, will do very well,” said Puccinelli. “The current Sainsbury’s 1914 and Boots Boxing day ads are interesting because, while they both feature heart-warming stories, I don’t think they tap into the idea of indulgence, which is what will get consumers spending more in their stores – obviously the main aim of these promotions. The Boots 2011 TV ad spoke more directly to their consumers to optimize pleasure. With this year’s adverts, people will enjoy watching, but won’t necessarily feel the urge to buy much more than a chocolate bar, even if it is one in retro 1914 packaging.”

Puccinelli also believes Tesco’s ad, which centres on lighting up a large store car park, fails to create an indulgent feel.

She suggests that even the Waitrose ads could be improved upon. “The Waitrose ad contains a sweet story, but its message seems to be rather a utilitarian one, focusing on good customer service, or preventative one– worried about getting your Christmas baking wrong? Come to Waitrose and we’ll help. More of a focus on the celebratory could help Waitrose convert our enjoyment of the advert into more sales.”

According to Puccinelli’s research, even small adjustments to marketing messages to improve the fit with consumers’ prevailing states of mind can boost sales by up to 186%. Getting it wrong, such as emphasising cheapness (step forward Iceland) or price promotions when people are in the mood to spend money and buy the best, can even have a negative effect.