The secret to a successful John Lewis Christmas ad

Katie Sweet, Janine Klimko & Esme Reeves
Intro

When you think about Christmas ads in the UK, chances are high that at least one John Lewis ad is among the first that comes to mind.

Would you believe the first John Lewis Christmas ad was released in 2007? Over time the brand has established a tradition of releasing a new, cinematic ad each year that is focused on storytelling and emotionally engaging its audience to make them feel good about the brand — rather than promoting a specific product.

Seeing the success of this strategy, other brands began to follow suit. Now we eagerly await the new crop of UK Christmas ads each year to see which brand puts out the best one and if they can manage to top our favorites from past years. And we’ve seen plenty of great ones this year already.

With the release of John Lewis’s 2022 Christmas ad today, we wanted to take a look at the history of the brand’s ads to see if we could crack the magic formula for a successful John Lewis Christmas ad. We’ll also share our results for 2022 and describe how this year’s ad follows the same formula with a little twist. Read on for all the results.

A decade of success

Our data shows that the brand perfected its formula in 2012 and has been delivering successful, well-loved ads since then.

Among the British public’s historical favorites are “Buster the Boxer” from 2016, “Monty the Penguin” from 2014 and “The Bear and the Hare” from 2013. And now, this year’s “The Beginner” joins these three at the top!

The graph below shows the percentage of “lovers” for each year’s ads compared to the UK norm. “Lovers” is defined as the percentage of respondents who gave the ad an 8 or above on a scale of 0-10 for the question “Overall, how much did you like the ad?" 

Based on the question: “Overall, how much did you like the ad?” Lovers are calculated as the percentage who gave the ad a 8 or above on a scale of 0-10.

Roughly two-thirds (66%) of people love “Buster the Boxer,” which puts this ad in the top 3% of all ads tested in the UK. “Monty the Penguin” and “Bear and the Hare” are close behind at 65% — making them some of the most appealing ads we’ve ever researched. And “The Beginner” comes in at the top at 69%.

The John Lewis formula for success

John Lewis has executed on its successful formula year after year since 2012. But what is that formula? By analyzing each ad from the last 15 years, we found four key elements for success. 

1. Cinematic story with a happy/surprise ending

Each John Lewis ad feels like a two-minute movie with a slowly developing story. While the emotions evoked throughout each ad may dip into sadness or melancholy at times, they always conclude with a happy ending — and sometimes even a surprising or unexpected one. 

For example, in “Monty the Penguin” we see the child gave his penguin a friend — and then we find out the penguins have been toys all along.

Our data showed that this ad in particular reached its greatest appeal during the last 30 seconds (and we see the same pattern with this year’s ad, more on that below), indicating that consumers appreciated this heartwarming and surprising ending. 

Note in the image below that the percentage of respondents who "strongly like" the ad jumps up in those last 30 seconds (to 40% from 25-30% throughout most of the ad).

The elements of the story, including the ending, come up in respondent verbatims time and again. For example, one consumer said of “Monty the Penguin”:

"I like the focus on a child's imaginary world and his toys coming to life, also it’s sweet that his penguin is lonely and that the boy realises it and knows what to do to help his friend.”

“A good storyline that didn’t unfold until right at the end.”

2. Universal value of love and togetherness

Successful John Lewis ads always focus on key themes of love and togetherness, which feel appropriate for the Christmas season and get us in the festive spirit. These values are universal and allow the ads to have broad appeal. 

For example, “The Bear and the Hare,” which depicts forest animals coming together to celebrate the holiday, features a hare who wants to share the magic of Christmas with his bear friend who is always hibernating at this time of year.

These themes tend to be mentioned in verbatims, like with “The Bear and the Hare”: 

“It showed friendship knows no boundary. Everyone can be friends regardless of shape, size etc. A heartwarming advert.”

"Just loved the storyline, friendship, kindness and caring, sad but a happy end."

John Lewis Christmas ads generally perform higher than the UK norm on positive emotions. In particular, the brand’s ads score over three times higher than the norm for “cute.” 

Based on the question: “Please select the emotions that best describe how you felt when watching the ad.” Numbers indicate the percent of respondents who selected the emotion.

But that doesn’t mean sadness doesn’t play a role in John Lewis ads. The average John Lewis Christmas ad scores 8% in sadness vs. 2% for the UK norm.

This is especially true for “Man on the Moon” and this year’s “The Beginner” where 27% and 21% of respondents reported feeling sadness while viewing the ads, respectively. But that ad was well-loved as well, showing that sadness can work in a John Lewis Christmas ad if it’s relatable and ends on a positive note, of course!

3. Emphasis on cuteness

As we mentioned, John Lewis ads score over three times higher than the UK norm for “cute.” This makes sense, given that the execution of each ad often emphasizes cuteness — featuring children and/or animal protagonists, often with animation to tap into the magic of holiday season. 

“The Bear and the Hare” features many animated animals, while “Monty the Penguin” depicts a child and an animated penguin as best friends and “Buster the Boxer” shows the joy of animals enjoying the gift of a trampoline.

Some consumers have said of the animals in Buster the Boxer: 

"The dog is very cute, showing his disappointment on Christmas Eve and then his joy on Christmas morning."

"It’s cute with all animals and heartwarming how wildlife all play together."

4. Appealing, cross-generational music

The music selection is a staple of the John Lewis Christmas ad. Each year the ad features a well-known and/or classic song covered by a present-day artist in a more stripped-back, acoustic style. This mix of old and new provides a little something for everyone so it appeals to a large audience. 

And the audio is especially important given that John Lewis Christmas ads feature little to no spoken dialogue. The music sets the emotional tone and helps to tell the story unfolding onscreen. 

For example, “The Bear and the Hare” features a cover version of Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know” by Lily Allen which reached number one on the UK Singles chart. 

The music is regularly referenced in verbatims for John Lewis ads. For example: 

“I love the music, it reminds me of Christmas with John Lewis adverts. I like how it brings you along with the story, creates some suspense and then ends happily.”

“The song was so lovely. The characters so cute. Very emotive. Can’t wait to see it again.”

A look into this year’s success

This year’s “The Beginner” depicts a man slowly and painfully learning to skateboard while he and his spouse get ready for Christmas.

It’s not until the end that we learn the reason he’s learning to skateboard: They’re fostering a girl, Ellie, who loves skateboarding. He and Ellie bond over their skateboards while the ad tells us “Over 108,000 children in the UK are in the care system.” John Lewis is “making a long-term commitment to support the futures of young people from care.”

And now while we’re all crying, let’s take a look at how closely this ad adheres to the formula we outlined above. 

  • Cinematic story with a happy/surprise ending: This one definitely delivers in this area. It’s a slowly developing story that leaves you guessing about why a grown man would put himself through so much pain to learn to skateboard. And we see that the percentage of people who “strongly like” the ad starts to spike at the time of the reveal — so it’s a critical component of this year’s ad.

  • Universal value of love and togetherness: You can’t get any closer to a theme of togetherness than showing a child in care being given a home, especially during the Christmas season. 

  • Emphasis on cuteness: This ad still scores above the norm on cuteness, but it's not as high as most previous John Lewis ads. It’s a more realistic story that elicits more sympathy and sadness. 

  • Appealing, cross-generational music: John Lewis followed its usual approach of selecting a cover of a well-known song. It might be argued that Blink 182’s “All The Small Things” isn’t really “cross-generational,” but it still adds to the story arc. 

The emotion of the story is where this ad really shines, so let’s dive a little deeper into it. 

The story is a bit of a rollercoaster — evoking different emotions throughout. Respondents reported feeling sadness (10 times higher than the norm) and sympathy (six times higher than the norm), which is not entirely typical for a John Lewis Christmas ad. 

But love, happiness and thoughtfulness come out as the most-felt emotions as the ad has a happy ending — which makes it fit very well with the John Lewis formula and for a Christmas ad in general.  

In the chart below, you can see the primary emotions this ad evoked. The gray bars indicate the UK norm while the dots show the feelings this ad evoked.

The story, message and emotions were called out repeatedly in the verbatims: 

"It was an emotional rollercoaster with a very strong and relatable message."

“I thought it flowed very well, told a story that surprised me at the end. The mix of emotion I felt.” 

“It was a nice heartwarming story about the dad trying to learn so he could bond with his daughter from the care home.” 

“It was thought provoking and raising awareness of the childcare system.”

Final thoughts

John Lewis has established itself as an icon of UK Christmas advertising over the last 15 years. After so many years of success, it was great to see the brand rely on some aspects of its winning formula, but shake them up in such a way to surprise us and keep us guessing. And we love the focus on the UK childcare system and the fact that it resonated with the public. 

But it’s important to note that there’s no one right way to do a UK Christmas ad — there are many other brands who have found what works for them. We’ve already seen M&S, LEGO and now Aldi land great ads this year. In a year where people are concerned about the cost of living, it’s impressive to see many brands deliver Christmas ads that put people in the festive spirit!

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