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Unwrapping Santa’s Secrets. 

Neal Fullman

The science of Christmas marketing.

January 9, 2024 - By: Neal Fullman

'Twas the CHRISTMAS season for marketers to be jolly. The lights. Nigella back on the telly. And the seductive TV ads screening back-to-back.

An image of a young woman watching TV at Christmas while her dogs dressed in Christmas fancy dress look on.

But behind every jingle bell, every shiny bauble and every elf facing near death at the hands of a celebrity, there was a lot of science conjuring up Christmas marketing magic. As the festive spirit sweeps across the nation every year, creative agencies play a crucial role in helping brands engage audiences on a memorable and meaningful level, seeking to lock in their spending power for the coming year.

So, whether it was grannies sledging down snowy hills for Amazon, Hannah Waddingham getting feisty for M&S, or lammas dressed by TK Maxx that got your Christmas "ahhh" , let’s unwrap the science behind festive campaigning success to explore how a touch of creative magic dust can be sprinkled on commercial objectives to achieve the best return.

Cognitive Christmas Priming and Nostalgia.

Cognitive psychology emphasises the concept of priming, where exposure to certain stimuli influences subsequent behaviour. Studies have shown festively-themed visuals and messaging act as cognitive primers, activating nostalgic neural pathways in the human brain.

Festively-themed visuals and messaging act as cognitive primers, activating nostalgic neural pathways in the human brain.

Neuroimaging data reveals heightened activity in brain regions associated with memory and emotion, underscoring the neurological basis of nostalgic responses employed in Christmas marketing campaigns.

Anticipation and Festive Rituals.

The anticipation leading up to Christmas Day is a psychological journey good creative agencies strategically navigate. Given the season seems to start earlier every year, we need to craft content campaigns with longevity. We would never recommend decking all the halls with bells and holly all at once. It has to be drip fed, layer by layer, to avoid boredom, keep the campaign fresh and retain the sense of wonder and engagement throughout the festive season. That’s why so many brands ‘tease’ Christmas from mid October. A few weeks later, the clocks go back and it starts to feel wintry – another opportunity to ramp up. Then we get Halloween out the way – the last milestone.

And then the festive floodgates open in the race towards the big day.

Countdown widgets and features on retail websites see a >25% spike in user engagement, highlighting the impact of these principles on online behaviour.

Crafting campaigns with an unfolding narrative, building anticipation through countdowns and FOMO tactics, and incorporating elements of familiar rituals, contribute to the overall customer experience. Brands become intertwined with audiences' communal anticipation. It creates a sense of excitement and eagerness among consumers.

Wishing You A Very Relevant Christmas.

Get Christmas right and you could secure customer loyalty long after the last turkey sandwich has been enjoyed.

Semantic analysis tools used to dissect relationships consumers form between brands and Christmas-related concepts reveal clues to holiday messaging. Through natural language processing (NLP), agencies can quantify the strength and nature of these associations, allowing for strategic alignment with the values and aspirations consumers seek during the holiday season. Semantic network analyses reveal the intricate web of brand perceptions within the Christmas context.

According to Emotion AI analytics, Christmas ads that elicit high levels of joy and generosity achieve an average engagement rate 40% higher than non-holiday campaigns. Facial recognition data reveals a +30% increase in smiles and positive facial expressions during festive ad exposure.

Semantic network analysis of brand associations during the holiday season reveals that 70% of consumers link certain brands with positive Christmas-related attributes.

No One Christmas Fits All.

This is the big one.

The welcome contemporary movement towards respect for individuality is driving progressive advertisers to recognise that far from being universal, Christmas is a deeply personal matter. In our multi-ethnic society, many have no cultural affinity with Christmas, while others actually rail against the festivities. What was once a taboo is no longer problematic for many to admit to wanting to strangle Santa. But even those who refuse to fa-la-la-la-la, have money to spend.

Tapping into the ‘individuality zeitgeist’, brave marketers have started to position a “do Christmas your way” message.

So how do marketers avoid missing out on the spending potential of the Christmas impartials and even the militant detractors?

Tapping into the ‘individuality zeitgeist’, brave marketers have started to position a “do Christmas your way” message. This is based on consumer data strongly suggesting a customer-centric approach is far more likely to turn a profit than presuming a collective embrace of the once universal, traditional seasonal cues.

In the age of data-driven marketing, personalisation is key and possible. From highly segmented channel strategies, to email greetings, targeted social media ads, and clever decisions on influencer and content marketing, the science behind seasonal campaigning lies in making consumers feel seen and understood as individuals, whatever their leanings.

Both the Rudolph lovers and haters need to be wooed into tapping their plastic on card machines throughout the land during the festive season.

A screen grab of a marketing section from a website

A question still to be answered is how we show greater recognition of cultural diversity in Christmas marketing campaigns. For example, winter celebrations include two important festivals of light – the Hindu festival of Diwali and Chanukkah, celebrated by the Jewish community – but these barely get a look in for seasonal marketing spend. Is there a way to be more inclusive, without diminishing the mainstream festive jolliness?

Visual Appeal and Storytelling.

It’s quite incredible, but it’s now the advertising industry that actually signals the arrival of Christmas to the People. The power of visual storytelling cannot be overstated here.

As soon we spot the outrageously illuminated red articulated lorry coming to town, weep at this year’s mega-ad brand film or hear the words: “This is not just any festive prawn ring….”, we’re being triggered to believe that it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

Limited-Time Offers and Scarcity.

The great thing about Christmas for marketers, is that it has a fixed and predictable date to work to.

The sense of urgency is a powerful psychological motivator. Christmas marketing thrives on limited-time offers and a touch of scarcity as we lead up to the big day. Creative marketing agencies design campaigns that highlight exclusive holiday deals, limited edition products, time-sensitive promotions and delivery deadlines. This not only taps into consumer's fear of missing out, but also encourages prompt action and impulse spending almost bypassing the conscious mind altogether.

Finding your ownable space between the tinsel and snowflakes.

By understanding the psychology of Christmas, embracing visual storytelling, personalizing campaigns, creating a sense of urgency, leveraging social media and influencers, and integrating cutting-edge technology, creative agencies can help clients stand out in the crowded holiday marketplace, with an authentic voice and an ownable bit of Christmas.

And while we don’t see Santa being cancelled any time soon, Christmas marketing is definitely going through something of an evolution.

Meanwhile, may your brand be merry and bright in 2024, and if you need a fresh creative perspective, give us a shout!

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