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Best Christmas Ads Ever–How John Lewis Sells Gift Giving as a Value

23 Dec

John Lewis 4           We’ve reached the advent of capitalism’s most important holiday… Christmas.

    But instead of brands trying to sell us objects and products all in the name of quarterly sales goals and corporate profits, what if they bent the value curve and sold a different kind of equation?

    British department store John Lewis has.  They’ve done it for years, and once again implore us to think of Christmas as an idea.  That idea is giving something of one’s self and thereby changing yourself and the person you love.   They do it not through product demonstration or a heavy-handed sales pitch, but instead through powerful schematic storytelling.

   This year’s John Lewis Christmas commercial, or advert as they’re called in Britain, follows in the store’s long tradition of inviting its customers to think differently about the holiday.  Each year, the John Lewis advert becomes the most anticipated and most shared piece of strategic advertising communication in the UK.  For 2018, they take viewers by the hand and lead them on the musical journey of the child who would become one of the world’s most enduring pop stars.  

    With its newest advert, John Lewis is sending a very specific and powerful message—give the gift that will change someone’s life.  Of course the implicit message is, if it changed Elton John’s life, imagine what it can do for someone else.

    The brilliance of the John Lewis Christmas ads over the years is that they use inviting and compelling characters that make the viewer think deeply about story. Firmly grounded Appraisal Theory, the viewer aligns the story with their own life experiences and creates a powerful emotional response about both the ad and their attitude toward the brand.

    By far, their most powerful advert was 2014’s Monty the Penguin with its simple message of buying someone the gift they’ve been dreaming of.

    For John Lewis, it’s more than just changing our attitudes on gifts.  It has also implored us to change our attitudes on society.   In 2015, its Christmas advert “Man on the Moon” focused its attention on the elderly.  The campaign turned a corner by partnering Age UK to bring awareness to the loneliness of many senior citizens.  The proceeds from the sale of specific items at John Lewis all went to the Age UK charity.

   More than two thousand years ago the Book of Matthew told of three men who originated the idea of giving.  Their gifts to the Christ child of gold, incense, and myrrh were about those higher-level values of innocence and honor.  John Lewis on a different level implores us to think about that too. It’s about the idea of giving—and changing someone’s life.  That’s a brand value worth taking to the bank.

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When Poor Crisis Communication Defeats Smart Branding–Trump and NC in Cleveland

20 Jul


Trump Blog Still.001

     In a presidential campaign that has been anything but predictable, strategic and organized, Donald Trump has finally put together a surprisingly strong branding strategy for the Republican National Convention.  And then watched it blow up.

     The Trump campaign and the RNC have gone to great lengths to brand each day of the convention with an overarching platform central to the Trump campaign.

     In marketing and branding parlance, the Trump camp and the RNC are very shrewdly appealing to personal core values: keep me safe, save my job, save my country, united we stand.  The clear goal is to reinforce these core values to build to the Trump brand promise of strong leadership to strengthen America.

      Here’s how the themes it will play out during the four days:

Monday: Make America Safe Again

  • Core value: Keep me safe

 Tuesday: Make America Work Again

  • Core vale: Save my job

 Wednesday: Make America First Again

  • Core value: Save my country

Thursday: Make America One Again

  • Core value: United we stand

             Trump himself had already been ramping up his social media rhetoric in preparation for the first convention day’s core value of ‘keep me safe.’   He especially used the Baton Rouge police shootings as a Facebook call to action.

                  On Twitter the day before the convention he also tried to weave the threat from ISIS into the narrative.

      But Trump’s marketing team has also been proactive and smart in making sure his social media messaging has tied directly into the core value agenda.  Each day on Facebook the team has posted branded content reflecting the day’s agenda and inviting followers to engage.  Monday’s theme of ‘keep me safe’ brought several posts throughout the day of videos and images for viewers to share.


     On day two, the core value of ‘save my job’ was addressed directly by Trump himself on Facebook.   It’s a smart tactic to keep Trump’s own words in the public dialog of his followers as they await him to address the convention on Thursday night.


     But even the best branding can’t overcome the push of a campaign’s own mistakes and the pull of the news media and social media in off-message directions.  Case in point is the speech of Melania Trump on the opening night of the convention.  The allegations of blatant plagiarism from Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech at the Democratic National Convention are damaging at best.   The side-by-side split screen compiled by CNN and other news outlets is a communications management nightmare for any organization.


   Even worse, was the campaign’s denial and refusal to address the issue.  If there’s any lesson for communicators in the 21st century it is that you have to work at the speed of news.   The complete 20-hour vacuum of activity on the GOP convention floor and the virtual silence from the Trump campaign is deadly in the world of 24 hour news.   What the campaign organization doesn’t help fill, the news media and social media will fill for them.   And that’s exactly what led to the heated confrontation between CNN anchor Chris Cuomo  and Trump Campaign Manager Paul Manafort where Cuomo called him a liar.


    It took the Trump campaign two days to finally acknowledge and respond to the crisis.   In a posting on Trump’s website, in-house staff writer Meredith McIver admitted she wrote the speech based on conversations he had with Melania Trump who read her portions of Mrs. Obama’s speech as examples of what she liked and wanted to say.  McIver admitted she did not check Mrs. Obama’s speeches. (Figure 1)

Figure 1 - Letter from Trump in-house writer Meredith McIver

Figure 1 – Letter from Trump in-house writer Meredith McIver

     The incident shows that the best branding and communication efforts also must constantly plan for the contingencies of crisis communication.   In this case, Malania’s speech slipped through the cracks of an otherwise seemingly disciplined RNC communications team and it raises serious questions about the competence of the Trump campaign.

     Effective crisis communications calls for an immediate response, often times an immediate commitment of an organization to cause no more harm, and dare I say it—apologize.   Ms. McIver did.  We know that publicly such a word is rare in Mr. Trump’s vocabulary.  Ignoring the issue while waiting for the next news cycle is not a crisis communications strategy.   Responding sooner would have allowed the campaign to get back on track with the smart branding of his convention.  But it may also leave lingering questions with voters about how he may make decisions as president in more consequential crisis matters.

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The Power of Love — When Great Advertising Aims for the Heart

29 Aug

Power of Love Collage

       There’s something going on in Thailand.  As global players in the mobile telecom industry bombard consumers with messages on speed, coverage and pricing, a Thai company is appealing to consumers’ hearts. It’s not the first.

         DTAC has just released a new advertisement based on the insight that technology has limits.  The schema is something we’re all familiar with: how to calm a crying baby.  The ad produced by Y&R is a text book example of transformative communication.  The power of this approach is that instead of overtly selling a product, it instead makes the consumer feel a connection to the brand.  In this case, that feeling is the power of love.

        DTAC’s campaign is just the latest in a series ads to come from Thai wireless companies that are all based on the communicative theory of emotion—or appraisal theory.

        Truemove-H and its agency Ogilvy & Mather released a similarly powerful campaign that I have argued was one of the top ads of 2013.  Like “The Power of Love,” Truemove’s ad is based upon the social goal of paying life forward.  In this case it created a time-lapse schema with the proposition that “Giving is the Best Communication.”

        In both ads there is no up-front unique selling proposition.  Their power is in how they lead the viewer on an emotional journey to form a resolution to take action. (Figure 1)

Figure 1 - Applying Appraisal Theory to Truemove-H's "Giving" advertisement.

Figure 1 – Applying Appraisal Theory to Truemove-H’s “Giving” advertisement.

        In DTAC’s ad, it shows how technology can’t replace love but it can uniquely connect people in moments of love.  The desired action is to use DTAC phones to never miss a loving moment.   As for Truemove, its ad demonstrates power of giving and the emotional conclusion to give by communicating through Truemove’s network.

        Together they are two powerfully transformative and strategic ads from two companies brave enough to be different and stand out in the marketplace.

A Diabetic’s Guide to Eating at the State Fair!

30 Aug

Stand by...


OK, it’s once again time for the annual trek to the 320 acres of fried food on a stick we call the Minnesota State Fair.

For most hearty Minnesotans, a visit to the fair is the one day where fun replaces common sense, where a balanced diet is as foreign as a balanced budget is to congress.

At the extreme risk of being “That Guy,” the fair poses a challenge for folks who really DO have to watch their diet.  As a parent of two children with type-1 diabetes, a day at the fair is a constant guessing game of how to insulin dose and carb-cover.  Get it wrong, and blood sugars go through the roof and the girls feel sick for the next day.  It’s even worse for cardiac patients who have to keep a keen eye on their fat and cholesterol.

The dietitians at Park Nicollet’s International…

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Social Media ROI — Turning “Likes” Into Cash For Somalia

10 Aug

“Though it’s only half a month away, the media’s gone.                           An entertaining scandal broke today, but I can’t move on.”                           – Helicopters, by Barenaked Ladies

Somali refugees recieving a sack of rice distributed by the American Refugee Committee in Mogadishu. (Courtesy ARC)

Like a flash in the night, they opened eyes.  The television lenses that zoomed in on Somalia a year ago focused the world’s attention on a devastating famine that killed 30,000 children in the span of just three months.  And then, with the click of a Klieg light they were gone.  Just another story, another crisis that turns on and off in a world preoccupied with the latest live trend on Twitter.

The reality for hundreds of thousands of refugees in Somalia is that survival is not a pop culture status update.  At the end of each day, the only status that matters is if they’re still alive.  But it led the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee to pose dire question—could it harness the power of social media to actually feed people?  Their answer has them converting “Likes” into food.

In the late summer of 2011, ARC in collaboration with the California design firm IDEO launched the I Am a Star for Somalia campaign.  The goal was to use social media to encourage people around the world to do small things to help ARC fight the famine.  By encouraging people to become part of the “Star” community, they were essentially asking them to take an inward view of the crisis rather than just watch it on TV.  This summer, ARC has advanced the campaign with the effort serving as a blue print for non-profits seeking to earn a return on investment in their social media ventures.

Paper chain hanging in the ARC headquarters in Minneapolis.

ARC secured a $50,000 pledge from Hormuud Telecommunications, Mogadishu’s largest phone provider, to support food distribution in ARC’s refugee camps.  But rather than simply accept a check, ARC designed a campaign to engage followers and build a broader community and awareness to the Somali crisis.  They tied the pledge directly into their “I Am a Star” efforts with the goal of gathering 50,000 Facebook engagements—each one generating a dollar from Hormuud’s pledge.

But ARC took it one step further.  For every engagement, volunteers build a link in a paper chain that is now spreads throughout the ARC headquarters.  Pictures and status updates are added on the progress of the chain which in turns builds more support from followers.

“To us I think they represent the links between people around the world who are showing solidarity for Somalia,” said ARC’s Daniel Wordsworth.

American Refugee Committee President Daniel Wordsworth.

“And I think it’s also a physical way that people can demonstrate their commitment but also a way for the people in Somalia to see people in Malaysia, Yemen, London and Sweden coming together in helping Somalia get through this.”

For non-profits and businesses alike, ARC has adopted an effective model that uses social media for community building and fundraising.  It begins with an issue and then a highly strategic and goal-oriented response with built in performance measures.  In this case, ARC began with the famine crisis, formed its “Star” campaign, secured a pledge and then used the pledge to build a community, awareness and money.   But equally important in the campaign is ARC’s target of a goal and a deadline—50,000 engagements by August 11.  The goal gives the campaign a mechanism by which ARC and its followers can measure progress, and the deadline gives it urgency for people to act.

Figure 1

But most important, ARC has now built a sustainable community for Somalia.  By generating upwards of 30,000 additional followers to its “Star” campaign, it can now use that community as leverage to gain more pledges, more engagement, and distribute more food.  (Figure 1)  It becomes a circular model for future campaigns and famine relief—and all of it as the TV lights shift to the latest Twitter trend.

“I think we all know that famines come and people see it on the news and then a year later it’s hard to remember it all,” said Wordsworth.  “So I think that what we’re trying to do is keep Somalia in the forefront of people’s minds.”

Fiat’s Branding Machine — What Are YOU Looking At?

20 Mar

For a tiny car, the Fiat 500 is telling a big story.  And it says a lot about how to create multiple brand narratives around a new product.

Fiat 500

Since its creative splash during Super Bowl XLVI, Fiat has given us two sequels that speak to different audiences highlighting unique product attributes to each one.  The brilliance of the Super Bowl Abarth ad is that it took the age-old “love affair with a car” metaphor and made it real.  The woman seductively bending over at the curb wasn’t just any kind of sex symbol; she was an Italian sex symbol.  It was the embodiment of lust and bust.  “Che cosa guardi?” she screams in Italian.  The translation is simple, “What are you looking at?”  The answer is just as simple–a brand new sexy-hot Italian sports car.


Fiat has since followed with two more ads that stretch the storytelling for different audiences.  The latest incorporates another babe–this one in a car seat.  The ad follows two family guys with tickets to the big game and extra baggage strapped into the back seat.  But they get caught behind a grey-haired senior citizen in his vintage Chrysler Imperial.  (Think Clint Eastwood)  But the speed of the Fiat shows this is clearly not Halftime in America–it’s full throttle.  The message: drive the kids in the fast lane.


Then there’s the House Arrest ad once again featuring the Abarth, but this time in bad boy black.  The car races through the hallways of a mansion stocked with booze and babes.  When the car finally screeches to a halt in the ballroom, the driver climbing out is none other than Charlie Sheen.  The tag line is “Not all bad boys are alike.”  The message: have fun on your terms.


They are three ads with three distinct stories about a new product.  It’s sexy.  It’s practical.  And, it’s fun.  Can’t wait to see what else Fiat has up its sleeve.

Hello world!

27 Sep

    Every story begins with a thought.  Over time, this blog will carry a collection of thoughts, observations and  perhaps little scraps of facts that may have otherwise been lost in the whirlwind of deadlines and television brevity.  I hope they are useful, insightful and occasionally illuminating.

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