Festivity to frugality: Christmas campaigns of 2023

By Ruby Derrick | 15 December 2023
Telstra's 'Hello Christmas' via The Monkeys.

The landscape of Christmas campaigns has noticeably shifted this year, with retailers giving a nod to cost-conscious Australians while also celebrating the cheer of the season. 

Unlike previous holiday seasons in which Christmas advertising has cautiously tiptoed to reflect the world’s circumstances, agencies have embraced a more grounded approach in 2023, industry insiders told AdNews

The focus is less on grandiosity and more on authenticity, both domestically and internationally. 

Insiders note there is less extravagance in the Christmas advertisements this year and they're much less aspirational - likely due to brands wanting to maintain relevance and reflect the cost of living crisis.

Coles teamed up with Smith-St and Santa Claus this year, building on its 'Great Lengths for Quality' platform, demonstrating how it goes to great lengths for quality to make sure Australians have everything they need for a great Christmas. 

BMF’s work for ALDI aimed to highlight that everyone can afford to ‘Go Big on the Little Things’

With research from ALDI revealing seven in 10 Australians (73%) look forward to the sides just as much, if not more, than the main protein itself, the campaign calls for Australians to be excited for the main event by championing all the trimmings that make the full Christmas feast special. 

Like ALDI, the Woolworths campaign for the festive season reiterated the importance of celebrating the little things that mean the most during Christmas.  

The commercial followed the journey of school children dressed to represent fresh food from across regional Australia, including cherries from Young, NSW and mangoes from Dimbulah, QLD, as they venture to perform in a Christmas Spectacular for their family and friends. 

When one child forgets their costume en route, the children and a few parents band together to help make a spectacular Christmas cracker costume just in time for the show. 

In The Monkeys’ fifth year of Australia Post Christmas commercials, this year’s campaign follows a curious Santa Claus as he goes undercover as an intern at Australia Post to work out how they go about delivering gifts at Christmas time. 

Despite the essence of frugal spending infiltrating some campaigns, many festive commercials this year have tended to take the theme of a more relatable and down to earth tone rather than an overt "we’ve got your back on value," researchers say.

This has manifested in a quintessentially Australian tone and personality. 

Gillian Dalla Pozza, associate creative director at Dentsu Creative, says when it comes to Christmas ads, she’s a bit of a grinch.   

“The idea of strapping myself in for a two-minute deliberate pull of the heart strings is anything but joyful. This year, however, there was no chance of tears. For the most part it seems, ‘tis the season to focus on savings and product,” says Dalla Pozza. 

In the supermarket space, ALDI made the switch to a much more cost-of-living aware with ‘Go big on the little things’, she says.  

“After 13 rate rises, you just couldn’t say ‘You can’t overcook Christmas’ because in this economy, you probably can. Woolies celebrated the little things too, connecting back to their fresh food mantra and saving the product shots right to the end,” she says.   

It’s a tricky tightrope to walk; the idea of Christmas cheer and its characteristic overindulgence, versus the collective belt-tightening of a nation, says Rebecca Worley, copywriter at Five by Five Global.

“Although not the front-and-centre message of this year’s Christmas ads, frugality is a carefully nuanced underlying theme in some. As two campaigns specifically call out, this year is all about 'the little things'," she says.  

One of those is Woolworths, notes Worley, who says it’s a cheerful, down-to-earth ad with an upbeat track, and it gets in its fresh produce message without shoving it in people’s faces.  

Woolworths christmas campaign 2023

Woolworths Christmas campaign via M&C Saatchi

“But the link with the line ‘it’s the little things that make Christmas special’ doesn’t totally connect. ALDI is also telling us to ‘go big on the little things’ this year,” she says. 

“However you feel about the wacky execution, they’ve definitely set themselves apart from other retailers. And because we already know about their lower prices, they can have creative licence without coming off as disingenuous.” 

Christmas is an expensive time of year at the best of times, and this year in particular international brands have also been mindful of how their customers are feeling coming into it, says Barbara Humphries, executive creative director at The Monkeys, part of Accenture Song. 

“The most successful Christmas campaigns this year to me are ones that show an innate understanding of the role the brand plays in consumers' lives, and are written out of simple brand and product truths,” she says. 

A stand out for Humphries was JD Sports ‘The bag for life’ from Uncommon London, where the brand’s humble plastic duffle bag is woven into relatable moments, slung over shoulders dropped on couches, ferrying everything from school books to sports kits and mum’s leftovers. 

“It’s shows great understanding of the target audience, celebrating connection and authenticity rather than flashy consumerism,” she says.

Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice 'Power Your Party’ was another stand-out for Humphries.

It follows on from last year’s brilliant Jelly jiggle fest once again taking a Christmas gathering from banal to bonkers, she says. 

“The humble cranberry jelly and cranberry juice are the dependably lurid tinted condiments of holiday tables, and they’ve leant right into it - creating another hypnotic 30” where a punch stir sets off the whole room, with a warped soundtrack ramping up the weird. Pure fun,” says Humphries. 

Georgia Phillips, COO of Luma Research, says Christmas ads, while expensive, are a great chance to create an emotional connection with consumers.  

For Phillips, there’s an element of borrowed equity – using the love and nostalgia of Christmas to rub off on their brand by association. They also use them as a way of owning the occasion and for retailers, linking their brand to Christmas to drive sales. 

“But to create an emotional connection you need to be relevant. Empathy is a great way to do this – if we can show consumers that we understand them and how they are feeling, we can create a positive feeling that we are a brand for them,” she says. 

“So, if a brand wants to be relevant, it needs to understand how consumers are thinking and feeling. And obviously the big issue of the day is now the cost of living crisis. Around 40% of Australians are really struggling and making changes to the way they live to make ends meet.” 

People are feeling stressed about money and seeking good value, but they also want to be distracted with humour, feelings of joy and a sense that others are feeling the same, says Phillips.  

“As a result, brands this year have been feeling especially nervous about how to get the tone right. If we go too big or over the top, it will be rejected by consumers as being tone deaf. We need to demonstrate value…but in an engaging and relevant way,” she says.  

As independent creative Adrian Elton puts it, the feverish build up to Christmas seems to start the millisecond the last Easter egg is sold. 

“It certainly hits a ‘senses working overtime’ crescendo once the grand final and Melbourne Cup are done. And this year’s gaggle ensures a bout of Yuletide diabetes care of the syrupy sweetness,” he says.  

Some of the major retail campaigns this year have felt a little like the work of agencies competing on an episode of Gruen - all working with a set theme - but with significantly bigger budgets, says Elton.  

go big on the little things

ALDI's ‘Go Big on the Little Things’ this Christmas via BMF

“The ALDI spot sits somewhere between pun and punishment. And I love a good pun! Clearly continuing their signature category curve-ball methodology, the spot delivers the slightly endearing, slightly torturous, “I had the ‘sides’ of my life”, sing along," he says.

The constant visual shift of scale and contexts made it a tad discombobulating, says Elton. Still, he says, full points to the art director for shoe horning the gorgeous little teal ‘Hillman Arrow’ into proceedings. 

“The Woolies offering is beautifully filmed with lots of beautifully observed details (like the kiddie hand poking up through the costume to wave) - but that said, it seemed to take quite a long time to unfurl and establish how any of it relates to the supermarket," he says.  

“Unfortunately the meaning of the ‘little things’ also seemed to evaporate by the time we got to the end card. On the upside though, that bulbous box of cherries certainly piqued my interest. Delish!” 

Phillips from Luma also found it interesting to see that both ALDI and Woolworths had a very similar campaign line.  

While creatively the ads are very different in their executions, their insights and intent are identical…and they have it right, she says. 

“There is less extravagance in the Christmas ads this year. If you look at the settings, kitchens, homes, even clothing – they are mostly very normal looking. We don’t see the designer sets or luxury items," says Phillips.

“And this year it is interesting to see more brands leaning into Christmas nostalgia more directly. Often brands are reluctant to include Santa or use Christmas music as it can seem a bit ‘expected’. But this year, Coles, Telstra, Westfield, Coca Cola and Australia Post have all leveraged Christmas references directly to create a sense of joy, warmth and the magic of Christmas.” 

And with Christmas music, says Phillips, both Westfield and Target have tapped into the pre-existing memories and associations that come with the use of well-known Christmas songs to help build the emotion and feelings. 

“While this might be a difficult time for many, it is an opportunity for brands to lean into their purpose and demonstrate to consumers that they are here for them…and will be on consumer’s “nice” list,” she says. 

On the two campaigns from Woolworths and ALDI, despite delivering the same sentiment, Worley questioned if either campaign really delved into what the ‘little things’ actually are for people at Christmas, aside from sprouts? 

“In my opinion, an ad that did this better was from Amazon. Their line is actually ‘Joy is shared’ - but the sentiment of the creative is about finding those small joyful moments with those you love. But maybe I’m just a sucker for a snowy scene and a reworked Beatles track,” she says. 

Sam Walters, general manager of consulting at Melbourne market research agency Cubery, says the cost of living crisis could have been tempting for advertisers to stick to that cautious tone this Christmas – avoiding the risk of over-exuberance when consumers are feeling the pinch. 

But, on the whole, that hasn’t transpired, he says, and there’s something to be applauded about that.  

“For the most part, brands stayed true to their respective strengths, reinforcing key impressions, and therefore avoiding the trap of the undifferentiated value positioning,” says Walters.    

Australian advertising continues to avoid the more extravagant, fantastical or sentimental tone in other markets, such as the UK, at Christmas, he says. 

“I wouldn’t view that as a negative reflection on Australian brands, rather it’s a considered approach to deliver what feels suitable for the local brands at Christmas," says Walters. 

Aus Post x Christmas

Australia Post's 'Delivering Christmas for Australia' via The Monkeys

“And as we look back at all this year’s campaigns, which one took the honour of most effective, the star at the top of Christmas Tree? Australia Post, showing that well placed humour rarely fails, at Christmas or any other time of the year.” 

Dentsu’s Dalla Pozza says the department stores this year also steered clear of the schmaltz.  

Target brought the joy with a hardworking, product-focused spot and a soundtrack she admits listening to a few times.  

“Both Myer and Big W focused on getting gifts right with their product range, while their brand personalities set them far apart. Even Aus Post is more proof-point focused this year with a series of ads showing how Santa has a thing or two to learn from them,” she says.   

One brand that seemed to miss the memo was Telstra with its beautiful ‘Hello Christmas’, says Dalla Pozza.  

“They’re not a retail company, so they had less of a sell but they have connected this time of year well to their brand. I also like that they’ve closed the loop with an activation where you can call Santa on any payphone for free,” she says. 

“It tapped into nostalgia without too much sentimentality – and this grinch approves.” 

Elton agrees. The stand out this year for his money/monkey, he says, is this Telstra ad by The Monkeys which got him right in the reindeer feels. 

“Beautifully crafted, lit and paced. Felt like something you wanted to watch and find out what was going to happen next as opposed to protectively holding your arms over your head to deflect the comparative full body assault of the grist-for-the-mill Christmas ads,” he says. 

“Of course, I did have to suspend a little disbelief that the diminutive girl in question didn’t have access to some kind of phone call making device within her home. 'Rudolph phone home'."

Target all the way

‘Target All The Way’ for Christmas via AJF Partnership

Target’s Christmas campaign by AJF Partnership hit the mark for Elton, but wasn’t a bullseye. 

“Although I had to think a little too hard to make sense of the establishing shot in the Target ad, once the ‘Jingle Bells’ theme began, it was self evidently just a matter of how it was going to be explored from there,” he says. 

For Elton, next to the ALDI and Woolies spots, the Coles campaign seems to inexplicably plod like Santa battling his way to the sleigh after some particularly heavy snowfall. 

“Just an odd pacing thing. And like a traditional Chrissy ham, it fits the bill, but the ad didn’t feel like it was breaking any new ground, or snow,” says Elton.

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