December 17, 2020, by Emma Thorne

Why this Christmas could be a gift for advertisers

How being forced apart by Covid-19 has brought us all closer together

Imagine this problem for a moment: you have a brand that you would like to market universally, or a shop that sells many thousands of products across a wide demographic of people. With such a broad market, just who do you target with your expensive and high-profile advertising campaign to get the tills ringing at Christmas?

Despite all the well-documented challenges of 2020, could it be that our collective experience of the most unusual festive period in living memory will offer a solution to this age old marketing conundrum?

As part of a recently-awarded Knowledge Transfer Partnership, the Schools of Psychology and English are working on a project to embed behavioural and storytelling insights into a creative marketing agency, Together, based in Nottingham.

A seasonal highlight of this project is the annual analysis of the Christmas adverts. Last year, the company partner, Nick Honey and the KTP Lead Academic, Dr Mark Haselgrove described how the John Lewis advert gets inside your head and wins your heart.

The imitation game

For this year’s Christmas analysis, Mark, Nick and Dr Mal Chalupnik have been thinking about the role of the messenger – the person, or the voice, that communicates to us within the marketing campaign. Studies (e.g. this one) have shown that we are more likely to be influenced by the messenger when their behaviours are similar to our own. As Oscar Wilde said, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – we like being imitated and we like people who imitate our own actions, or who have a similar voice to our own. The potential benefits of this for the brand are substantial, a brand voice which imitates how its target audience speak may lead to a more positive evaluation of the brand itself (see this paper).

Advert producers and creative agencies have a good intuition for this – they will select a voice that is authentic to their target audience. A social media campaign aimed at 25-34 year olds, for example, will select an influencer who is themselves 20-34 years old, rather than 18-24. However, the voice and the behaviour of the messenger can also pose a problem for advert producers – people’s voices and their behaviours are often very different. There is substantial variation in our accents and tones, and we do very different things every day – we exercise and travel in different ways, we buy things from different shops, and we spend time with loved ones in different parts of the country in very different ways.

Or at least we did – because for many of us in 2020, all that has changed.

Because of COVID-19, the behaviour of people has been much more similar – everyone has stayed in, done their shopping online, and contacted their loved ones remotely. We have all, this year, acquired a wealth of very similar behaviours. By being apart.

Small wins

Christmas adverts that reflect the experience of being apart in their messengers feel particularly effective this year. In this advert for Branston pickle we see a young women moving to a new home, starting a new job, and making new friends. The messenger that provides the narration to this advert, however, is not the young women herself; the messenger is remote – a voicemail on their phone from Mum. Ultimately, the brand is revealed at the end of the advert in a way that again resonates with the way in which we have enjoyed small wins in 2020 – by having the messenger deliver a parcel to the doorstep.

Remote contact also plays a central role in Sainsbury’s gravy song advert, which shows home-movie footage and photographs of previous Christmas days, played alongside a telephone conversation between a daughter and her Dad. Again, the messenger is remote – over the telephone – and twice emphasises being apart by saying how she really needs to be with her family at Christmas. The second time, particularly emotively, just as the strapline of the campaign is presented and we associate the emotion with “food is home…home is Christmas”.

The Knowledge Transfer Partnership has begun to embed behavioural and storytelling insights into the Together Agency through a series of workshops. These interactive events for all members of the agency began in November and will continue to run through 2021. The first workshop focussed on “The Messenger”, and the social, digital and creative teams within the agency, as well as the senior directors, all came together to learn about this insight and reflect upon how their work has incorporated it in the past, and to think about how it may be used in their projects in the future.

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs) are a UK-wide, part-funded scheme to help businesses of all sizes to innovate using the knowledge and expertise of UK universities. The University of Nottingham is one of the largest providers of KTP in the UK, with more than 120 projects in the past 12 years. If you are interested in undertaking a KTP please visit

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