Have John Lewis broken the rules of memory structure?

John Lewis' new Xmas ad is the most talked about TV commercial of the year, based on extensive research in the Taylor family household. The cartoon ad features a hare buying an alarm clock for his buddy the bear so he can wake up from hibernation and enjoy Xmas for the first time in his life. And it is already stuck in my head.

However, in our Grow the Core work we tell marketing teams it takes 2-3 years to create "memory structure", where brand associations become hard-wired into our brains. You can click below on the blog to watch the ad, or click here.

"Oh bugger," I said to myself. Does this mean we've been taking teams down the wrong track?

Well no, I don't think so. I suggest John Lewis is an "outlier" brand that has managed to break the rules of building memory structure. But the way they have done this is hard for most brands to copy. 

[For non UK readers, John Lewis is a department store chain that has become famous for its Xmas ads. I posted on the brand here].

1. Heavyweight spending

One reason for John Lewis building memory structure in weeks rather than  years is heavyweight spending. They are reported to be spending c. £5million over 5 weeks or so leading to Xmas. This is equivalent to an annual spend of £50million, which is many times what most of the brands we work with spend. 

However, many of the big retailers also spend like crazy over Xmas, and they don't seem to have been effective as John Lewis. So ad spend is not the only answer.

2. Brand buzz on steroids

John Lewis have set new standards in creating buzz around their new Xmas advert. Here are some examples:

– Song: Lilly Allen sings an incredibly catchy acoustic version of Somewhere Only We Know by Keane. This is a massive coup for John Lewis, as its the first song Allen has recorded in several years. This makes it especially newsworthy. And, bingo, the song is number one in the iTunes chart

– Media choice: the TV ad was premiered during last Saturday night's X-Factor, one of the most watched programmes in the UK. Importantly, this is a "destination TV" show, where families sit and watch together. This meant millions of people saw the ad together, and were able to talk about it. Some may have loved it and others hated it. But it got them talking 

– Time-length: another bold move is an advert that starts out at a whopping 2 minutes long. Given this is breaking in the X-Factor that's a whole load of cash blown on one single showing. Ballsy.

– Story of the ad: not since Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty have I seen so much press coverage about the making of an advert. There was a 5 page spread in the Sunday Times magazine last weekend. Newspapers rushed to be the first to "break" the news of the new, such as the Independent, here.

– Viral lottery winner: I've posted before about how 99% of ads will never get much YouTube exposure. John Lewis is in the 1% that does, with 6 million views already. All the points above have helped fuel this exposure.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 11.55.14


3. Fresh consistency 

Most brands who create memory structure do so with distinctive properties used consistently over time, such as Jamie Oliver for Sainbury's, or the Intel "ding, ding, ding, ding" sound. However, The Bear & the Hare breaks this rule, by using different properties from the previous two Xmas adverts from 2012 and 2011. So, what gives.

Well, have a look at the brilliant 2011 advert, below on the blog or by clicking here. Then the 2012 advert, again below on the blog by clicking here. What do you see in terms of consistency?

2011: The Wait

2012: The Journey


Are you back? So, what consistency did you find?

First, and most importantly, there is complete consistency in terms of the story. The endlines vary from year to year (2011: For gifts you can't wait to give; 2012: Give a little more love this Christmas; 2013: Give somone a Christmas they won't forget). But the story in all three cases is about "Give a little more love this Christmas, by shopping at John Lewis for your gifts". This in itself is distinctive, in that the focus is on the giver, not the person getting the gift.

Second, the music is different, but the style of music is similar. All three songs use slowed down, accoustic cover versions. 

Third, the ads all have an emotional pull on the heartstings, with an "Ah" factor.

Fourth, all three commercials have a similar narrative structure, with a focus on the gift giver, building up to a climatic "reveal" at the end. Importantly, the focus is on the product/gift. So we do have emotional "sizzle" and product "Sausage":

2011: boy gives the gift

2012: Mrs Snowman has a scarf

2013: Bear wakes up to enjoy his first Christmas

4. Investing in execution

The final bit of magic in the John Lewis success is investment in creative execution. The new ad is reported to have cost c. £2million. It was made by the people who did the Lion King. That is a serious commitment that shows through in all of the last three year's ads.

So, could you "do a John Lewis" on your brand, and break the normal rules of memory structure creation? Sure. As long as you spend £2million on creating an ad with world beating creatives, spend an annualised £50million on media, break a 2 minute ad in the middle of the most watched TV programme in your country, get an incredibly popular singer to come out of retirement to sing the theme tune, and come up with a distinctive story you stick to for three years!