Holiday Creative in the COVID Era: How to Keep the Spirit Alive in 2020

Cristin Ford, VP Creative

Out with the Old, In with the…Old?

Holiday marketing campaigns are like good genre sci-fi –they surprise and delight you, while still providing all the goods you’ve come to rely on. So yet again, we creative marketing disciples give a big cozy welcome to the season. Our arms are flung wide open to the challenge of creating breakthrough, original, unexpected delights this marketing season.

How many art directors this season will deliver an impassioned plea for a fresh new look – a crisp opal and mint-frosted departure from the norm – just to be met with a chorus calling for a comforting routine of crimson and pine? (I feel for you, ADs.)

But let’s go ahead and throw ourselves into this season with gusto, to tackle the challenge of creating something inspiring that still hearkens back to holidays of yore. Here, we’ll take a look back at our top performers from last year, paired with some open reflection on the reality of where we’re at, and consider what we can’t get from year-over-year comparisons.

Looking Back: Creative That Won in the 2019 Holiday Season

Let me make the performance case for balancing the standard-bearers of the season with creative that seeks to stand apart.

Blend bold and new with traditional and comforting: As we review some of the most impactful and effective social media spots from 2019, we see snowflakes and sparkles paired with unexpected pinks and teals, right up there with the best-practice ads featuring the classic red and green palette. Why? Creative that “wins” has to both trigger customers to recognize and associate your product with their holiday shopping needs, as well as stand out from the millions of ads that already feature the traditional colors, messages, and layouts they associate with the holiday season.

Branch out: Look to other creative levers beyond color and shine to amplify the holiday vibe. From stop-motion bows to confetti explosions, joyous and light-hearted motion persisted in our top ads in 2019. And don’t forget to use your words – those little descriptions setting the stage for your thumb-stopping visuals can be the difference between a quick, non-committal glance and a click accompanied by “Actually, I DO deserve to get a gift for myself!”

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‘Tis the Season for Testing

You may be thinking, “I’m not sure any of last year’s learnings are relevant here – things are different. What kind of creative solutions are best suited for where people are at today?” And you’d be quite the savvy one for saying so. I find myself thinking about how different my own holiday season will be from previous years; the unfamiliar space my family and friends will be in mentally and emotionally.

To be sure, there will be fewer big family gatherings and reunions. Nights spent watching Christmas classics like Home Alone will offer a certain irony in the breathy family airport sprint, an experience that will seem almost nostalgic to those who aren’t flying home for the holidays. I fully expect to see TV commercials resurface from previous years that will come across as comically and conspicuously out of touch in the quarantine era: festive house parties packed to the brim, warm hugs, and pre-COVID carefree clinks of the glass. And more, the 2020 election—already an emotionally draining event—will leave many Americans disappointed, no matter the outcome.

Since March we’ve been exploring, experimenting, and reading the data tea leaves as new approaches to messaging emerged in response to these jarring changes to our audiences’ daily lives. But while there are clear opportunities, such as adapting settings for a more home-based product appeal or catering supportive messages to overwhelmed working parents, what falls into the “best practices” space hasn’t really been flipped on its head. Some of the breakout creative ads in social media have exhibited trends that show no explicit connection to the staggering events of 2020:

  • Punchy colors with light-hearted stop motion animation
  • Positive and uplifting UGC-quality customer and celebrity testimonial videos
  • Copy featuring emojis and product benefits

We’ve also seen some cases in which over-catering to the events of the day do more harm than good:

  • Messaging that could be interpreted as “Coronawashing” or exploitative not only hasn’t shown any kind of performance lift but is also a genuine reputation threat
  • Work from home-specific copy showed a spike (both in use and performance) early on in Q2 but eventually stopped showing lift (presumably as a new norm took hold)
  • Campaigns showing brand empathy but lacking brand differentiation may have achieved very little and worse, with users criticizing ads as “annoying”
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Marketers must respond to lifestyle changes and meet consumers where they are, but the need to exhibit value through an authentic brand voice continues to be paramount to driving success and connecting with audiences. And let’s face it – it’s the foundation of making campaigns worth making.

Without personality, creativity, and the belief that you have a product worth selling and why, you might as well purchase some stock videos of small-town America, slap some somber piano music in the background, and stake your season on brand awareness.

The New (Holiday) Narrative - DON'T PANIC

I believe it’s safe to assume that the festivities and traditions of the holidays will be a welcome comfort this year more than ever, even while being disrupted and molded to fit within some uncomfortable limitations. In this heavy state of the world, could our creative work in marketing even be a source of joy and relief and simple pleasures? Am I overstating the value of our profession? We can argue about that one over mulled wine, white chocolate Christmases, or ginger bread martinis, from a socially safe distance of course.

So get on that Zoom call fearlessly, creative marketing teams, and brainstorm your heart out. What do your customers care about this season? How can you capture their attention and imagination? What is your brand offering that will improve their lives and their loved ones’ lives this season? Here are a few ideas to inspire and get you started:

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