Why Retailers Are Rethinking Their Holiday Ad Strategies and Moving Away From Storytelling

Chains shift focus to loyalty programs as Amazon threat looms

Kohl's focused on one very specific part of its loyalty program. Kohl's

Brick and mortar once dominated the retail landscape during the holiday season, but 2017 marketing trends make it clear this is no longer the case. According to Adobe data, Cyber Monday 2017 generated $6.59 billion in revenue, making it the largest online sales day in history.

Americans who previously went to extremes like sleeping outside chain stores and inadvertently starring in viral Black Friday brawl videos are shopping online in ever greater numbers—and retail brands have been forced to adapt.

This year, more big chains and their agency partners are abandoning long-form, emotionally resonant storytelling in favor of shorter spots focused on exclusive deals and repeat shoppers.

“We’re thinking about retail in a very new way,” Kohl’s CMO Greg Revelle told Adweek. “We’re really leaning into our loyalty program.”

The Braveheart-esque broadcast ad below hones in on Kohl’s Cash, one specific part of the brand’s loyalty program. Revelle said the program naturally serves as the focus of the holiday campaign “Give Joy, Get Joy.”

The work marks a departure from past efforts. In 2013, Kohl’s produced a heart-wrenching spot about a couple decorating their elderly neighbor’s home for the holidays. The brand made headlines in 2015 for featuring a gay couple in one of its string of personal holiday stories.

This year, Macy’s and BBDO dropped a cinematic TV spot about a boy trying to befriend a somber little girl on Christmas. But that ad is the exception to the rule. Far more retail chains are following Kohl’s lead, especially those most threatened by common enemy Amazon.

For example, another BBDO client, Toys R Us, kept things shorter and more light-hearted in 2017 with “The Naughty List Is Not an Option,” which includes funny spots like the one below in which kids work to be on their best behavior ahead of Christmas.

The ad has a storytelling element, but it’s not at all like the tearjerker “Tree” from 2015, which focused not on a single toy or gadget but on a budding friendship between a little girl and her older neighbor.

Similar to the others, JCPenney’s holiday campaign is driven by price. The brand and its agency of record, mcgarrybowen, tapped real customers to take “the JCPenney Holiday Challenge” in the spot below, which highlights the exclusivity of its product assortment and low prices.

Sears, too, is focusing heavily on deals and promotions this year. The retailer’s main promotion was its Holiday Blowout sale.

Sears spokesman Brian Hanover said the effort was “one of the biggest storewide promotions in recent years” for the retailer.

Brian Wieser, senior advertising analyst at Pivotal, noted the contrast between U.S. retailers and those in the U.K., where brands like John Lewis continue to run big-budget Christmas campaigns. “Yes, it’s a different retail landscape, but it’s not that different,” he said. “They’re facing the same issues as those in the U.S.”

In general, Wieser said, “disinvestment around brand” has led to a greater focus on price as a differentiator.

Barclays senior analyst Matthew McClintock told Adweek that loyalty programs, in particular, help retailers target consumers more effectively as they provide data insights into exactly who is buying what. But there may be a more somber reason why retailers are moving away from brand-building campaigns.

Without mentioning specific campaigns or retailers, McClintock explained that creating cinematic, long-form ads is a tactic focused on “the long term,” while promotions and deals generate more “immediate sales.”

“Amazon is hard to deal with,” McClintock said. “As a result of [its] disruption, it’s questionable if some retailers are going to be here for the long term. If I keep advertising my brand and I’m not here for three years, what’s the point?”

Sales at Macy’s, Kohl’s, JCPenney, Sears and Toys R Us have all suffered in recent years, but some retailers’ brand positioning efforts reflect a greater success in balancing ecommerce with brick and mortar. Home Depot, for example, saw U.S. same-store sales rise 7.9 percent in the third quarter even as Amazon continued to cannibalize much of the industry.

Zac Pritchett, brand manager at The Richards Group who leads the Home Depot account, said his agency was tasked with creating a campaign that was both holiday-centric and inherently Home Depot.

For the campaign, “Holidays at The Home Depot,” The Richards Group did this by focusing on the home-improvement chain’s core customer, the “doer.” In this minute-plus holiday spot, doers are those who chop down their own Christmas trees.

The work still aims to connect with consumers on a personal level, even if it isn’t quite as sentimental as the Macy’s ad. Pritchett said it’s “worth focusing on the emotional aspect,” even as big savings and new products play an ever-larger role in holiday retail campaigns.

@kitten_mouse lindsay.rittenhouse@adweek.com Lindsay Rittenhouse is a staff writer at Adweek, where she specializes in covering the world of agencies and their clients.