Why internal comms can learn a lot from the John Lewis Christmas adverts

The lessons we can learn from the media event of the year.

john lewis advert
© John Lewis

Every November, the speculation starts, teasers are shared and finally, John Lewis unveils its latest Christmas advert offering… and social media promptly goes into meltdown.

internal comms

14 steps to great internal communications

Download this handy eBook and discover practical tools and tips to maximize engagement and impact business performance through internal comms.

Defying digital trends and radically changed viewing habits – John Lewis is debunking the idea of successful TV ad campaigns being confined to the 20th century.

So, what makes them so successful? While on the surface they offer a simple tear-jerking message of Christmas, the ads are the product of millions of pounds spent on psychology, direction, production, and design. And in this heady mix are lessons to be learned, not least for those in internal communications.

The crux of these ads is their ability to evoke powerfully sentimental triggers – joy, family, warmth, and nostalgia. These elicit an emotional response and motivate us to share the videos and spread the message. What could be more in line with effective IC than the power to emote, persuade and inspire? We pick out the five big lessons that the John Lewis Christmas adverts teach anyone in internal comms.

IC lesson #1: Storytelling is very effective

Ask any seasoned IC pro what the secret of good communication is and they’ll tell you it’s storytelling. Aligning your message to a narrative allows your audience to understand and remember your message more quickly. In one minute thirty, The Long Wait showed us the power of storytelling.

The advert appeared to follow a time-honored tale of a child impatiently counting down to Christmas Day. He crosses off each day in his calendar, tries to cast spells on clocks in a bid for time to go faster and listlessly waits for the big day. The twist in the tale occurs on Christmas morning when the boy runs past his presents to dig out the hand-wrapped gift that he has waited so long to give to his parents.

This double smacker of the unexpected and a heart-wrenching twist is the perfect way to leave a lasting impression on the viewer.

IC lesson #2: Keep it simple

The latest advert, set to Elton John’s Your Song, runs back over the artist’s life from stadium tours, studio recordings, and school recitals. It finally winds back to boy-Elton in his childhood home on Christmas morning in 1950s Middlesex, and the moment the child is presented with a piano by his mother.

The message is simple – that one gift can be treasured forever. The advert intimates Elton’s piano was more than just a gift, it built his career. This one message is galvanized by his song and the wistful time-hop from man to boy.

internal comms

14 steps to great internal communications

Download this handy eBook and discover practical tools and tips to maximize engagement and impact business performance through internal comms.

The advert breaks the traditional JL festive format of an acoustic soundtrack, furry animals and families. However, the well-known face and the song is like an old friend, so the viewer is instantly invested even if they’re not immediately sure why oversized specs and a reflective Elton John are pertinent to the spirit of Christmas. The ‘a-ha’ moment of the gift-giving allows the reader to join the dots and realize that a Christmas gift can be much more than just a present.

IC lesson #3: Appealing to the emotions is powerful


2013’s The Bear and the Hare is emotional marketing at its finest with its heart-rending friendship between an animated hare and bear.

“There was once an animal who had never seen Christmas” the ad opens as the pair frolic all year before hibernation sets in and the bear retire to his cave. In a bid to spend the festive season with his best friend, the hare thinks of the perfect present – an alarm clock – that will wake his friend up in time to spend Christmas Day together.

By the end of 2013, the Bear and the Hare was the most shared JL ad of all time with 1.6 million shares. Its combination of friendship, nostalgia (with its nod to Watership Down-style animation), and the bear’s child-like wonder of Christmas would warm the coldest of hearts and ends with its message “Give someone a Christmas they’ll never forget”.

It’s this affecting message that resonates with people and created a connection from the brand to the viewer. This is powerful stuff – and good internal communications can go a long way once you establish an emotional connection with your audience.

IC lesson #4: A lighter touch engages people

While more animals appear in this ad which appeals to the viewer’s emotional response, Buster the Boxer was a move away from the weepies of previous Christmases. Its premise – a dog jumping on a trampoline – injected a sense of fun to 2016’s campaign. Dad has built a trampoline ready for Christmas Day and Buster the dog watches with irritation as the garden’s wildlife jump away on it. On Christmas morning, the daughter runs into the garden to see her present, but Buster has waited long enough. He overtakes the child and joyously scrambles on to the trampoline where he can finally leap and bounce away.

You don’t have to be funny to be fun. A sense of humor – where appropriate – is hugely important to communications. We all respond positively to playfulness, and anything that makes us laugh and smile is powerful. Giving a feel-good factor to your comms will make an audience more receptive to getting on board, taking in the information and engaging with your message.

IC lesson #5: Choose your channels

John Lewis employs a careful strategy to how it broadcasts its message, and part of this is choosing the right channels to use to promote the ads. With their debut on Saturday evening primetime TV slots and screenings at cinemas, the company employs high-value broadcasting opportunities to capture audience awareness.

Teaser ads are another tool that John Lewis have used to great success. These catch the audience’s attention, create a buzz and build anticipation leading up to the big reveal. Released on Twitter, they become easily shareable being retweeted hundreds of thousands of times by the public who associate the John Lewis adverts with the beginning of the Christmas season.

In a similar way, internal communications can use a variety of channels to broadcast their message, but its effectiveness lies in making sure those channels are relevant to the audience. For instance, emailing delivery drivers about vehicle servicing would not be as effective as using SMS messages and push notifications on the smart devices that the drivers use to do their day-to-day jobs.

internal comms

14 steps to great internal communications

Download this handy eBook and discover practical tools and tips to maximize engagement and impact business performance through internal comms.

Teasers are also a brilliant way of whipping up excitement before announcing good news. Moving offices, launching a new product, releasing a new employee benefit, even leaking details on the Christmas party, these can all be built up by providing little hints and teasers to whip up excitement.

With all these methods, the brand cuts through the noise of Christmas television, to deliver two minutes that are embraced, talked about and shared by the public. With internal communications, we need to do the same in our organizations and make sure we focus on every aspect – the words we use, the way we use them, how we create rapport and the channels we employ – to get the message to our audience. It’s only by making our messages simple, effective and engaging that we will cut through the noise of daily working life and achieve our goals.