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Authentic Brands With Heart Are Winning This Holiday Season’s Ad Wars

It’s the most wonderful time of the year when it comes to television ads. As brands clamor for those holiday dollars, they can’t help but, in turn, embrace the spirit of the season. In other words, creatives in advertising agencies across the world find themselves knee deep in carols, holiday cheer and enough fake snow to cover the globe.

Despite the seemingly obvious formula for holiday ads (think cute kid opening a box to find a puppy inside) the real stars of the holiday ad circuit are the spots that cut through the jingle bells to deliver a message that is both meaningful and authentic.

Here are some of the key creative features I’ve noticed that separate the holiday’s most memorable stories from all the gift-wrapped clutter.

The Warm and Fuzzies
In recent years the political climate has increasingly been leveraged to inform advertising campaigns. Considering the state of the world today, messages focused on diversity, inclusion and peace are particularly popular during the holiday season. During this year’s Advertising Week, the responsibility of advertisers to serve as social advocates was a recurring theme, which has carried on through the holiday season.

That said, when dealing with political themes advertisers have the hard job of striking a tone that is thought provoking and emotionally engaging without seeming trite or, even worse, insulting. Rather than opting for the heavy handed (an approach that SNL has had some fun with), creatives should look to inspire through messages promoting peace and love in a way that’s authentic and meaningful.

During the 2016 holiday season, Amazon masterfully walked this line with their “The Iman and the Priest” series, which depicted two friends and religious leaders using Amazon Prime to send each other knee pads for Christmas – helpful for the kneeling portion of their respective religious ceremonies. The ad worked because it managed to promote cross-cultural friendship in a way that was authentic and true to the brand.

Charity Before Consumption
Charitable giving reaches a peak during the holiday season and, for millennial consumers, supporting brands with clear ethical ties is becoming increasingly popular.

Last year, REI made a big impact with their #OptOutside campaign. Born from the company’s announcement that they would be closing their doors on Black Friday, the spots encouraged customers to head outdoors instead of to the mall. The National Parks Service picked up on the hashtag and other brands soon followed, with activewear brand Outdoor Research pledging a $10 donation to Paradox Sports, an adaptive athletics nonprofit, each time the hashtag was used. The hashtag lives on today, with nearly 2 million posts on Instagram alone.

Macy’s also had an extremely authentic and on-brand approach to giving back. Playing up their status as the homebase for the “Miracle on 34th Street,” the retailer added a special section to their website inviting shoppers to write a letter to Santa. Macy’s, in turn, donated a dollar to the Make-a-Wish Foundation for every letter submitted.

Surprise and Delight
While there are brands that seem to have the holiday season on lockdown – Coca-Cola’s Polar Bears and Anheuser Busch’s Clydesdales are perennial winners – newer brand voices shouldn’t be afraid to experiment when it comes to the holiday ad season. If the “warm and fuzzy” messaging doesn’t feel authentic to a brand’s voice, they’re best served by taking a different, more surprising route.

Each year we see a couple of these new voices making a splash by thinking completely outside the box of what a holiday ad campaign “should” look like.

Take for example, whiskey maker Lagavulin’s series with Nick Offerman. Featuring a silent Offerman nursing a glass of whiskey while seated in front of a fire staring at the camera, the spot included no words, no “message” per se, just star power at work as fans made the ad go viral with Offerman’s image as a man of few words helping to bolster Lagavulin’s brand positioning as a whiskey for real whiskey drinkers. The brand even released a 45-minute extended version online with an invitation for fans to sip their whiskey alongside the “Parks and Recreation” star.

Using humor is a great way for brands to stand out from the pack. When the majority of ads are tinted red and green, moving in the opposite direction can pack a memorable punch. Poo-pourri, a toilet odor eliminator and decidedly funny product to begin with, is making a big play for the holiday season this year with a farcical five-minute extended spot highlighting just why the holidays stink.

At the end of the day, ads built through great storytelling are going to resonate. The holidays are a wonderful time for brands to work towards creating an emotional connection with their audience in authentic ways by sharing stories that speak to their common values and commitments. The best ads this December will be the ones that remind us of the true spirit of the season, whether that be through laughter, tugging at our heartstrings or completely surprising us with an unexpected treat.