As everyone by now has been reminded by their children/mother, there’s less than a month to Christmas, cueing mass panic and a rush to Amazon.
Rather than starting shopping I thought I’d look at the marketing behind Christmas and how it has evolved over the past centuries. From the Christian Church to John Lewis brands have attempted with varying degrees of success to link to a midwinter celebration. Here’s a top four of marketing successes:
1 The Church
Before people start getting upset about the hijacking of the Baby Jesus’ birthday by commercial interests it is worth going back to pagan times. Before the Christian Christmas began there was a major celebration of the midwinter solstice, around the end of December. There’s no record of when Christ was actually born in the Bible, so essentially the church merged the existing pagan festival with Christ’s birth from around the fourth century as part of a move to increase converts and popularity.
2 The Victorians
For popularising other traditions (such as present giving around the day itself, rather than at New Year, and Christmas trees) we have to thank Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert, helped by the pen of Charles Dickens. The stereotypical Christmas scene of snow, robins and greenery comes directly from Victorian times, despite the current lack of ‘seasonal’ weather on the day itself. What better way to spread colonial strength than by giving the world an excuse to celebrate?
3 Coca Cola
There’s a widespread belief that Father Christmas’ red and white costume comes directly from Coca Cola’s 1930s ad campaigns. This may not be completely true – his forerunner St Nicholas dressed in red and white bishop’s vestments – but it is certainly something that the soft drinks giant cannily exploits to this day.
4 John Lewis
Over the last twenty years the competition to own the Christmas experience has led to more and more lavish advertising campaigns. Thanks to a heavy dose of hype these ads now attract press coverage on their own, with commentators discussing their relative merits, and now monitoring the social media buzz. Undoubted winner of the past few festive seasons has been John Lewis, which has knocked Marks & Spencer off its perch as the must see Christmas advert. This year it has spent a reported £7m on its animated Hare and Bear campaign, which generated over 14,500 tweets in its first few hours of release.
So, why is it important? Firstly, Christmas has come to dominate the retail landscape, with many chains doing the majority of their business in the months around 25 December. Secondly, spending is still cautious (despite what official figures say about the UK moving out of recession), so competition for every pound spent is fierce. If you can tap into the Christmas spirit not only will you generate seasonal goodwill, but you will also bring in revenue from customers who will remain loyal over the whole year.
This means that while it is easy to sneer at the over-excitement about TV ad campaigns, they are only the successors to previous attempts by brands to ‘own’ Christmas and therefore win over their audiences – whether to sell soft drinks, Victorian values or even Christianity itself. As the investment shows Christmas is far too important to be left to Father Christmas. Myself, I’ll stick to Scrooge………
Jobs wax and wane in popularity and, while quite a lot of this is down to salaries or how interesting they are, their public image also has a big input. For example, mention you’re an accountant to someone and a mental picture of a grey man/woman in a grey suit pops immediately into many people’s minds.
So, taking this to its logical conclusion, which profession has the worst public image in the UK – essentially who is most loathed by the country as a whole? I’m taking out politicians as that’s too easy a target, but looking at what’s left, they seem to fall into two groups. There are those professions that are belittled for not doing their job properly, where the Daily Mail (and politicians) use the failings of a few to tar a whole group with the same brush. I’m thinking of social workers, doctors, nurses and teachers, where, often for political reasons, they are paraded as uncaring or uncommitted when nothing could be further from the truth.
The second group, which more people can agree on, is those that are accused of fleecing the Great British Public. So bankers, overpaid businessmen/women, footballers, bureaucrats (especially of the ‘meddling Brussels’ variety) and highly paid lawyers fit into this category. What’s interesting is that none of these people make physical things – vilified businesspeople tend to be fat cats presiding over service industries/shutting down manufacturing plants while increasing their pensions rather than the likes of James Dyson.
After the financial meltdown, I’d say that bankers topped the polls of the most loathed. Not only had they brought the world to the edge of financial ruin but weren’t contrite in any way. They still seemed to be rolling in enormous bonuses, while the rest of us were scraping by without pay rises in Austerity Britain.
But the last couple of weeks has seen a new target overtake even bankers – management at utilities companies. The combination of enormous, above inflation, rises in gas and electricity bills coupled with dire warnings about potential future power cuts have made them public enemy number one. Never a group to look a gift horse in the mouth, politicians have levelled their guns on the sector. From Ed Milliband threatening a price freeze to (of all people) John Major calling for a windfall tax on utility profits, it is open season on the industry. With a growing percentage of household incomes spent on utility costs, it isn’t surprising they are a target – even though the companies claim that a large chunk of bills goes either to the government in terms of green levies or is swallowed up by global price rises in the cost of oil, gas and coal.
But utilities aren’t helping themselves. British Gas decided to run a Twitter Q&A session on the day of its recent price rises – unsurprisingly it got more abuse than intelligent feedback. And Scottish Power has been fined £8.5m for misleading customers between 2009 and 2011. No wonder the whole industry has been summoned to appear before MPs shortly to explain themselves.
So, putting my PR hat back on, what can utility companies to improve their public image? They can’t reverse the price rises, but need to show that they genuinely care. That means no pay rises for senior management, closer work with charities that help those who can’t pay their bills and a commitment to providing better service to the rest of us. And this needs to be a long term move – not a quick PR stunt that ends after a couple of months. Only then will they be able to step away from the public eye and let others (probably bankers) take over the mantle of most loathed profession – at least until the 2015 election….
The current civil war and use of chemical weapons in Syria is destroying the lives of millions in that country. With deaths from the conflict estimated at over 100,000 and an estimated 7 million people in need of aid, it is a humanitarian disaster across the region.
But alongside the actual fighting there is an equally hard fought war going on for the hearts and minds of the rest of the world, including voters, MPs, senators and governments. Western citizens and legislators are worried about being dragged into the worsening situation in Syria through military action, despite widespread abhorrence of the use of chemical weapons on civilians and children, leading to indecision on next steps.
This has triggered a media offensive, with all sides using the power of public relations to jockey for position:
- Bashar Al Asad has appeared on CBS and PBS in the US, defending his actions and denying responsibility for the use of chemical weapons
- Barack Obama appealed to the American people through a series of TV interviews as well as a direct address calling on Congress to support his stance
- Francois Holland sought to elbow Britain from its position as the US’s most trusted ally, hawkishly supporting military action in Syria
- Vladimir Putin put his point of view to the US and world media through a comment piece published in the New York Times, setting out his plan for independent decommissioning of Syrian chemical weapons.
Whatever your views on culpability, the winners from this PR battle have been the Syrian regime and the Russian government. By coming up with an alternative proposal to military action (dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons), Vladimir Putin has moved the debate on and surprised the US government’s PR machine. Using the global media cleverly he’s been able to exploit widespread worries about the consequences of war and change the direction of discussions. A combination of message and media has essentially delivered the PR success that has met his objectives.
If diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means, then PR is demonstrating that it is a vital general in the ranks – whether you believe it is used for the right or wrong reasons.
This week’s takeover of Nokia’s handset division by Microsoft is easy to see as a marriage of desperation, or as Robert Peston put it, “two drunks supporting each other at the end of the party.”
Wind the clock back 10 years and the picture was very different. Nokia was dominant in the phone market and Microsoft held a similar position in the desktop/laptop market. The first Windows-powered smartphones were being released, but they were incredibly complex (I know, I had an Orange SPV), essentially transferring the desktop Windows experience to the mobile world. There were a whole raft of other mobile handset providers that have since disappeared or lost their independence – Motorola (now owned by Google), Ericsson, and Siemens.
Two things changed all this – Apple came along and made smartphones easy to use without losing their power and in a linked move, the world embraced mobile with the growth of 3G and wifi. As the existing market titans, with enormous user bases, Microsoft and Nokia couldn’t evolve fast enough to change their business models. The same process happened in previous waves of computing as the world moved from mainframes to mini computers and then PCs; few CEOs have the guts to bin their existing cash cow and launch a radically different business.
So could either of them have done things differently? I’ve talked before about Microsoft’s disastrous attempt to innovate with Windows 8 but you can argue that it didn’t invest enough in mobile early on. If it had combined ease of use and access to compelling content with the power of the SPV (which was heavily subsidised) and made it less ugly it could have had a chance of pre-empting Apple’s rise. But it never seemed to be a priority. And Nokia again seemed to view smartphones as a niche market until very late in the day, focusing on the Communicator which was a high end business tool rather than a consumer-friendly device.
All this means the combined unit has a tough job on its hands and is going to have to focus heavily on innovation and marketing to succeed. Ironically given Apple’s perceived lack of innovation and BlackBerry’s woes there is chance to seize the challenger position and become the quirky, cool alternative to Samsung and the iPhone. This does mean being brave and creating something radical that shakes up the market. Microsoft couldn’t do it with Windows 8 – so can an injection of Finnish thinking make the difference?