by Brevard Nelson, CEO of Caribbean Ideas Synapse

Tis the Season…

Wherever you are in the world, it’s likely that your life has been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years. In every country, people’s livelihoods have been affected and their daily lives heavily disrupted one way or another.

I had been getting some feedback from colleagues in the industry that for this season they were not feeling all that festive. Totally understandable, I even found myself slipping into that slump sometimes. With new variants threatening some folks won’t be able to spend the festive season with their family and friends because of another wave or perhaps chose to be prudent with their spending so your celebrations were low-key. Even against this backdrop, marketers continued to engage and emotionally connect with their audience while driving business results. It is a unique challenge and over the last couple days I decided to do a scan of the Christmas marketing campaigns for global brands during the pandemic (2020-2021), to see how they were trying to get their audience in the festive mood.

Why Are Christmas Campaigns So Important to Marketers?

For brands big and small, festive campaigns are a crucial element of the annual marketing strategy, designed to attract new customers, retain existing ones and develop brand awareness.

Christmas is big business and provides a welcomed annual sales boost for companies of all sizes. The British department store John Lewis claimed that their pre pandemic 2019 Christmas advert, which cost at least £6 million, delivered returns 20 times the original spend. So clearly investing in Christmas campaigns can reap huge benefits.

And it’s not just about TV ads, either. Media consumption habits are changing, with millennials, in particular, watching a lot less live TV and favouring streaming services instead. The pandemic has, of course, had a major impact on our media consumption too – a recent study by Comscore shows a 31% increase in digital visits (by desktop and mobile) between February and July 2020, with a 49% increase in the retail category. Another report using data from the Global Web Index shows some of the shifts across demographics during the pandemic.

These changes in consumption patterns have led many brands to launch fully integrated festive marketing campaigns, including digital media as well as traditional marketing channels. This maximises the chances of promotional messages being seen by a wide range of people.

Let’s take a look at some of the Christmas campaigns I found interesting during this pandemic (2020-2021). How have brands responded to such a challenging period, and what can we learn from their marketing strategies?

1.   British Airways

Marketing campaigns for airline companies around Christmas often focus on flying home to see friends and family and being reunited with loved ones for the festive season. This memorable flash mob filmed at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 in 2019 (pre-pandemic) is a great example of this approach, with the tagline “flying home to see our kin” repeated several times. For the last couple years during the pandemic that approach couldn’t be used effectively, as many people were not able to travel and see their families. So, what’s an airline company to do?

The approach British Airways took in the run-up to the 2020 Christmas was about looking forward with hope to 2021. Their adverts on social media in December 2020 were focused on the 2021 sale, with the tagline, “it’s time to believe, it’s time to fly”. They offered a promise of “screen-free Face time” and a chance to “reconnect with loved ones.” There’s a hefty slice of pragmatism here though too, with an emphasis on flexible booking conditions: “book now, change later.”

This messaging was consistently shown on the British Airways website too, and also on their Instagram and Twitter accounts, with the Twitter banner displaying a link to the flexible changes policy and a promise to help if customers need to change their bookings.

This campaign was a nice combination of optimism and pragmatism and matched the mood that many of us felt going into 2021. Critically, the company promised to help their customers deal with whatever the next year threw at them, building trust and confidence.

Fast forward to Christmas 2021, and the world is still in a pandemic with new variants popping up and threatening to more lockdowns and restrictions, as families and friends started planning to get back together this Christmas, British Airways kicked the festive season off by creating some special moments for its customers on the ground and in the air.

British Airways’ colleagues spread holiday cheer at London Heathrow Terminal 5 by surprising customers with upgrades to Club World (business class) and exclusive lounge access to make their journeys to reunite with loved ones extra special. The airline also gifted Executive Club Silver and Gold cards, Harvey Nichols Christmas hampers and bundles of 50,000 Avios to customers.

The airline also decked its home at London Heathrow’s Terminal 5 with festive check-in screens and created special boarding cards for customers. A winter wonderland themed corridor welcomed customers to lounges and a specially designed Christmas countdown clock was put in place to get customers into the festive spirit.

On board, some customers travelling on the airline’s short-haul flights were surprised with a special gift from the Café with customers travelling to long-haul destinations on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day receiving a traditional roast dinner at 35,000ft, with all the trimmings.

Tom Stevens, British Airways’ Director of Customer Experience said: “After what has been an incredibly difficult two years for everyone, we know how much our customers have been looking forward to being reunited with loved ones over such an important time. We wanted to treat our customers and go that extra mile to make their journey, wherever it may be, extra special.”

2.   Sainsbury’s

In recent years, Sainsbury’s have been battling to retain their position as Britain’s second-biggest supermarket chain; they are continually being challenged by Asda, now owned by Walmart. 2020 was been a bumper year for supermarkets in the UK, with huge rises in demand. This was initially due to pandemic-related panic-buying, then fuelled by the closure of most hospitality outlets during the lockdown. The lead-up to 2020 Christmas saw sales of alcohol and turkey increase by one third on 2019, and the fight for supremacy during the Christmas boom has been intense, with all of the big supermarkets investing heavily in advertising campaigns.

Sainsbury’s took it a step further in 2020, and their campaign has had a big impact. They’ve produced three Christmas adverts, all featuring phone calls between family members. The voice overs are accompanied by flashback memories of Christmases past, and the food traditions that created the strongest memories. Each advert features the tagline, “Food is home. Home is Christmas”.

There has been some controversy around one of the Sainsbury’s TV adverts, following complaints from a small subsection of the public that it featured ethnically diverse families across the campaign. This resulted in all the UK’s main supermarkets uniting together, running their adverts back-to-back during two primetime slots, with the hashtag #StandAgainstRacism. Normally, competitors actively avoid running their adverts close together. Therefore, this move is a radical one and important at a time when Britain was still divided by attitudes towards the pandemic, Brexit and the Black Lives Matter movement. It was heartening to see such big brands taking a strong position on inclusivity and diversity.

In 2021, the Sainsbury Christmas ad celebrates the enjoyment of friends and family coming together and encourages everyone to savour every precious moment. Even though around the world countries have been struggling with increased cases due to the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus, families are still expected to celebrate the season in their bubbles and for some, it would be the first time meeting in person in almost two years.

Set to the soundtrack of Etta James’ classic ‘At Last!’, it immerses viewers in a rich and sentimental snapshot of a classic Christmas with family, capturing key moments and pausing to savour them.

By travelling through and experiencing every detail of the scene, viewers see elements of a familiar Christmas, but from a new perspective, as the camera pans around the room to show family members frozen in time.

The ad ends with a message: ‘It’s been a long time coming, so let’s make it a Christmas to savour.’

3.   Coca-Cola

Let’s look now at the world’s most valuable soft drink brand, Coca-Cola, whose Christmas adverts have been crowned the most effective by Marketing Week. The pandemic put a stop to Coca-Cola’s annual truck tour, but their advert “Holidays are Coming” reflected the nostalgia of traditional Christmas as they celebrate 100 years of festive advertising.

This traditional advert will run alongside another one, entitled “The Letter” (trigger warning – this one’s a real tear-jerker!) and directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Taika Waititi. It’s about a father who has to go away for work, but through the magic of Santa Claus, ends up returning home to make his daughter’s Christmas dreams come true.

The messaging here was all about presence and appreciation for loved ones, and our need to feel a sense of community at Christmas. This message was reinforced across all of Coca-Cola’s other marketing channels, with Instagram posts featuring a wide range of ethnically diverse celebrities emphasising the need to work together to build bridges across our society.

The Facebook page lead with a call to action, “Grab your festive packs”, and this message was echoed on the Coca Cola website, where the new range of seasonal drinks was unveiled. There’s also an interactive Christmas Calendar, urging the visitor to share messages or festive challenges with friends and family.

It’s that invitation to participate and become part of the sharing of the message which was the powerful element of this campaign – that we are stronger together and our gifts to one another should be unique. Another tagline to reinforce this message is repeated across the campaign: “This Christmas, give something only you can give”. This year, Christmas is about presence, not presents.

It’s also interesting to note that these adverts, produced by Wieden + Kennedy London, were shown in 91 other countries across the globe, making this a truly multi-national campaign.

In 2021, Coca Cola launched its Christmas campaign under its ‘Real Magic’ platform which was launched in September as part of a drive to change the way it communicates with consumers. They sought to highlight the real magic of human connections. Supporting activity took place across digital channels, including influencer partnerships, as well as local community initiatives, in-store activations. One of the more prominent activations was a two day take-over of the Winter Village at the Battersea Power Station where Coca Cola projected images central to the theme of the Real Magic ad on the iconic chimneys of the power station. The key message in the Real Magic Christmas ad was that this year serves as a reminder that the Real Magic of the holiday does not come from presents and gifts, it comes from shared special moments together.

4.   Amazon

During the first Christmas of the pandemic, Amazon one of the world’s most valuable brands, offered us an interesting festive campaign.  Amazon’s worth has increased by almost a third year over year (2019-2020), caused in part by a boom in online sales due to pandemic restrictions.

Amazon’s global TV advert features a young, determined ballet dancer, who is preparing for a starring role in her dance school’s end of year production. Covid-19 put a stop to this, but her friends and family pull together to support her. It’s another tear-jerker, telling a universal story of the power of hope and community in times of adversity. Cleverly, there is no dialogue at all, so it can be shown in multiple countries with no language barrier.

An advert featuring a ballerina (played by French ballet dancer, Taïs Vinolo) is appropriate, as Amazon Prime Video and Amazon Studios in 2020 committed the princely sum of $6 million to support the TV and film production creative community in Europe. This fund made donations to the various European Covid-19 relief funds supporting artists across Europe. The creative arts element of the campaign, therefore, nicely complements Amazon’s corporate social responsibility activities during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, in the lead up to Christmas, Amazon also displayed impressive agility in response to changing restrictions due to the pandemic. Last minute changes to permitted Christmas bubbles in the UK have left many people planning their festive meals at the last minute, while there was a threat of food shortages due to border issues too, alongside Brexit-related problems. Amazon responded by heavily advertising their Amazon Fresh service on social media, promising next day delivery of festive food.

In a final festive flourish, and a world first, customers across the Commonwealth, and beyond, will be able to listen to Her Majesty The Queen’s Christmas Message via their Alexa device. The Christmas Day tradition of an address to the nation by the British monarch began in 1932 with George VI making a radio broadcast. In 2020 this digital expansion brought a festive institution to more customers than ever before, in a year when perhaps we needed an uplifting message more than usual.

In 2021, Amazon emphasised kindness as the greatest gift and that small acts of kindness have the biggest impact. With Adele’s song ‘Hold On’ as the track, this ad tells the story of a young woman who is feeling anxious about life after lockdown. From university lectures to partying with friends, we see the young girl struggle with normality once again. A neighbour, sensing her struggles and seeing her lonely gaze, in an act of kindness embodying the Christmas spirit, purchases a gift to lift her spirits. While the world is still grappling with the effects of the pandemic, opportunities for kindness and connection have become even more important across all demographics.

5.   McDonald’s

Let’s look finally at McDonald’s, another global mega brand. One of the most visible brands on social media in recent years, their festive campaign was accompanied by the slogan #ReindeerReady for the fourth consecutive year, after its launch for Christmas 2017. 

This is a great example of a really clever integrated campaign, giving customers the opportunity to take part across multiple platforms. As well as cute TV adverts, animation focused on the theme of embracing your inner child, there were reindeer Snapchat filters, children’s activity sheets and online games available on the Reindeer Ready website.

This is a hashtag that real people use, not just social media marketers, driven by the ingenious #ReindeerReady video competition, widely shared on Twitter and Instagram. People were able to superimpose a giant reindeer eating a bowl of food onto their own video of the festively-decorated home, and share on social media.

This was an uplifting campaign, and it was well-balanced across multiple channels. It offered a slice of wholesome fun to warm the heart after a turbulent year.

In 2021, the advertisement showed how a little girl and imaginary friend, Iggy, play around as kids and stick together. But as the girl grows up, she starts to outgrow her imaginary friend and ultimately confines her childhood friend Iggy inside her cupboard.

When she sees another child playing with a toy and to an invisible friend, she remembers her imaginary friend and rushes back to her closet and reconnects with Iggy. Their ‘Are you #ReindeerReady?’ slogan at the end is the connecting tissue to the umbrella festive campaign again this year.

Honourable Mentions

Apple: Make Someone’s Holiday

Even though this ad came out before the pandemic, against the backdrop of the loss of loved ones during this period, it struck an emotional chord for me and throughout their entire journey in the ad, the iPad seems to be the one thing helping to maintain the peace and bringing the family together in the end. The appeal of this ad is that they prioritize emotional connection and use the product as a vehicle to tell the story.

Google’s Santa Tracker

Google’s Santa Tracker is a prime example of some good seasonal interactive content. Every year in December, users can follow Santa in real time as he travels around the globe making his deliveries. Throughout the rest of the year, the website provides visitors with a tonne of entertaining interactive content.  This makes the site sticky and continues to drive traffic outside of the season. As Marketers it is important to think about your evergreen content on your digital assets and what will bring customers back. 

Diageo’s #TheBalanceChallange using Augmented Reality

Diageo during the festive season last year, launched this campaign urging people to moderate their alcohol intake by swapping an alcoholic drink with water as part of its “The Balance Challenge”. The AR filter challenged users to adopt different poses testing their balance. Additionally, Diageo facilitated a way for people to donate to WaterAid. Links to their website  were included in the campaign to encourage people to take the self-assessment test and determine their risk levels.


Ending 2021 on a High

The last two years have been very challenging but our marketing and creative colleagues across the world have been working hard to rekindle the fire and energy of the Christmas season through their festive campaigns. As I have said before the pandemic has levelled the playing field in most areas, so it is sometimes useful to observe what is being done in other parts of the world.

So, what does the future hold? 2022 still looks pretty uncertain and noone can say definitively what’s ahead, but key to survival and even thriving during this period is remaining agile and using your data to inform your decisions.


We give thanks for the blessings of 2021 and look forward to an amazing 2022 and sharing more with you.





Brevard NelsonBrevard Nelson is the Co-Founder and CEO of Caribbean Ideas Synapse. He has over 20 years of experience in the world of Marketing and Communications. He is impassioned by our Caribbean region utilising technology to drive development. When he’s not working with Team Synapse on integrated marketing client strategies, he’s actively giving back to his alma mater, St. Mary’s College as well as the music industry. 

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