When the British department store, John Lewis, launched their Christmas advert featuring Elton John last week, it was to great anticipation. While they continue to hone the art of storytelling however, Twitter has turned a resulting miscommunication from lemons to lemonade.

To recap, the John Lewis Christmas advert has become an institution. The brand might have been around for more than 150 years, but it’s in the last decade that it has reinvigorated its image through its Christmas ads. They have become a symbol for the start of the holiday season in the UK.  Even prompting the question, is it even Christmas before the John Lewis advert comes out?

In 2009 John Lewis had garnered a reputation for being perhaps a little outdated. It was a beacon of quality and trust amongst loyal shoppers.  However, with one eye on the future, it realised that younger shoppers had less brand loyalty.

Game changing since 2009

Partnering with London-based agency Adam & Eve/DDB, their first collaboration hinged on nostalgia.  Its a storytelling tool they have clung to ever since. The song was Sweet Child of Mine.  The message was Never Knowingly Undersold – the brand’s longstanding promise.

However, it was arguably the 2010 advert that was the real game changer. A Tribute to Givers featured Ellie Goulding’s cover of Elton John’s Your Song and it had ‘all the feels’.

It showed parents sneaking a rocking horse upstairs while their children watched television.  Then a man struggling to wrap a pair of candlesticks.  Then a mechanic attempting to wrap a teapot at work. Finally, just as your tear ducts were about to burst, a young boy hangs a stocking on his dog’s snow-covered kennel.

Treat the ones you love was the message. Innocence and goodwill were the overtones. Young talent screamed the soundtrack. Legacy shouted the lyrics.

Although well known, the single most definitely put Goulding on the map. The storytelling combined with a seamless omni-channel marketing campaign, was a hit. The 60-second ad sparked competition from the brand’s leading competitors the following year.  A catalogue of praise and awards was also to follow.

Bringing back Elton in 2018

Since then, the challenge has been keeping the magic alive. So this year John Lewis pulled out the big guns. Reverting to that classic – Your Song – they haven’t just brought in Elton John’s lyrics.  They enlisted in the man himself.

It starts with Elton as we know him now, playing the piano. It then follows his story backwards through time.  It ends with him as a child on Christmas morning, receiving a piano. It is a story of the power of gift giving. Give a child the right gift and it could change their life. We have no idea if the story has anything to do with Elton John’s own experience.  Although presumably someone did bestow a piano upon him at some point.

It’s clever and it deliver’s that nostalgia that John Lewis has become known for. It also tackles the concept of Christmas as an over commercialised holiday.  This commercial entity takes the brashness out of consumption and talks about quality and meaning over quantity and throwaway gifts.

After all, a piano is no small present.  Then again, this is the John Lewis promise – quality, trust, reliability, family. It trades carefully and with precision on its brand principles.

Serendipity can be a game changer

The advert has also sparked that other superbly high form of flattery – parody. But it is Twitter that has perhaps used it to best effect.

Twitter has had mixed commercial results as a brand in recent years.  It has struggled to compete against other social media platforms. However, this year it has turned a hiccough into an opportunity.

We have all had cases of mistaken identity on social media. Same name, different person.  Chances are however, that few of us have had quite as many Tweets about it as the ‘real’ John Lewis.

The ‘real’ John Lewis

It turns out that each year an American lecturer from Virginia with the same name as the British brand is inundated with Tweets when the Christmas ad comes out. As a result, he has around 43,000 Twitter followers.  That’s more than double the number that follow the official John Lewis customer service Twitter feed.

The poor man must spend half his life fielding customer service questions. So this year, Twitter got involved. They paid for a tongue-in-cheek video dedicated to the misunderstanding. The video sees the good-humoured lecturer, whose bio reads ‘I am not a retail store’, replying to Tweets.  It delicately references the series of John Lewis adverts from years gone by. It finishes by inviting viewers to ‘Join the Conversation. Even if it’s by mistake’ with the hashtag #NotARetailStore.

It’s lateral thinking, parody and engagement done with flair.  It’s inspiration from the most unlikely of places. It will be interesting to see its effect over time.

Twitter is not the first to turn a negative into a positive, but they have done it very nicely. In doing so, they prove to marketing and customer service teams alike, sometimes a problem is just an opportunity in disguise.

THINK DIFFERENTLY – SPEAK TO THE TEAM AT GIGCMO ABOUT INTERIM TALENT