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Sainsbury’s 150-year Dickensian Christmas ad also sees the return of Plug Boy

Nicholas the Sweep | Sainsbury’s | Christmas 2019

To celebrate its 150-year history, Sainsbury's Christmas ad travels back in time to the supermarket's humble beginnings in 1869, with a film that depicts Dickensian London that's filled with myth, whisper and rumour. 

Each year, Sainsbury’s Christmas ad is one of the most anticipated of all festive campaigns. All stylistically different, but inherently the same, along the years we’ve had an unsettling Christmas Truce, a James Corden-voiced musical animation, and last year it brought in the director of The Greatest Showman to direct an electric cast of Christmas characters in a school-play themed spot.

How to top that on the 150th anniversary year? While, due to Brexit uncertainty and an unsettled retail market, a number of brands have opted for price and product-led ad, Sainsbury's has decided to keep going with what it does best - "selling an idea of why you should shop at Sainsbury’s at Christmas, to cement its supermarket with the idea of Christmas," as Laura Boothby, head of broadcast marketing at Sainsbury's explained to The Drum. 

And what better way to cement Christmas with your brand, than making out that it invented it. The protagonist of the Dickensian advert is Nicholas - a poor orphan who gets himself into a spot of bother when he is wrongly accused of stealing a clementine from Mary Ann and John James Sainsbury's store. 

Young Nick is then banished to the North Pole, where he is rescued by Mrs Sainsbury, who saw what really went on. She gives his own sack of glowing clementines, and when he claims he doesn't have money to pay for the gift, she responds: "If you can't do something special for someone at Christmas, then when can you?" 

Before riding off into the snowy sunset, he shares the kindness with his fellow orphans, placing a clementine in each of their empty stockings. He then dons a red hat and puts on a red jacket, walking into the distance surrounded by reindeer; alluding to the fact that he is, in fact, Father Christmas himself.

As he starts his life on the North Pole, the voiceover says: "And that is a totally true story" and the onscreen text reads 'Sainsbury's. Making Christmas since 1869.' 

"It's an interesting coincidence that 150-years ago, it was Victorian London which is responsible for so many Christmas traditions and festive tropes," she said of the concept. 

Boothby said every year, Sainsbury's considers how it can disrupt the market. "It's about telling a story and ensuring our brand is present throughout. And there is a bit of product placement in there - the clementines." 

"Each year, our objectives never change - we want to create something likeable. Festive joy is one way of doing that," explained Bothsby on how it likened to last year. "Last year we had big orange curtains, this time we have the brand front and centre of the story." 

Plug Boy
 
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And if you look closely, the unlikely star of last year's campaign - Plug Boy - makes an appearance for a second year running. "There's a little poster for 'Plug Boy.' It says 'No more candles' and it has a picture of him. And you might see it appear through various pieces of communication," Boothby teased.

Last year, the character attracted 35 worried complaints to the Advertising Standard Authority, with some complainants worried that kids might 'emulate' the scene where he launched himself into a wall to turn on the lights of a giant Christmas tree. 

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Media Plan

Down to its 25-year long partnership with The Royal British Legion, out of respect, Sainsbury’s Christmas ads come a little later than the rest of the crowd.

“We’re very respectful that we launch after Remembrance Day, which means we have a shorter window,” Boothby said. “So to ensure as many people see it as possible, we go hard. The first two weeks are around the brand ad, to try and create fame and noise around that.”

After the two-week fully integrated marketing campaign, that covers TV, video-on-demand and cinema, Boothby said the supermarket will start with its food and product advertising. Starting early with gifting, as that’s what people tend to buy first in the Christmas timeline, Sainsbury’s will enter into party food by the beginning of December, before promoting its Christmas food, to “try and align with the mindset of when customers are thinking about what they’re going to buy.”

Merger

“They’re like brother and sister,” said Boothby on the decision to combine both Sainsbury’s and Argos’ marketing roles for the first time. “We very much share our ideas, but it’s very much from a ‘let’s not say we both invented Father Christmas’ point of view.”

Sainsbury’s first acquired Argos three years ago, with plans to integrate the businesses more fully over time to provide a seamless customer offer across the two stores.

She says going forward, they are still in the process of merging teams and trying to find the best way to optimise them, so they can be better at the job at hand. “Crucially, we will always have an Argos brand and a Sainsbury’s brand that does its own brand advertising as well," she said.

Argos was one of the first brands to launch its Christmas ad this year, back in October. It put its iconic paper catalogue front-and-centre of the campaign for the first time in a decade, hoping to deliver a sales boost following Sainsbury’s disappointing 2018 festive results.

Featured by The Drum

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