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Penguin vs guerilla marketing in ad land’s Christmas rush

Reigning supreme. Penguin power. Stuart Richards, CC BY-ND

Stories of heightened sales of penguin-related items are lighting up the web. McVities reported a 75% spike in sales of its avian chocolate biscuit following the launch of #montythepenguin in a “social first” Christmas campaign from The John Lewis Partnership.

The snack maker’s response to this good fortune highlights the tactical power of nimble strategies which are not tied into planned media buying schedules and how clever twitter amplification can reap benefits from others’ efforts. It might be even be seen as a form of ambush marketing.

The McVities Penguin hijack. McVities, Author provided

I’ve always been a big fan of flightless birds, having visited real colonies in Chile and South Africa, and even lugged a life-sized laminated penguin home as hand luggage all the way from Santiago. Multiple companies understand the attraction. Coca Cola has invited us to consider the implications of bonding between polar bear and penguin – a meeting only feasible in a zoo. Hopefully you were not visualising the inevitability of the Coca Cola bears gorging themselves on their new penguin pals (of course the old joke goes that they wouldn’t do that: they can’t open the wrappers …)

Prelude to a massacre?

Taking the biscuit

McVities’ clever “social and caring” Penguin Facebook site for its biscuits seems to offer the right blend of conservation and commercialism, with a smattering of inclusive competition giveaways.

Even hardened marketing types (ahem) have been taken in by the consumer trend sparked by that upmarket department store, unavoidably buying a stained-glass penguin tree decoration at the school Christmas fare, handmade by an arty mum who was totally unaware of the #monty commercial opportunity. Having sold out her stock, Claudia promised to make more (upping the price to £7 each for the next one of course.)

Puffin and Penguin Books, Linux open source operating system, even the Disney Club Penguin gaming community may benefit from becoming more fashionable this year. And the imitation and associations needn’t be entirely based on the central character.

Welsh furniture retailer Pieces for Places have created an adult #SexyPenguin version of the John Lewis Monty video made by Adam and Eve/DDB that looks likely to augment the already sizeable social media attention devoted to it. It’s good, if a bit edgy.

Parental warning: shameless rip-off.

It’s been emotional

On a more serious note, and showing that you can’t always anticipate quite how your viral campaign will get amplified, news coverage has noted the award that animal protection association PETA gave to John Lewis to celebrate the use of computer-generated animals instead of real. Good ad! Only trouble is that the ad also shows Monty being fed breadcrumbed, processed fish and a week after the PETA award we were warned that feeding Eider ducks with bread and fish & chips leads to calcium deficiency and causes egg shells to fail. Bad ad!

The real kicker of the John Lewis ad of course is the emotional climax, and other service brands, like airlines, have been using aspirational air travel stories to manifest the same kinds of powerful feelings of psychological well-being and emotional engagement for many years. This piece for Canadian airline WestJet is really amazing and shares its tone with the Monty campaign.

Getting the tears flowing.

The marketing lesson appears to be that while the John Lewis ad formula is becoming less distinctive, as competitor retailers ape the emotional appeal as well as the annual motif, the high performing department store retailer has excelled on ramping up its engagement. Using a social-media-first strategy and a strong reputation for providing a stand-out Christmas campaigns sees the retailer at the head of the pack again. No longer just for highly distinctive ads featuring cute kids and cuddly animals portraying lovely stories to a remastered classic tune, but for its appreciation of important social media platforms.

For what it’s worth, my personal favourite of the season (winter, but not actually Christmas) is the Sony 4K frozen bubbles ad.

Emotional bubble.

You will notice a remarkable similarity in style to the John Lewis portfolio (the ad is also from Adam and Eve/DDB). The story telling is too subtle for me, (I’m watching in HD, not 4K – and it looks good enough already to me) but there are no computer graphics, it is just a natural phenomenon filmed near my old ski haunt, Whistler in British Colombia. Amazing. Unfortunately, like much of the clever global creativity used for Asian technology brands, in my view it fails to hit the mark for sophisticated UK consumers. Beautiful, but too bland. And no penguins.

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