3 Holiday Season Campaigns to Inspire You: Breakthrough Now Before the Rush

Holiday Season Campaigns

Summer is waning, and millions of content marketers are experiencing an anxiety they can’t identify. It’s an odd mixture that blends a fear of the unknown with the uneasy sensation that there is something very important they’ve forgotten to do. And it’s not about suntan lotion or hot dog buns.

Yes, that’s because we’re deep into holiday season planning. The pressure is on now to make sure your upcoming 2016 holiday season campaign hits on all the right marks.

Holiday Shoppers are Buying Before Halloween

Our culture may bemoan the encroachment of Christmas into the sacredness of Thanksgiving and joy of Halloween, but as you all know, the reality is Aunt Sandra has likely already completed much of her holiday shopping before Black Friday or Cyber Monday is even here. Meanwhile, that single dad with the three kids finished his at a winter jacket clearance sale in June.

The holidays may have a season, but today, holiday shopping is a year-round endeavor that only intensifies the closer we get to sleigh bells. In fact, last year, 25 percent of consumers begin their holiday shopping before Halloween. Meanwhile, our Outbrain data shows that the week directly following Halloween – November 1-8 – is the key content creation week for marketers. This means that savvy marketers who start messaging now still have time to beat the rush and break through the noise.

2015 Holiday Season Campaigns That Nailed It

Here are three 2015 campaigns to judge your own upcoming 2016 ones against. All three did a great job getting a head start with the holidays – and managed to sustain their holiday buzz long after the season was over.


Target’s Storybook Odyssey campaign which launched November 4 of last year didn’t attempt to sell products to consumers; instead, it told a story. (And I mean that literally – through an endearing interactive holiday storybook, framed within the context of its brand and offerings.)

Each week, Target (who worked with ad agency 72andSunny) rolled out a new chapter through December 25 and matched it up with 12 TV spots that kept the continuity going. The artful transmedia campaign featured endearing animation, a compelling but nuanced holiday-themed story, a cute Target-branded dog, talking toys in magical Gingerbread City, a whipped cream ocean, and the voice of a trusted and much-loved narrator in Neil Patrick Harris.

It was such a success that you can still continue to enjoy it all year round here. Well played, Target.

Key Content Marketing Takeaways from Target:

  1. Serialize Content
    This is a great way to handle the never-ending holiday season. You can stay top of mind and keep driving people back through bite-sized pieces that can be amplified on a multitude of channels.
  2. Respect Your Audience
    The campaign doesn’t feel contrived or opportunistic because it involves real effort, investment, and an appreciation for the customer’s time and experience. The high production quality and care invested into creating Storybook Odyssey command respect from consumers, and inoculates the campaign from outside criticism regarding timing or other ulterior motives.


REI’s Opt Outside campaign brilliantly embraces widespread consumer backlash concerning Black Friday and how the day after Thanksgiving has come to represent everything negative about consumerism, capitalism, and our superficial culture obsessed with having stuff. Rather than making their employees ranch-handle throngs of sleep-deprived customers intent on saving money, REI closes its doors on Black Friday and pays its employees to go outside.

The marketing campaign extrapolates a powerful, on-brand movement from prevailing consumer sentiment. It also positions REI as a thought leader in both internal brand engagement (where employees actually live out the values of REI) and external brand engagement (where consumers are encouraged to partake in healthy, spiritually edifying outdoor activities—the core of REI ethos).

While rooted in Black Friday, it has a message that resonates with consumers every month of the year, and has its own popular #OptOutside hashtag, which has become the digital stamp of the movement and is used profusely on social media.

Key Content Marketing Takeaways from REI:

  1. Stay true to who you are
    For REI, the holidays is clearly an important event. However, crass commercialism and waste doesn’t align with who REI is or its target audience. Rejecting the commercialism of the holiday season actually ended up engaging people more and keeping REI top-of-mind for more than just a few months. It also spawned a lot of copycats.
  2. Don’t Be Afraid of Being Provocative
    A lot of brands are scared to do something different – to challenge the norms of conventional marketing. REI challenged this notion and proved that being provocative can actually work well for your brand, so long as what you are doing is baked into your brand DNA.

John Lewis

Though John Lewis has a respected history of producing unique and engaging holiday-themed ads since 2007, the brand perfected the art of emotional leverage in its Christmas commercials with 2015’s “Man on the Moon” campaign. The campaign was clearly a success too, as it boosted its online sales a reported 5.2%.

The ad addresses how loneliness impacts the elderly during the holiday season, and underscores that, for those on the margins of our bustling society and hectic lifestyles, the holiday season makes them feel even more isolated and forgotten. Beyond the ad, John Lewis also put on dinners and workshops to help the elderly and donated proceeds on sales of certain products to relevant charities.

For John Lewis, the “Man on the Moon” holiday was more than a campaign – it was a cause. And it led to an extensive, year-round branded experience that included in-store props featured in the commercial, like the now-famous moon bench, and even a Man on the Moon app, a partnership with AGE UK, and Man on the Moon products.

Key Content Marketer Takeaways

  1. Find a Cause
    It can be hard to continue to come up with content that engages your audience for the long period that the holidays season now demands. If you have a cause at the center, there’s no need to worry. There’s always plenty to talk and care about. It also gives your brand instant credibility.
  2. Emotion Wins
    We all know that positivity and joy sell, but content that pulls on your heartstrings and makes you cry does as well – even during the holiday season. (In fact, read our recent post on high-arousal emotions and virality, if you want to learn more.) In the end, if you can make your audience react and connect with your brand, then you’ve succeeded.

The Time Is Now

Savvy digital brands know that implementing a content strategy for the holidays requires a 12-month mentality. It also means telling stories that align with your overall strategy and resonate with your target audience. In the end, being diligent with offering quality content that reflects you and your consumers’ sensibilities, is the best way to generate buzz, conversion, and ultimately loyalty, during the holiday season.

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