A tale of two supermarket Christmases: a battle of symbols and sentiment

It’s Coles versus Woolies in a Christmas campaign showdown. Mary Winter and Tim Riches unpick the stories, signs and symbols to determine which half of the supermarket duopoly is best tapping into Australia’s festive spirit this year.

It’s Christmas business, but not as usual this year.

Between lingering Covid, lockdown PTSD and a burgeoning cost of living crisis, brands must tread a careful line between the warmth of human connection and the need to balance the household books.

For retailers, it feels like a closing window of opportunity in the face of a potentially bleak 2023. A moment to say to people, “get out and spend now before the interest rates and energy bills really bite”.

And for brands that often struggle to get past price-based advertising, ‘tis the season to double down on emotion, culture and connection. A shortcut way to do that is to lean into Christmas’s rich stories and symbolism.

Smart brands apply semiotics – the science of interpreting and leveraging symbolism – to their distinctive brand assets and campaign imagery to conjure up emotion and meaning.

But Christmas is the granddaddy of symbolism. It opens a rich seam of iconic images, sounds and smells that can trigger all sorts of feelings.

With that in mind, Australia’s supermarket duopoly – Coles and Woolies – are telling similar stories but in different ways this Christmas.

Who has it right? Let’s take a look.

The sweet, comforting approach of Woollies

Authentic connection and nostalgia are front and centre for Woolworths with a story about Australian Christmas rituals – centred on mangos.

The seasonality of the fruit builds on the brand’s ‘fresh food people’ credentials and reinforces the quality point of difference Woolies seeks against Coles.

An intergenerational storyline speaks to the nostalgic sense of idealised family connection. Which is relatable.

Not all of us live on a farm but the ‘country idyll’ symbolism appeals to our fondness for a simple, sweet place that is abundant, friendly and nurturing. It’s a classic comfort for hard times, perfect at Christmas.

The inclusion of an orchard not only plays to those ‘fresh food’ creds but also embraces the garden archetype. Picking fruit from trees taps into the paradise code expressed through stories such as the Garden of Eden in the Bible. We warm to this sense of an innocent, all-providing place where all is well with the world.

In the spot, the vintage connection between the car and the farmhouse evokes the past which is comforting. We tend to see the past as safe and unchanging. Life seems more simple and better if we look back at history – as if that time has something we have lost. Back then things were gentle, less stressful and had a natural sense of order as opposed to chaos. The past is a reassuring fantasy and Woolies has nailed it this Christmas.

The brand has also created a simple and affordable Christmas with the campaign loosening the financial pressure valve with the line, “It’s the little things that make Christmas special”, leading into, “helping you get your Woolies worth,” striking the balance between emotion, relevance, aspiration and accessibility.

The only miss is the surprising downplay of brand identity elements which Woolies usually does so well. The green is there in the setting, but the sonic signature could be better integrated into the track along with the green checker pattern in the sign-off.

Even though they’re dialling up the feels and trying not to be too salesy, it’s a miss not to reinforce those assets in an ad that people will probably pay a little more attention to because of its seasonal relevance.

The big splash approach of Coles

Coles has taken a more maximalist approach to Christmas giving. The pre-Covid Christmas is back with people getting together and sharing an abundance of food in a frenetic party of indulgence.

Buying up big is the best outcome for Coles, but does it scare people who are awaiting even further restrictions on their lifestyles and may be concerned about meeting the basic cost of living? Is this the time for extravagance?

It’s also likely getting together, as usual, may be a relief for some, but to assume everyone wants to do Christmas on a big scale could be a turn-off for others.

That lack of a core brand meaning shows in the ad which relies on more generic insights and propositions – like, “Coles is making entertaining and gifting easy”. The sign-off of, “That’s value the Australian way,” is clumsy and less meaningful. A bet each way on price and culture. The big issue is the lack of clear food credentials – the Curtis and MasterChef partnerships don’t really underpin that sort of positioning.

On the upside, a sense of community and inclusion feels modern and warm, with a couple of relatable touches, like Nonna asking if you’re married or feeding the dog under the table.

Looking through the distinctive brand asset lens, Coles at least reveals itself on the shopping bag in the very first frame which will do wonders for brand recall.

Few brands are as woven into everyday culture as supermarkets. And both Coles and Woolies have come through the last couple of years stronger than ever.

While telling superficially similar stories, the challenge in how they differentiate from one another is writ large in their different approaches to the festive season.

If we sum up the symbols and sentiment, in this Christmas showdown, Woolies wins.

But will these efforts make much of an impact on long-term differentiation and brand preference? The proof will be in the plum pudding.




Tim Riches is the group strategy director and Mary Winter is the head of insights at branding agency Principals.


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