‘We just wanted it to be genuine and real’: Coles and DDB on how to make a Christmas ad in 2020

Bushfires, COVID-19, lockdowns and panic buying: how do you make an appropriate Christmas ad in 2020? Mumbrella's Zoe Wilkinson talks to Coles' CMO Lisa Ronson about sending a genuine message to customers and DDB Group's national chief creative officer on creating a sense of togetherness when families, and the production process, were kept apart.

When its Christmas campaign was in the works in May, Coles was coming off the back of a military-grade communications operation. Food and cleaning products had been flying off the shelves before they were even stacked, product limits were still in place, and the supermarkets had come together calling for customers to treat staff with respect in the face of abuse, and even violence.

People were scared, and in the heat of all that fear and isolation, CMO Lisa Ronson had to look months into the future, at a holiday built upon bringing people together.

“We would normally have it fully locked down, but I think given the year that it’s been, we knew we had to remain a little flexible,” Ronson says.

“We plan these things even further in advance than what you think. We generally start December-January in planning for the following year. And in some cases, in some aspects of it, like our Christmas packaging, that could be 18 months to two years out.

“The key for us was to maintain an open mind and flexibility and to keep watching those insights, day in and day out, to make sure that will add a finger on the pulse of what people were feeling. So that was really, really critical.”

Coles’ take on Christmas this year comes about after a number of marketing changes. First was the addition of DDB to its agency roster, and then the launch of new brand platform, ‘Value the Australian Way’ seven months later.

‘Value the Australian Way’ draws upon the heritage of Coles, the different roles food plays in Australians lives, and in turn, what Australians value. The platform’s launch came just weeks before Coles began celebrating Christmas. National chief creative officer Ben Welsh said in the mania of COVID, this was an advantage.

“Without that lens it would have been a lot harder,” Welsh reflects.

“Because that was flexible enough to consider what the Australian way at a time like COVID [is] and Coles with its business being fundamentally in feeding us on a daily basis, it meant that we knew from the start what it was going to be about.

“Food was going to be central and to some degree togetherness was going to be central too, so in that platform we had a very good guide… Once we cracked brand, I think Christmas followed logically.”

DDB’s chief creative officer Ben Welsh

And food is certainly a central point of the campaign. Families – real families – gather around tables of fresh produce, a decorate-at-home, pre-made pavlova makes an appearance, Vegemite is added to the gravy, and, of course, Curtis Stone delivers a ham. Tying the whole campaign together is a poignant sense of togetherness, after a year of intense loneliness.

For Welsh, it was important that the context of the pandemic and the impact it had on households was readable, but not the overt message. The stream of Zoom-style ‘We’re here for you’ ads that came out earlier in the year became a “meme of how to write an ad”, and was exactly what they sought to avoid.

“There was a danger that Christmas would be like ‘After this year, we’ve learned blah, blah, blah, blah’, so to overtly talk about [COVID-19] might put you in a category,” he says.

“But to somehow acknowledge it through an emotional relevance and something that we were all clearly in need of, felt like you didn’t you didn’t have to remind people of the year, you just had to press the buttons that touched on what people were looking forward to… We look forward to Christmas. We’re never going to look forward to Christmas like we have this year.”

Ronson agrees. COVID-19 is still a part of Coles’ communications. Customers are still looking to the business for a safe shopping experience. To Ronson, the Christmas ad was the opportunity to send a new message to Australians in a different way.

“We’re using the relevant channels to talk to all the things that matter to Australians at Christmas,” she notes.

“We know that [Australians] do want to look forward, they want to get together with their family and friends, there’s going to be more Australians in Australia this Christmas than any time before… So we think that there’s going to be, based on our insights and our research, more frequent but smaller gatherings with fewer people. And so we wanted to make sure that we were really leaning into that.”

Coles CMO Lisa Ronson

COVID also came into consideration in how the campaign came to life. Ronson and Coles are based in Melbourne. DDB services its stake in the account out of Melbourne. But with the city in a 112-day lockdown, the Sydney team took on the campaign and oversaw the production with feet on the ground.

“Maybe there was something good that came out of it,” Welsh offers.

“Because you guys [Coles] are all in Melbourne and most of the work we were doing was coming out of Sydney, because obviously we had to shoot in Sydney. So you almost had the two Australia’s feeding into this, with how everyone was feeling in Victoria and how people were feeling, with a touch more freedom, in New South Wales. I’m sure that helped.”

Ronson adds: “Particularly in the states that were locked down a little bit longer than some others, everyone just wants to get out and be around each other, so I think that’s a really critical part of what we were leaning into.”

To add to the complications of the production process, director Justin Kurzel lives in Tasmania and the team from Revolver/Will O’Rourke was carrying out his vision in Sydney. The shoot was live-streamed for Ronson and the Coles team stranded down in Melbourne, who checked everything from costumes to food to the appearances of the brand throughout.

Luckily the team had the ‘learning experience’ of the still shoot before filming the TVC. And when the country returns to live shoots with all stakeholders present, Welsh believes this new technology “helps build trust, because you’re having to rely on each other”.

And, despite everything, the new COVID-Safe production rules were used to Coles’ advantage. At the launch of ‘Value the Australian Way’ the brand stressed its commitment to everyday Australians by not using actors in its ad. For the Christmas campaign, only real families and friend groups could be used, adding a layer of authenticity.

“It’s almost like the circumstances made it what it was,” Welsh notes.

“Because of COVID, you couldn’t have strangers interacting. You had to have people, either family groups or friends who’ve been hanging out together… The big problem was really making sure that we had a Plan B in case anyone got sick.

“I think that’s really been the biggest challenge for all productions is that you cast people, but you have to have a standby cast and standby crew almost to make sure that you can still shoot what you have to shoot when you’re shooting.

“But everyone in that film, they all knew each other so they were comfortable with each other, and it was just about getting performances where they were themselves. There was a lot of music played on the shoot where people could capture the moment,” he says.

From pandemics to panic buying, Coles has never had a year like 2020. But with the vocals of Missy Higgins and warming images of families reuniting, the brand has brought Australians back down to earth for Christmas.

“This year, we just wanted it to be, like most things that we do, genuine and real,” Ronson says.

“Our purpose is to sustainably feed all Australians so they can live healthier and happier lives. And so when you’ve got a purpose like that, you can’t be anything but genuine.

“Australians are really genuine, as we all know, and so we just wanted to reflect that and reflect the Australian Christmas, and we didn’t feel that Coles kind of has a role in doing anything really big and extravagant.

“We’re day-to-day, and we represent great value, great inspiration, great solutions for our customers and we’ve just got so many great products. We wanted that to shine more than anything else.”


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