Are retailers wasting money with their big budget Christmas TV campaigns?

M&S marks spencer leading ladiesWhen your local supermarket, department store or specialist retailer breaks a brand new above-the-line ad in November, you know the silly season is upon us. With so much revenue and profit generated in this quarter you can understand why the stakes are high. Ads increase exponentially in prime time slots to lure us and retailers live off the hope that the shopping public will spend their hard earned cash through their cash registers. Production values go up, a memorable ditty is sung and a plethora of celebrity smothers the campaign, but do retailers really need to spend so much on the celebrity endorsement? As a marketer, I fully embrace the necessity of advertising and I understand the value in it. I agree that prime time advertising slots are a must if you want to make an impact, as are production values, but based on the criticism lauded on the lacklustre impact Marks & Spencer’s “Leading Ladies” campaign, can retailers justify the expense?

In August Annie Leibovitz shot and featured 10 leading ladies from Oscar winning actress Helen Mirren and artist Tracey Emin to drive sales of ladies fashion (pictured). Did the campaign need to be so “high budget”? Beautiful and well produced was the advert, but I can’t help feel that the garments the ladies were selling were somewhat lost in the foray of the campaign. It was not great fashion and to be honest I doubt many women felt drawn to the concept that these leading ladies really dress in M&S, felt comfortable in what they were told to wear or really engaged with consumers to convince that M&S was back on trend. After all, they’re usually sporting the latest designer labels down the red carpet. With Marks & Spencer posting its ninth consecutive quarter of falling clothing sales, the results certainly don’t live up to the celeb hype. Therefore, you’d believe a rethink was in order for Christmas Peak but not so. Rosie Huntingdon Whitely, David Gandy and another Oscar winner Helena Bonham Carter feature but I reserve my judgment on whether this will truly resonate with the average M&S shopper this time round.

From Waitrose to Debenhams to John Lewis with its just released Lily Allen advert singing the Keane song Somewhere Only We Know, retailers will spend according to market analyst Nielsen, an estimated £390m on advertising over the last three months of 2013. That’s £128m more than one retailer M&S reported in profit for the first 6 months trading. But then John Lewis reported record sales last Christmas, so ads can work but you need the quality products to help close the loop.

Brands in crowded categories may require celebrity endorsement to drive advocacy, however some do it better than others. Do retailers really need to drive our emotion to shop in their stores with the glamour of celebrity wearing, eating or commenting on the quality, style and taste of what are really just run of the mill products? What’s more, how much of the campaign is devoted to the celebrity? I can’t imagine that the aforementioned Oscar winning actresses are inexpensive; on the contrary, they are eating into an already squeezed margin. And do celebrities themselves truly embrace the brand enough to tap into its target audience? I doubt the M&S leading ladies of the summer are donning M&S’ A/W collection, even when they pop out for a pint of milk.

Some of the heavyweights have ditched celebrities this Christmas. Asda has slashed investment in its Christmas advertising campaign and blasted rivals’ “celebrity filled” ads. The grocer has cut its budget by 10% and put value at the heart of its festive messaging.  It has also been announced that the Tesco ad will not be celebrity-focused either. We shall see if they turn their savings this Christmas into profit.

Brands are increasingly defined by experiences, so the use of celebrities has to perpetuate the story and allow consumers to visualise the products as part of their lives. Celebrity ads have become ubiquitous. Marketers often scrap over celebrities for a chance to use their name. The need for standout means marketers are exploring new approaches to maximise the celebrity’s appeal. Some work, others fail, some are unproven. Regardless of approach, the ad has to be credible and authentic.

For brands, often such deals give advertisers a direct line to celebrities’ fan followings via their personal Twitter accounts and Facebook pages. However, the true asset is a star’s relevance, buying a marketer the kind of buzzy exposure that only a Hollywood headliner can bring. The choice has to be right. So why tech brands have enrolled the world’s biggest stars to endorse cutting-edge tech products is anyone’s guess. Kevin Bacon for EE, Robert Downey Jr for HTC and David Beckham for Motorola back in the day; I really can’t see the connections here – please tell me if I’m wrong. Brand recall is vital but let’s not forget the goal here, revenue, and whilst Beyoncé may drive me towards buying Pepsi, do I care which retailer I purchase it in?

No one will argue more than me that ATL campaigns are crucial. But I shall enjoy critiquing from my sofa the raft of celebrity appearances and voiceovers, which will grace my TV screen over the coming months. Perhaps I will be congratulating my choice in viewing via Freeview+ to allow me to pre-record and fast forward past the ads to my favourite Christmas special. Then again I may just hold out for John Lewis’ much lauded Disney –inspired masterpiece.

Daniel Todaro is Managing Director at field marketing agency Gekko.