Jingle bells and whistles

Jim Davies wonders why most seasonal branded communications are as stale as last year’s mince pies.

It’s the season of goodwill, so I’ll go easy. But what on earth happens to all you designers at Christmas? Aesthetes and arbiters of style for 11 months of the year, everything goes horribly, gaudily wrong towards the end of November. Restraint suddenly gives way to excess, taste becomes tat. So what’s it all about? Too much eggnog perhaps? Something in the mince pies?

Originality is thin on the ground too. The iconography of Christmas – trees, robins, stars, baubles, fat blokes in red suits – is so overplayed it has become seasonal wallpaper. OK, there’s pressure from clients to be seen to join in the celebrations, to stay in tune with the public mood, but that doesn’t mean we all have to produce messages with as much sparkle as a stale sprout.

Of course, all these jaded symbols were once new and exciting. For instance, the Victorians were responsible for introducing the Christmas tree in the 1840s, a boon for underemployed lumberjacks, but a pain for pine. It’s something of an urban myth that Coca-Cola invented Santa Claus in the 1930s, he’d actually been around in various guises since the 4th century. But they certainly popularised him, cementing the image of the jolly old boy sporting their corporate colours. Until then, he was a little more adventurous in his wardrobe, cutting a dash in blue, green and occasionally even purple.

But the Coca-Cola example does hint at how clients and designers can achieve a point of difference, even using the limited palette of recognised Christmas iconography. The secret is to start with your own brand values and stretch them, gently, towards shared seasonal references. Like the Ocean mail-order catalogue, which simply pictured a classic Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair and footstool on its cover. The twist was the chair was shown in white leather against a plain white background – a case of subtly suggesting rather than ramming it forcefully down our chimneys.

Talking of suggestive, Durex recently produced a wonderful Christmas card showing a man buying a huge Christmas tree. He was holding it at an angle of 45 degrees as he tried to valiantly slip some netting over the end of it. The caption read ‘Comfort and joy’. Perfect. On brand and on the money.

Guinness too has always managed to put a subtle seasonal spin on its marketing output. It is perhaps fortunate that its product is so distinctive (it’s been called a logo in a glass.) This year’s impressive poster campaign includes a still life of a piece of dark Christmas cake on a plate. It has white icing on the top and is cut in the shape of a pint glass. The only sign off is the logo and the words ‘Christmas wishes’. A piece of cake, as you might say.

Talking of food, Selfridges’ Christmas windows are always tasty, worth checking out for flair and originality. For 2003, they are integral parts of the store’s Feast theme, featuring dazzling fantasy landscapes made entirely from sweets.

Like presents, producing surprising branded communications for Christmas becomes harder every year. It doesn’t help that the briefs tend to arrive in late summer, when you’re more likely to be building sandcastles than snowmen. In September, I had to fast-forward to the festive season with the fan on full pelt in my studio, to compose lines for a bookseller. The client wanted witty, Christmas-related one-liners covering 21 different genres. For Science Fiction, for example, I came up with ‘Peace on Earth (and other planets)’, ‘Join the Christmas Party’ for Politics, for Science, ‘Friends and Relativity at Christmas’, and so on. Again, the trick was to start with the subject matter and work outwards, rather than foisting Christmas associations in places where they have no obvious relevance.

We all celebrate Christmas slightly differently. But for most of us, it consists of variations on a familiar theme, involving food, drink and family, and for me, grappling with the instructions of ever-more complex kids’ toys. I’ve never been lucky enough to get away to some exotic island for a romantic Christmas à deux, but if I did, I’m sure it would give the occasion a wonderful new slant. And that’s the kind of effect that sponsored Christmas messages should be striving for. They need to be lateral and memorable and, if possible, humorous – after all, Christmas is all about having a good time.

I’ve just one more thing to say, which is neither lateral, memorable or humorous, but at least it gets to the point. Merry Christmas.

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