How Do You Square The Most Viewed Festive Ad With The Worst Christmas In A Decade?

Had Sainsbury's reported record figures this morning for the most recent festive quarter, it all would have been simple. After all, its moving Christmas truce advertisement was today announced as the most watched YouTube ad over November and December, beating John Lewis's penguin in UK viewing figures. It's worth pointing out that this is based on UK viewing figures -- which are not published -- because by the end of December Monty actually got 21m views globally, compared to 16m for Sainbury's.

So although Monty was -- perhaps surprisingly -- more of a global hit than the wartime truce depiction, Sainsbury's had the bigger UK numbers, and it would follow that people loved the ad and rewarded the supermarket by queuing up to buy their turkey, crackers and cranberry sauce from the chain. Trouble is, although they probably did, the supermarket has just revealed its worst festive figures in a decade with like-for-like sales down 1.7%. You would then expect the City to punish them for the worst performance in a decade, yet shares rose on morning trading, primarily because the decline was less than expected.

In short, the television advertisement that was watched virally by most people in the UK rewarded the client with its worst performance in a decade and led to the punishment of an improved share price.

Confused? Well, let this be a lesson for anyone expecting results alone to tell you the whole truth. Indeed, let it be a lesson for anyone who looks directly at what they're doing in digital marketing while looking for a corresponding reaction in the bottom line.

The truth is, the ad was a great success, as was John Lewis's Monty. While the former saw sales go down, the latter saw them rise. It had nothing to do with the creative, the buying, the planning, the ad-serving technology and the agency people involved. It was all down to that great John Lennon quip that "life's what happens while you're busy making other plans." 

Any marketer looking at this morning round of interviews and the Sainsbury's results will be taken aback by how the supermarket's executives were not biting at questions that asked them to fall on their proverbial sword. Instead, they were fairly upbeat. They actually served as many customers as in previous years. It's just that inconvenient truth that the the low-cost operators had forced them, and the other traditional supermarkets, to cut prices. So the number of customers was relatively the same -- it's just that the other half of the equation was down. Those same marketers may have afforded themselves a wry grin when Sainsbury's share price rose this morning, despite the protests from business journalists and television anchormen that this was a dark day for the supermarket.

So what does this tell digital marketers? Simple. While we all like to align ourselves with success, the truth behind what led to a rise in the bottom line is often a lot more complicated. How do you account for someone buying a car because it's the same one their neighbour has or someone buying life insurance from a company because they heard down the pub they were a good outfit to deal with? 

Digital marketers have all the excuses of advertising tradition to throw at any lack of success. Bad weather, lack of consumer confidence, rail delays, and seasonal flu are all up there for why campaigns failed to deliver. There are, of course, metrics to show an advertisement was influential in success -- whether true or not. But as Sainsbury's has shown, you can run a successful campaign without profits going up.

So beware if you routinely expect campaign success to lead to bottom-line uplifts because just as failure isn't always your fault, success isn't always as much attributable to advertising as agencies would like to claim.

There appear to be two takeaways here. Not only should we not blindly expect success on the screen to lead to success at the cash register but also, perhaps there's a new category of success. Shall we call it "things didn't turn out as badly as we expected?" Over to you for suggestions of the metric. An England penalty hitting row D instead of row Z perhaps, or a fan only partially hit by you know what?

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