The Deconstructed Brief

The Boy and the Piano


Brand: John Lewis & Partners
Agency: adam&eveDDB – London


Eighty-eight percent of consumers say that Christmas shopping was an extremely intense experience, according to a survey by eBay. Sixty percent of shoppers say they hit shopping fatigue after just 32 minutes.

To help mitigate this stress, more consumers are turning to online shopping (and gorging on Christmas cookies). Internet Retailer estimates that U.S. shoppers will spend $120 billion with online retailers during the 2018 holiday season — a 15.5 percent increase from the previous year.

British retailer John Lewis faces extra pressure during the holiday season. While it needs to drive people to its stores, the brand also releases holiday commercials (like this one) that are highly anticipated by the British public every year.

Key insight

One gift can change a life.

The idea:

John Lewis created a holiday tear-jerker.

The brand enlisted music royalty Elton John to remind customers about the special moment you get a gift that will be treasured forever. The two-minute spot tells his story in reverse chronology through the decades — from huge stadiums to school recitals. The spot wraps up with young Elton receiving the gift of a piano from his grandmother before it returns to 2018 Elton sitting alone at his piano. It concludes with the tagline, “Some gifts are more than just a gift.”

As in the past, the ad generated a ton of buzz for John Lewis, with write-ups in news and entertainment outlets across the world, including The Daily Telegraph, Billboard and The A.V. Club. The ad has already earned almost nine million views on YouTube since it was released on November 14.

On social media, the spot has drawn a huge response, but the reactions were somewhat mixed. Many fans report being moved to tears — in a good way — while others openly wondered if the spot had enough of a pure Christmas focus.

The commercial was expanded into the real world through playful in-store experiences that included reusing the nostalgic commercial set in one of the stores. Customers can sit in a 1970s-style recording studio and try on recreations of Elton John’s costumes. The store also features a musical light show, projected onto the windows and set to Elton’s Christmas classic, “Step Into Christmas.”

For the first time in several years, John Lewis is selling pianos. Pianos were also made available for customers to play in stores

What they said:

“Think back to all of the Christmases that you have enjoyed over the years. I’m sure there is one very special gift that stands out about all others,” said Craig Inglis, partner and customer director at John Lewis & Partners. “That’s the magical feeling we wanted to bring to life this year.”

Lessons to be learned:

  • Use the power of narrative. — Humans are hardwired to narrative.  “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor,” researcher Jonathan Haidt told Scientific American. This spot is powerful because it flips our narrative expectations by telling a rags-to-riches story in reverse. It works because we know how Elton John’s story ends, but not much about his humble inspiration.

  • Pick the right celebrity. — Elton John is one of the world’s biggest celebrities. He holds the record for the biggest-selling single of all time and has been knighted by the queen of England. His mega status guaranteed that the holiday ad would make a splash. Most branda can’t afford a megastar like Elton John — who reportedly cost $9 million to cast — but for a brand with one of the most-anticipated ads of the year, the high price tag is worth it. The brand also gets some mileage out of the fact that Elton John announced earlier this year that he was retiring from touring. The sense of impending loss adds another layer to the melancholy tone of the ad (until he decides to un-retire again).

  • Know the power of music. — Another reason to tap Elton John: his music. Everyone knows that music is an extremely powerful marketing tool. Researchers at University of California, Davis found that music and recall are intrinsically linked. Music triggers emotions and memories of events in our lives.