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If someone could tell retailers a way to make their seasonal retail communications 327% more effective they’d bite their hand off wouldn’t they? They probably won’t.

“Why not?” I hear you murmur wistfully into your last gold leafed Christmas stocking chocolate…

Because every year retail marketers follow the same predictable patterns, promotions and messaging.

They do so whilst desperately trying to differentiate themselves from their competitors through offers, loyalty schemes and advertising. These two things are rather incongruous aren’t they? – the net result is a sea of sameness. The irony here is that with all the media spend, best “creative” and instore promotions in the world, retailers still cluster their price, product, experience (and therefore Brand) communications around the same language. Born from what they need to say (to keep up with the market) versus what people need to hear (based on their psychology).

Never was this more apparent than with Christmas 2016…


The Christmas Language Experiment

We looked at the market and from November 1st 2016 the onslaught started. One by one each retailer hit the market with communications all largely in the same place, positioning Christmas as either unachievably aspirational or uninspiringly functional.

Fig 1: Plotting the market

Waitrose – (At Christmas, there’s nothing quite like Waitrose), Tesco – (Bring it on), Sainsbury’s (The greatest gift), Morrisons (Morrisons makes it), Debenhams (Found it for a fabulous Christmas), Lidl (Amazing everyday), House Of Fraser (Christmas is coming for you), Argos (Just can’t wait), John Lewis (For a Christmas That Everyone Will Love) etc..

What’s interesting about this is the psychology these campaigns appeal to. If all marketing is, is demand generation, then these campaigns demanded the generation of what can only be described as a ‘Hollywood Christmas’. From the visual to the verbal, everything we consumed featured glistening turkeys, oh so pullable crackers, hordes of exquisitely wrapped presents under the tree…and ofcourse the picture-perfect children enjoying their lovingly and carefully selected presents.

But what do people really need from Brands at Christmas? We thought we’d find out.

Using RAID® (Rapid Audience Insights Diagnostic – Verbalisation’s proprietary IP) we listened to and psychologically analysed a sample of 250 ABC1, 25 – 34 yr old mums using RAID’s 24 psychological parameters. The questions included things like:

“If you had to describe your experience of Christmas shopping to a friend, which 3 phrases would you use?”

“Please choose the sentence that best describes the way you make decisions when Christmas shopping.”

“What are the top 3 words you think of relating to Christmas shopping?”

And the results were really quite revealing, In the case of our Christmas shoppers, the majority just wanted to get the job done.

Among our survey respondents, we identified that groups had similar lexical cues when thinking about Christmas shopping, but interpreted the same stimulus differently. For example, two respondent’s answered:

‘Queue’ – “…just the buzz in the shops” (+)

‘Queue’ – “…everywhere is always so busy” (-)

Overall Christmas was consistently framed as a stressful experience but people’s perception of the stress was either

Positive: Choice – Deciding what to buy people

Value – Getting what I need for the best price

Fun – Deciding what to buy people and wrapping presents.


Negative: Stress – Hassle

Busy – Everyone last minute

Expensive – Too much money

So…why does this matter?

But who are they? If we were to take ourselves out of retail land and into the real world we hear that people need help. They’re anxious. They’re time poor. They’re cost conscious. They’re worried about not living up to unrealistic expectations.

This all sounds quite stressful doesn’t it?

To be clear it’s not that these people are Grinches, or hate Christmas…if anything they just want to enjoy it more. But if you’re stressed and worried about not delivering the perfect Christmas for your family, is an advert or a hashtag about a picture perfect, joyful Christmas what you want to see? Doesn’t it just compound that stress?

The good news is language can help alleviate this angst. Understanding people and pattern matching their psychology can help answer an unmet need, cut through the clutter and make communications more effective whilst driving brand differentiation. To prove it we took the Pepsi challenge. So we developed a more empathetic Verbal Strategy (a new brand essencepower wordkey verbal and complimentary lexicon), based around relieving the stress of last-minute Christmas shopping. The language of help (not holly).

Fig 2. The new Christmas Verbal Strategy

Not a jingle bell in ear shot.

And because RAID® revealed these “last minute panic wrappers” are really just looking for some help (and because it was Christmas after all..) we put our new Christmas language to the test by creating www.xmaspresentsolver.com

Developed in just 24 hours, the smoke test service was designed to take the stress out of Christmas shopping by suggesting gifts for the ‘hard to buy for’. We launched two versions of the site, with the same product, process and visuals, but using different verbal strategies. One with the market standard of a picture perfect Christmas – the other with our new language of Christmas. We then fueled the site with Google PPC to ensure the cleanest attribution to prove effectiveness and watched as eager online shoppers signed up to our beta email service.

Fig 3. Campaign creative

And the results…?

Our new language of Christmas was:

+260% more effective at generating visits to site (impressions to clicks).

+17% more effective at converting visits to sign-ups (clicks to sign-ups).

327% more effective when optimised for the same impressions.


It seems Christmas doesn’t need sugar coating. Infact here’s 6 things retailers can do to improve their 2017 Christmas campaign:

1)   Brands can immediately reach an extra 18% of the market by empathising with this ‘Last-minute panic wrapper’ audience.

2)   Brands can cut through, create more engagement and deliver a better ROI by matching an audience’s language and psychology with a clear Verbal Strategy.

3)   Brave brands should step away from the traditional Christmas approach by speaking in a more honest, realistic way.

4)   Christmas is about coping. Brands can address people’s emotional needs, not just financial ones.

5)   Christmas messages should be loaded with service and product messages. Reassuring stressed shoppers about service and ease is a necessity.

6)   Retailers will benefit from a more scientific and empathetic approach. Switching to behaviour-change techniques will create more varied, relevant and useful conversations with consumers.


Today the social web dictates that brands are built and burnt by conversation, so it’s never been more important to understand and differentiate your brand through language. Decoding an audience’s psychology through the language they use allows marketers to create a far more powerful and disruptive level of empathy. From here they can encode new language and behaviours which in a cluttered market place, helps them mean more to more.

So perhaps something to think about when you’re planning your Valentine’s, Easter, Summer, Bank Holiday, Back to School or indeed 2017 Christmas retail campaigns. And if you’re interested in talking to everyone here at Verbalisation about how we could help please do get in touch. We’d be delighted to hear from you.

Here’s to a stress free 2017!

For more info on our Retail work please contact:

nick.tate@verbalisation.com / verbalisation.com

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