Off Target: The Difference Between Branding and Retail Sameness

Brand Strategy

Off Target: The Difference between Branding and Retail Sameness

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Bill Winchester


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It’s that time of the year where retailers make about 20 percent of their yearly sales, as the National Retail Federation likes to tell us. So it’s also the time of year when the competition becomes akin to a Black Friday sale, with brands each trying to butt in line to get to us, the consumer.

All this jockeying for position often exposes some fundamental thinking at the brand level.

Do you go for functional or emotional?

How true are you to your brand and how distinctive are you?

Does the advertising just blur into the vast retail sameness or do retailers just want to sell us some shit?

There are some basic emotional themes to the holidays that brands can’t ignore.

  1. Kids and toys. Kids are incredibly excitable at the holidays, and toys are the currency. The pressure is on parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts to deliver the big smile and joyful moment. It’s the one time of year that you have to be up on what’s the hot thing.
  2. It’s all about families gathering. This creates a bunch of emotions and truths that are probably best exposed in the classic National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. You have a romanticized notion of the family gathering but the truth is hiding underneath. Advertising does well to say on the right side of this equation, although some really good ads have been done by exploiting the truth—that you don’t always like your extended family.
  3. If retailers get 20 percent of their sales at the holidays, then a significant amount of money comes out of consumers’ pockets at the holidays. This causes some angst.
  4. Black Friday. The mayhem isn’t limited to Black Friday. Just go the mall and try to find a parking place or stand in line trying to buy something. And this leads to Cyber Monday and the world that Amazon owns and makes every other retailer sweaty.

So let’s take a look at some commercials and see what and how everyone is doing:


Target is leaning on toys and doing a pretty good job of showing all the grandparents the hot items for the holidays. And let’s not forget that there’s influence on the kids to want all the stuff that’s in the commercial.

Target’s operating with a pretty strong piece of iconography with Bullseye the dog that comes on right at the beginning of the commercial so you know you’re watching a Target ad. Ahhhh, the power of iconography. The entire commercial is virtually a walk through the toy aisle including the house the kids walk up to is the dollhouse that’s exclusively from the Magnolia Hearth & Hand stuff ($129.00 if you’re wondering).


Walmart has taken somewhat the same tack but put a Walmart spin on it. While a bunch of kids opening packages in not a conceptual triumph, the music “Whoomp (There it is),” does provide some interest.

The commercial really pivots on the joy of kids at the holidays and Walmart knows its consumers are price sensitive so their spin is a price rollback on toys. Smart.

The second Walmart commercial also uses a nice music track “I’ll take you there,” by the Staple Sisters and talks about helping people get through the lines. A very functional and tactical message, but again, the music pulls it through.


Kohls, while not the powerhouse that Walmart and Target are, is nonetheless in the running. Their commercial dredges up the battle of the holidays with people rushing at each other like some Braveheart battle.

While there are presents exchanged the overall emotion is, to my mind, a little negative. It ends with a little girl saying, “But we didn’t get you anything.” Not to worry, you get “Kohl’s cash.”

I suppose this plays on the worry people have about spending money and the faulty logic of “the more you spend the more you save.” It just seems like there could have been a better creative execution.


And then there’s Amazon, the 900-pound gorilla that makes all the other retailers sweat. This commercial is a bunch of singing smiling boxes leaving the Amazon shipping facility and ending up with a little girl in some, I assume, remote place. I just don’t know if :30 seconds of singing boxes is really a holiday thing but if Amazon has any brand icon, it’s the box.

The music track “Give a little bit” somehow almost pulls it through, but the overall emotion the ad is trying to convey falls short.

John Lewis

And then there’s John Lewis. While it’s not a US retailer, advertising folks always look forward to their commercial like opening a nice package. This year’s ad features Moz the Monster, an invention of the brand itself (or, since the author of “Mr. Underbed” is accusing them of plagiarism, an invention of author, Chris Riddell), which allows them to exclusively sell books, plush toys, mugs, PJs and slippers.

It’s typically British, in that it’s two minutes long and the selling is done in the story not in a voiceover. To invent an exclusive toy is risky, because if it bombs, well, it bombs. But they have a pretty good record of success.

Battling retail sameness around the holidays is a challenge. These are all different, so who’s winner in all of this? You’ll decide when you put all the gifts under the tree and figure out where most of them came from.

Bill Winchester


Has actually won a bagpiping contest.

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