#TheManOnTheMoon - why 'feel good' works

By Jon Young

When I was growing up, the harbinger of Christmas was either Noddy Holder bellowing down the radio, or people moaning that M&S have already started selling mince pies.  But for the last few years, this mantle has been held by the feel-good adverts of John Lewis - #ManOnTheMoon their latest installment. We do a fair bit of ad evaluation at BDRC, so we thought we’d give our two pennies on why we think John Lewis ads are so successful, and (perhaps) why others should be wary of going down the same path.

Why it’s so successful:

1) What’s in it for them? Our research demonstrates that ‘feel-good’ marketing does have a positive impact on brand use and warmth.  Its success is broadly explained by behavioural economics - if a person or brand makes you feel good, you are more likely to have positive associations with them.  When faced with (a sometimes overwhelming) choice of who to use, you naturally bend their way.  Imagine yourself on Oxford Street during Christmas week – inhaling exhaust fumes, dodging irritable shoppers, and a sense of panic that you still haven’t bought anything for your Nan.  Where, in that split-second, do you choose?  John Lewis of course – the place that the primitive, instinctive part of your brain tells you is a ‘safe place’.

2) Why does 'feel good' advertising feel so good?  In recent years, behavioural economics understanding has been built on by non-conscious, evolutionary driver. Led by books such as ‘The Rational Animal’, this discipline presents seven drivers of human behaviour - friendship, mate acquisition, mate retention, status-seeking, disease avoidance, self-protection and kin care.  Christmas is associated with at least four of these, and the latest John Lewis advert has clear associations with kin care and affiliation.

3) Social (media) values:  The explosion of feel-good marketing has been accompanied by a rise in ‘social media values’. I’ve heard it referred to as ‘clicktivism’ – where people share positive social media posts to promote their own personal brand (or status).  Whether this represents a rise in charitable behaviour is beside the point (DCMS donations and volunteering stats suggest it hasn’t) ‘clicktivism’ provides a great opportunity for brands to make their adverts go viral.  My Facebook newsfeed this morning was awash with references to John Lewis.

Warnings from our research:

4) I feel good but so what?  Recent research we conducted here at BDRC shows that feel-good isn’t always the answer. Our Social Media Impact report demonstrates that social media posts that provide ‘useful’ and ‘interesting’ information are most likely to drive brand use and satisfaction.  ‘Inspiring’ and ‘entertaining’ posts are of secondary importance.  Feel-good without a tangible product may give positive emotions, but conversion to brand use will be less likely.  This is less a problem for John Lewis than brands with a lesser-known product offering.  So it’s worth considering awareness levels of your product before going down the feel-good route.

5) There’s a time and a place.  The application of evolutionary psychology isn’t one size fits all.   Research shows that different evolutionary needs will be triggered at different times.  Christmas and dark winter nights are conducive to campaigns that promote friendship, kin care and safety.  But balmy summer-evenings tie in more with status and a desire to stand out from the crowd.  The circumstances around the campaign are all-important.

So that’s a starter for ten, or five to be precise. We'd love it if you added to the debate - do get in touch. In the meantime, 'Merry Christmas'!

Our opinions