Brands reap rewards for being brave about hard times

Jan Gooding: brands reap rewards for being brave about hard times
The viral Christmas ad for Charlie's Bar in Enniskillen.

What can we learn from the recent ad for Charlie’s Bar in Enniskillen about how ads can reflect the mood of a nation and tackle difficult subjects?

One of the great challenges of brand communication is keeping in step with our customers.

Finding a way to be relevant by showing how our brand can help them to solve problems in a way that creates emotional affinity in the moment. Demonstrating that we are uniquely on the side of our customers, reflecting their values and making their everyday lives a little bit brighter as a result.

As we approach this Christmas, such an important period for retailers, the gap between real world events and traditional glossy ads has become wider than ever.

That’s why I knew the moment I saw the ad for a pub called Charlie’s Bar in Enniskillen appear in my social-media feed last week that it was a hit.

Cutting though in a way so many other brands have failed to do.

Starting in a graveyard strikes a chord

Neither was I surprised when it travelled from social media into mainstream media. And as so many great brand ads often do, it has done positive things for the whole pub sector, as well as itself.

In addition, Guinness will be delighted to find themselves as the bereaved man’s drink of choice, presumably without having spent a penny in product placement fees.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it’s worth dwelling on why this ad has resonated so perfectly this year. Particularly as it begins in a graveyard with an old man laying flowers.

Not many ads start with death.

Having worked in insurance, I know what a tricky subject it is to navigate without causing upset. I was personally involved in the fallout when Aviva made some idents to support our sponsorship of ITV drama and were heavily criticised for showing a man crashing a motorcycle and not making it clear quickly enough whether he had survived or not.

Stacey Dooley’s latest documentary, Inside the Undertakers, and has been praised by viewers for taking the topic of death head on precisely because it’s a subject we tend to avoid.

However, 2023 has been a year in which we have been compelled to bear witness to the horror of conflict to an extraordinary degree.

Gone are the days when news editors shielded us from the worst of it. Now we are exposed to the raw reality hour by hour as the consequences of military violence play out on our screens. It’s impossible not to empathise with the grief of strangers.

Starting the ad with a bereaved man’s personal sorrow tunes into the mood of the nation.

Loneliness is acute at Christmas

We are shown him walking through Enniskillen, an ordinary town in Northern Ireland, as other people go about their lives and ignore him. It’s not malicious, it’s just how life is. We all do it every day. So wrapped up in our own thoughts that we are simply unaware of other people.

The loneliness in this narrative is attached to being older, but the truth is that everyone can relate to it regardless of age.

Research by Ipsos earlier this year found that more 37% of British adults felt very, or fairly, lonely, rising to 59% among those aged 18-24.

We then arrive at Charlie’s Bar, a family-owned pub. For the first time our bereaved man is at last acknowledged by a couple entering the premises, who wait for him to go in before they do. A publican brings him his pint of Guinness. The camera takes us around the Christmas decorations, the warm fire and the words of the soulful Ballard by Birdy reach us:

People help the people

And if you’re homesick, give me your hand

and I’ll hold it

People help the people

And nothing will drag you down

The mood and lyrics of the music are where we are. Our hearts are heavy. There is immense suffering and grief all around us, and yet it is people who can make all the difference by providing companionship and comfort.

In the story we watch first of all as the little dog belonging to the couple hops up next to him. Soon followed by his owners who choose to sit down with him at the table. ‘There are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t yet met. WB Yeats’ comes up on screen. And there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

Apparently made on an iPhone for £700, the ad has a homemade feel that adds to its authenticity. However, I don’t underestimate the significance of that level of investment for the pub in question, and I am so delighted for them that this incredibly effective ad has so firmly put them on the map.

No doubt making them a new destination for tourists visiting the area. No doubt ordering a Guinness.

Times are hard for brands too

Whilst admiring their good fortune it’s worth reflecting on what the rest of us can learn from the success of this hard-working ad.

Some brands have mirrored the economic hardship their customers are experiencing by demonstrably tightening their own belts.

The British Heart Foundation and Cadbury’s made a virtue out of the necessity of squeezed budget and reused their 2022 ad. Likewise, Iceland pulled out of TV completely with their executive charman explaining that they preferred to invest in low pricing.

The truth is that customers are unlikely to give you credit for spending less on marketing because you are prioritising other things over it.

Ironically, those brands still have to find a way to communicate what they are doing. They must envy the unpaid media coverage achieved by Charlie’s Bar.

Going viral for the wrong reasons

M&S managed to get themselves into trouble twice with their provocation to chuck out the traditional bits of Christmas you don’t like and stick to those you enjoy.

Firstly, with those who decided that the imagery of red, green and silver paper hats being burnt in a fire grate too closely resembled the colours of the Palestinian flag.

Having swiftly apologised and removed the offending sequence from any subsequent versions of the ad, they were soon in hot water for a second time.

This time with Katharine Birbalsingh, the founder of Michaela Community school in Wembley, who took to X to share a letter of complaint she had written to express her ‘deep disappointment and outrage’ that M&S had failed in their duty to ‘keep the spirit of Christmas alive for the sake of the children.’

In her opinion, the ad encouraged people to ‘do whatever we want for ourselves’ rather than embracing the traditional values of ‘self-sacrifice, gratitude and helping one’s fellow man’.

Brands ignore the context in which they are operating with economic stagnation, culture wars, political malaise and the existential threat of the climate emergency at their peril.

People seem to be looking to their brands for strong values and are increasingly angry when they don’t find them.

In a world full of sadness and financial hardship, Charlie’s Bar tuned into their customers’ need for a little hope and simple human kindness.

Jan Gooding is one of the UK’s best-known brand marketers, having worked with Aviva, BT, British Gas, Diageo and Unilever. She is now an executive coach, chair of PAMCo and Given. She writes for The Media Leader each month.

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