Behind the Idea: How the Sainsbury's 2020 Christmas Ads came to life

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Six years ago, Sainsbury's made one of the most unforgettable and compelling ads in the history of advertising. 1914 is quite easily one of the best Christmas ads ever made, showing the power of stories bringing people together – even in hardship.

Since then, Sainsbury's has continued the trend and has kept producing incredible ads every year. This 2020 couldn't be different, and with shocking simplicity, Gravy SongPerfect Portions and Big Sarnie fit easily in the top 10 of this year's Christmas campaigns. So popular that the most racist part of the UK has evidently felt the need to voice their opinions and boycott such beautiful messages of union and love. Which, especially during a global pandemic, is something that truly speaks for itself.

Not knowing what could possibly have gone wrong in the wiring of those simple minds, we loved the three ads and decided to dig deeper into them. For this Behind the Idea, we are learning by the folks at Wieden + Kennedy everything about the Sainsbury's Christmas Campaign, including what was the spark of genius that brought the ads to life.

What was the brief?

Back in July it was hard to imagine exactly what Christmas would look like but we knew it would be different to previous years. With that in mind we wanted to steer clear of the ‘Christmas epic’ (it just didn’t feel appropriate) but also not to linger on the differences this year’s Christmas might hold. Instead, we started with the thing we knew would always be true, no matter what - Christmas food has the power to take us home, no matter where we are.

How did the initial pitch/brainstorming phase go?

We went on a bit of a journey together with the client. As we had delayed the brief because of the pandemic, we didn’t know how the year would play out. So when we did start the process in August (some agencies begin Christmas development in January) we were working to extremely tight deadlines, everything was compressed. We knew we had to work hard to find the right story that would resonate in this strange year. So we did a lot of searching before we found THE route.

Tell us more about the concept. How did it come to life, and why was it the right choice?

The concept - of capturing intimate conversations between loved ones reminiscing about food at Christmas - came to life during our creative exploration phase. We were all aware that 2020 was a pretty different place to any Christmas that had gone before. We knew we had to find something that was sensitive to the feeling of the country, answered the brief of putting food first and made people feel something. We’d looked into all kinds of alternatives, from epic journeys to fantastical performances, but when the creative team wrote the first iteration of the idea, everyone felt it. And when you feel an idea, it’s usually your instinct telling you it’s right.  

The challenge was creating an advert that brought a smile to viewers' faces, whilst making sure to be sensitive to the fact that how we spend Christmas is so uncertain this year. It was important for us to focus on family connections and emotions and the power of food, creating a relatable and heartfelt look at the memories Christmas brings, whilst providing a sense of optimism throughout.

What was the production process like? What was the biggest challenge?

Our biggest challenge was time - we only had 8 weeks to produce three ads which meant every stage of production was tight. We shot all three films in October and had a matter of days to work on the edit, post, sound. Our production timelines were so compressed we were working to the wire on all three films. 

It took an incredible amount of hard work from every single person, client, agency and production company to get these films made. 

What is one funny or notable thing that happened during the production of the campaign?

The third film in the series, and my personal favourite, features two young boys watching a strong man show and eating big Boxing Day sarnies. Part of our ambition for the films was to capture small moments of lip sync (we have them in all three films) and if you watch Big Sarnie closely you’ll see a strong man lip sync “MEGA!” on the TV. This meant we had to cast and shoot a guy just lifting weights, bricks and pulling ropes, all for this one magical easter egg. I love the attention to detail our directors went to at every stage of the process, but this was a personal highlight.

What’s the main message of the campaign and why does it matter?

The main message is that Christmas food has the power to transport you back home. To memories of Christmasses of the past, memories of family and loved ones. This really matters in a year when we’ve never been more apart. Food can bring us together. 

What is one unique aspect of the campaign?

It’s a bit niche, but one unique aspect of the campaign is that all of the footage we captured was filmed on period correct cameras. Nothing was faked. From 8mm, 16mm, VHS, Mini DV, 32mm, old school iPhones, vintage point and click disposable film cameras, everything you see was shot on the correct camera for the time. We weren’t ever going to make it easy for ourselves. 

How long did it take from inception to delivery?

We had just eight weeks to produce the three films, half the time we usually have to produce just one Christmas epic!

What do you hope it achieves for the brand?

I hope that the campaign provokes people to reminisce about their own Christmas memories. And some of that warm sentiment of good times around food, transfers to how people feel about our brand. Sainsbury’s has always been a business run by people that care about people, we feel that this year they’re sharing some human truths that we’re all feeling together.

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