“2020 has been quite a year,” goes the common refrain. The sentiment is one we can all connect to on some level; the seemingly endless year has been nothing if not out of the ordinary. Practically overnight, the way we conduct business, celebrate events, and visit friends has drastically changed. There’s an appetite for the ordinary, for the familiar. We miss it, sometimes fearing it may never return. We crave normality every time we adjust our hot facemasks or air-hug a friend.
Advertising, too, is caught in a strange no-man’s land right now when it comes to how to depict our new normal (or indeed whether we should at all!).
As a creative director at an Adweek Top100 agency, navigating the details of how and whether or not to embrace the full reality of 2020 in a tasteful and responsible way has become a familiar struggle, one in which it’s easy to lose sight of the primary goal: how can we make people connect emotionally with what we’re selling?
In times as fraught as these, perhaps we should be thinking about ways in which we can reach into consumers’ hearts and their warm memories of a more normal time, and bring our products and services along in a way that feels respectful and positive.
Think back to the classic Folgers’ Christmas-themed commercials, starting in 1986 with “Peter Comes Home for Christmas,” and rebooted in 2009 with a very similar-themed spot featuring a brother and sister. If you recall the original commercial, which ran for an impressive 17 years, it’s likely you mostly remember it the same way I do: the pre-sunrise dim light and snow-muted quiet of an unlit house as Peter’s cab pulls away…the dark still of an unawakened home’s foyer lit only by the first rays of morning streaming through the shutters, before the Christmas tree bathes the room in a warm glow.
The quiet, tip-toe, “let them sleep” darkness captured so cinematically in the first 20 seconds of the spot taps into the kinds of memories that we all make in the most serene moments throughout our lives. Moments we experience are often captured in silent vignettes in our minds—snapshots of a feeling, an association with something comforting or pleasant. As soon as the commercial has given us a chance to connect with, to feel these timeless moments, we see a beautiful shot of a perfect stream of brown coffee catching the golden glow of the progressing sun before filling the carafe, the perfect wisp of steam floating up, carrying the aromas that will gently coax Peter’s parents upstairs, unaware of his surprise arrival, from their peaceful sleep. This product shot, literally halfway through the commercial, is an invitation to enjoy the coffee with the family, to revel in the joy of the touching reunion that follows. By spending some valuable screen time with the audience first and tapping into fond impressions and feelings of moments and experiences we can relate to, the commercial has offered us a brief respite from the realities of our current lives, and has practically given us no choice but to take a vicarious whiff of the coffee that has been served to us as a welcome guest in the family’s home.
This commercial was a timeless holiday staple on TV for nearly two decades, after which it gracefully retired with “classic” status. Never “old,” and never “outdated,” it still strikes the same emotional chords today as it did 34 years ago. What we felt for that commercial, for the product, we brought to the table ourselves. The creative minds that brought Peter home that Christmas went out of their way with purposely-unremarkable wardrobe and art direction in order to strip away “the current,” and to focus on the feelings of memories that hang in our minds as timeless and pleasant as the smell of freshly brewed coffee on a snowy morning. In the first 30 seconds of nostalgia-stoking imagery, they painted a picture borrowing years of our own pleasant associations, and thus offered us a warm, cozy, somehow familiar spot on the couch where we would gladly accept the cup of coffee they offered.
There’s a lesson to be learned here among 2020’s whirlwind of natural disasters, political firestorms and economic uncertainty. Perhaps if we can think about where our viewers want to be, even if just for a moment—someplace familiar and peaceful—we can connect with them in the places where they have been, and where they hope to be again soon. If we can use our talents in creative storytelling to go to those nostalgic places and extend a warm and genuine invitation, and then respectfully present our product as a welcome and natural part of that experience, we can build those most valuable brand associations of trust and familiarity by tapping into feelings of calm and normalcy that our audience already carries with them. By offering consumers something of indisputable value first—a brief vacation from the “decade” we call 2020—we may just find them in a better, more receptive mood to consider that we have something else to offer them during the time they’ll give us in return.
Biography – Ricky began private art lessons at age 8, his production career at 14, and has pursued both passions without interruption ever since. After a Bachelor’s in graphic design and graduate school in 3D computer animation, Ricky began his professional career in advertising in 2002, producing state of the art motion graphics/animation for a number of production companies and traditional ad agencies, honing the skills to corner the market on authentic, persuasive visual communication. Ricky’s relationship with Bluewater has grown from vendor in 2006, to strategic partner in 2010, to Partner/Creative Director by 2020, where he now lends his experience to help guide all visual and idea teams.