The festive season represents a major sales peak for many brands and sectors, including retailers, food and drink companies, games and toys manufacturers and toiletries and fragrance brands.
For some, the six- to eight-week pre-Christmas period can account for as much as half their sales. Many, understandably, concentrate much of their advertising spend in the same few weeks, arguing causality. As Nestle Rowntree director of marketing Andrew Harrison says: "We couldn't not advertise at Christmas ... and we don't need to advertise After Eights and Quality Street all year round."
But while many brands used to advertise solely at Christmas, there is a major shift away from seasonality. Media clutter is growing worse, making it difficult to achieve stand-out and, amid growing competition, brands are finding they have to keep reminding consumers they are there at key points throughout the year.
Companies are starting to think more laterally in terms of creating other 'occasions' during the year to focus their promotional activities around.
Many drinks brands, for example, traditionally consumed most heavily at Christmas, are seeking to extend 'drinking occasions'.
Allied Domecq has repositioned Tia Maria, a drink historically heavily skewed toward Christmas, as a year-round mixable spirit aimed at young people. And Woolworths, which used to focus a substantial proportion of its advertising on Christmas, now spends half of its annual ad budget pushing the brand at other key trading periods, such as Easter and September.
But many firms still seem wedded to the idea of Christmas advertising.
Simon Kohler, marketing manager of toy maker Hornby, says: "We focus our advertising round Christmas because our customers expect it. If we suddenly stopped they would be horrified."
Christmas seems to be an easy hit for some firms and they should arguably be thinking more creatively about what, how and when they advertise. They could do worse than take a leaf out of some of the charities' books, where necessity is the mother of invention when it comes to getting value for money from the ad budget.
The Samaritans used to run awareness campaigns over Christmas and New Year on the grounds that emotional distress increases when the festive bubble has burst. But while the charity enjoys 96% brand recognition, people still associate it with suicide. "Our vision is to get to people earlier down the line, that being the best way to save lives," says a spokesman. "We also want to remove the stigma attached to emotional health. We have embraced a more strategic approach in order to get to the root of the problem."
The main campaign will run until May, with the emphasis on getting people to reconsider their views about emotional health.
David Fletcher, head of research at Mediaedge:CIA, says it takes courage to 'de-seasonalise' brands - "particularly in a tough year when your priority is to protect your core sales period as budgets are under such pressure."
De-seasonalising is not just about tinkering with the advertising, but involves challenging everything - the proposition, the packaging and the production process.
"To advertise out of season is almost a new product development issue," Fletcher says. "But you are likely to need a different consumer proposition to stimulate demand at different times of the year."
Guinness did it with Extra Cold, of course, and the confectionery companies have done it with chocolate-branded ice creams.
But if Mediaedge:CIA research is anything to go by, the days when advertisers could rest on their Christmas laurels are over.
The agency predicts that British manufacturers and retailers are in for a nasty shock this Christmas.
Chastened by job losses, dwindling investments and pensions, combined with major expenditure on their homes, British consumers are set to rein in their Christmas spending significantly this year.
TOP 20 CHRISTMAS ADVERTISERS
The top 20 brands to be advertised on ITV1 from December 24 to 26
Harveys Soft Furniture
AFTER EIGHT AND QUALITY STREET
Sales of After Eight and Quality Street, two of Nestle Rowntree's key brands, soar in the pre-Christmas period. "One or two months of media performance deliver the lion's share of all our sales," says director of marketing Andrew Harrison. "We invest 70% to 80% of our annual media spend during that period, which drives most of our brand volume, so we don't need to advertise all year round - nor would we get anything like the same returns." There are traditions in chocolate buying, says Harrison, "and you have to ride those when you can." Easter, Valentine's Day and Mother's Day are important, but because Christmas is the 'big one' for many chocolate brands, "We couldn't not advertise then," he says. "If you don't have a strong seasonal presence you will lose market share to the competition." Yet while marketers should gratefully play the cards they are dealt, that shouldn't exclude clever marketing at other times of the year, concedes Harrison. "We have effectively brought Christmas forward two months by launching Big Quality Street sweets - though those admittedly play on our seasonal strength. We ran another campaign around the World Cup, which was very successful."
The After Eight 'Anything Goes' campaign by J Walter Thompson broke in mid-October, and the Quality Street 'Quality Moments' ad by Lowe two weeks later. There was then a hiatus before a burst in December.
Harrison says: "Christmas is getting later every year as supply chains become more efficient. Retailers carry less inventory and pass it through the system faster, so there is less stock build in early November and the rush comes later and later."
But, he concludes, having a seasonal brand is not something most marketers would choose. "I'd love to be able to advertise After Eights all year round and I suspect Cadbury feels the same about Creme Eggs. People try to break seasonality, but for the most part it doesn't work. At the end of the day some products are seasonal; you can't get away from the fact."
PAXO AND BISTO
Sales of Paxo and Bisto, both owned by Centura Foods, peak at Christmas.
Eighty per cent of Bisto's £2m ad budget is spent in the six weeks leading up to Christmas - and drives between a third and a half of the brand's annual sales. More than a quarter of Paxo's annual sales are achieved in the four weeks before Christmas, but the brand doesn't advertise, focusing its promotional efforts instead at in-store activity designed, says brand manager Mary Keates, to ensure "people trip over us when they go around the supermarket."
Not only are stuffing and gravy seasonal products, both brands operate in the declining family dining market. Despite their different promotional strategies, both have joined together with other brands, including Coleman's, Birds Eye Wall's, the Meat and Livestock Commission, the British Potato Council and New Wave Wines, in a bid to bring the British roasting season forward in the Centura-led 'Roast Britannia' campaign.
Now in its second year, Roast Britannia runs between mid-September and mid-October and features promotions and cross-couponing that allow customers to send off for free recipe books incorporating the member brands' products.
This year there was a door drop to two million people and The Sun ran a week-long Get Britain Roasting campaign.
The campaign is valuable in itself, says Bisto brand manager Jon Burton, but is also a useful reminder to customers with Christmas just around the corner. "Christmas is the time when people tend to trade up to brands," says Burton.
THE DRINK DRIVE CAMPAIGN
Drink-drive ads have been around for about 25 years and have become associated with Christmas, that being the time when people are most likely to drink and take risks on the road. The fact that road deaths and injuries are falling suggests the campaign has been successful, but it may have become a victim of its own success. "People seem to think the rest of the year is relatively safe, when in fact more people are killed and injured during the fine light summer months," says Tony Allsworth, head of publicity at the Department for Transport (DfT).
Drink-drive advertisements now appear at other times of the year: they were on the radio during the World Cup when pubs were open all hours. "We need to keep the message at the front of people's minds," says Allsworth. "Brand awareness is as important for a life-saving campaign like ours as it is for a bit of enjoyment."
The DfT is focusing much of its additional effort on younger drivers, who are the most likely to be driving while under the influence. For the first time the 'Christmas' campaign ('Think', created by D'Arcy) will run through to March on Pubsports TV.
Another first this year is the link with the Rugby Football League to get the message across in the North-West. The Drink Drive Campaign sponsored the RFL's New Zealand tour test series with 'Think: don't drink drive' emblazoned on players' shirts and perimeter hoardings during the first three weeks of November.
"We're not spending much more this year than we have in the past, despite the additional activity," says Allsworth. "We are just thinking more laterally about how we use our budgets."
The DfT spends £2m on the Drink Drive campaign, more than half of it at Christmas.
Sony PlayStation produces new games throughout the year, but concentrates around £10m - one third of its total advertising spend - in the run-up to Christmas. But while Christmas is the peak selling period, Sony Computer Entertainment is consciously trying to break the seasonal cycle in a bid to smooth sales patterns.
According to UK marketing manager Alan Duncan: "On the positive side we drive more hardware sales through our software messages at this time of year and launching several big games drives footfall and PlayStation's share of overall entertainment media. But conversely, your share of voice is smaller at Christmas, the media is cluttered with software propositions, it is harder to achieve 'event' status and it is more expensive. What's more, there is less shelf space available per title - and because in-store staff are busier, they have less time to make recommendations - though that, of course, may be a good thing."
And critically, PlayStation has found that by concentrating its launches in the pre-Christmas crush, it has cannibalised sales of its own products.
"Christmas used to be the time when you'd get your biggest and best products out, but there is so much competition now that we are looking for more spread because we are shouting for share of voice," says Duncan.
This year, the launch of pillar title 'Primal' was moved out of the Christmas period to February and football and Formula One games launches were moved to the start of their respective seasons on the sporting calendar. As well as avoiding competitive clutter the strategy affords a longer potential sales period - the entire F1 or football season, for example. In July 2001 PlayStation launched 'Gran Turismo', a drive simulation game, against the conventional wisdom that nothing sells in the summer. "It is still the definitive game in its genre," says Duncan.
The Edrington Group spends around 80% of the total £3m advertising budget for Famous Grouse whisky on TV and outdoor in November and December, a period that yields 40% of the brand's sales. People stock up on drinks and socialise more at Christmas, and whisky is a popular gift. PR manager Tara Serafini says: "People who only buy one bottle of whisky a year buy it at Christmas. There is high consumption in both the on- and off-trade during this period and we want to make sure our brand is front of mind."
While its distinctive and humorous advertising seems guaranteed to do that, Famous Grouse needs to advertise at other times of year to maintain awareness. For example, at key times in the sporting calendar - such as the Six Nations rugby tournament in February and March - press ads appear in the sports sections of the national dailies and specialist sports magazines such as Rugby World.
There is also a campaign in Scottish media in July to support 'The Famous Grouse Experience' at its visitor centre in Crieff during the peak tourist period. The company made the mistake of ditching the summer campaign in 1999, instead bringing forward the Christmas campaign to October to coincide with the Rugby World Cup. Brand awareness fell so sharply that the exercise has not been repeated.