Retail Week Columns

How we made the most successful Christmas ad ever

In the battle of the festive ads, Iceland’s ‘Rang-tan’ film captured the public imagination and created a storm online. Sir Malcolm Walker reveals how it came about.

It’s the question everyone keeps asking me: how did Iceland come to make the most successful Christmas TV ad of all time?

Because with 70 million views and counting online, more than 1 million people signing a petition to have it shown on TV, and marketing gurus falling over themselves to pronounce it the most ‘persuasive’ and ‘effective’ ad of 2018, there seems little doubt that Iceland’s ‘Rang-tan’ has earned this title.

All this with zero spend on airtime, too.

Of course, we didn’t actually make the ad – and therein lay our problem. We’ve had a cordial if sometimes challenging relationship with Greenpeace for decades.

In the late 1990s, they endorsed our Kyoto range of environmentally friendly fridges and freezers and advised us on our pioneering ban on genetically modified ingredients.

I famously sent the much-missed Greenpeace executive director Peter Melchett an Iceland cake containing a large file when he was jailed for trashing a field of GM maize – thereby discovering that the prison authorities did not share my sense of humour.

My son Richard’s passion around tropical deforestation drove our decision earlier this year to remove palm oil from Iceland’s own-label food, in the face of acute scepticism from many colleagues.

When Richard showed me the Greenpeace ‘Rang-tan’ animation this summer it blew me away, and it seemed certain to have the same effect on viewers if we could borrow it as our main Christmas ad, helping to raise awareness of this critical issue.

We saw this as an opportunity to outdo John Lewis in the emotive Christmas campaign department – and so it has proved, though not how we’d intended.

Anyone who suspects we always knew the ad would be ‘banned’, and that it was all a Machiavellian plot to gain free publicity has clearly never met our head of PR.

Believe me, he is definitely not that clever – or devious.

We’re not perfect, but we are sincere – and by removing Greenpeace’s branding from the animation and adding our own, we were assured that it stood a good chance of being cleared for broadcast.

It was discussed for weeks before airing was ruled impossible. Leading us to experience an avalanche of positive publicity the like of which I have not seen in all of Iceland’s 48-year history.

Ah, but any retailer will only ask one thing: what has it done for sales?

It’s certainly helped to shift the 50,000 Rang-tan cuddly toys we bought to accompany the ad; they sold out within hours of arriving in-store. Though as we’re giving all the profits to an orang-utan sanctuary, this delivers no benefit to our bottom line.

As for food – well, it is far too early to say how Christmas will turn out, but like all high street retailers we’re conscious that footfall is under pressure and consumers are finally being affected by Brexit-related uncertainty. Small wonder, with the Government looking on the brink of collapse and no obvious alternative leadership being offered by the opposition.

We’ve successfully removed palm oil from nearly all our own-label Christmas range and it will have gone completely by the end of the year. So if you’ve been moved by the plight of Rang-tan and want a palm-oil-free mince pie, you’ve simply got to come to Iceland.

Time will tell whether this helps to deliver our best Christmas ever. But it may yet be that when people ask me the question with which I began, I will still roll out my well-worn story about how, in 2005, an old advertising man called Tom Reddy introduced me to Kerry Katona.

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