Feeling the festive spirit – could experiential and tech be the key to advent success?

Jay Short argues that innovation in festive campaigns comes in the form of experiential

Jay Short

Co-Founder and Client Services Director Solarflare Studio


2023 has delivered a creative year of ups and downs, culminating in a slate of Christmas ad concepts which have broadly fallen flatter than cracker jokes. When the most effective and best performing examples in the feted Christmas ad selection box aren’t the big blockbuster launches but sequels featuring Kevin the Carrot (again) and the Coca Cola Trucks, fresh festive innovation has to come from somewhere. We would argue this year, it’s coming from the experiential realm.

Live events at Christmas traditionally equate to sampling – tinsel-strewn city centres, handing out vouchers and freebies. No longer. The drive for live, spurred on after the lengthy pandemic experience gap, has also given experiential time to catch up with the latest tech. Within this year’s crop of emerging Christmas campaigns, there are some gifts to inspire marketers everywhere.

Take, for example, this activation from Lego. Using AR technology, Lego is running ‘Snow Throw’ across its store windows in London and New York, pitting the US against the UK in a virtual snowball-flinging frenzy. The brand’s DNA in linking real world and digital, working in harmony with its central concept of ‘play’, gives them astonishing breadth to work with and makes this live game experience really connect. The campaign also hooks in to its ‘Play is your superpower’ current creative, and the fun, imaginative tone which the brand has been owning lately. Linking Christmas store windows to interactive fun and an engaging play dynamic is a rounded approach to AR deployment, and it would be surprising if this wasn’t seen as a trailblazer in years to come for actively encouraging engagement between store browsers and brand at a time of the year where retail windows traditionally command more attention.

Technology now has reached the point where it could – and should – support the ideation of an experience-first approach to Christmas campaigns.

Jay Short, Co-Founder and Client Services Director, Solarflare Studio

After a really tough pandemic period, experiential stands on the cusp of a true tech evolution, through the infusion of cutting-edge developments. This festive Lego example shows how AR can be used to bridge retail media, previously static displays and brand engagement. The ball has been picked up and carried further by North Face, jumping on the AR ‘FOOH’ (faux out-of-home) trend and virtually cladding Big Ben in a nice, snuggly puffer jacket. Yet, even this could be just the start of how live branded activations, creative thinking and events (even faked or digitally staged ones) can embrace immersion and engagement with AR, VR, and AI, to mention just a few.  

Already this year we’ve seen innovative strides forward in terms of making digital worlds more integrated with real time conditions, changing lighting levels and even weather events in line with real world experiences. AI is creating accomplished visuals and tremendous progress has been made in integrating motion response into live events, from co-composed unique songs at concerts due to motion tracking through to movement-responsive backdrops and spaces themselves, turning visitors into part of the installation. Outernet is at the forefront of this engagement, currently facilitating visitors making virtual snow angels and also hosting another interactive snowball fight, this time on behalf of Uniqlo. It’s the scale here which really wows visitors and makes the branded location itself an instagrammable event to share. 

While previous Christmas campaigns have dabbled with Snapchat filters and Blippar bolt-ons, the ideas usually spring from TV ad creative outward, rather than from the concept of shaping and engaging a truly engaging Christmas experience. Technology now has reached the point where it could – and should – support the ideation of an experience-first approach to Christmas campaigns. After all, the goal of every good festive marketing push is to encourage engagement with that brand ahead of any other, and to encourage people to truly share and feel in the tidings of the season. What better channel than experiential to drive that message forward?

As we head rapidly into 2024, these trends will only gain pace. We’re predicting that spatial computing will be the big tech trend for 24, with the launch of the Apple Vision Pro, spurring on everyone else to bring out similar tech. As most of these will still be too expensive for the average consumer there's lots of scope for brand use in experiential marketing where the public can experience the tech firsthand. AI will continue to be a big trend next year, in particular with realtime AI image generation through Stable Diffusion and more introductions like the AI anime lens by Snapchat meaning filters can react to live camera feeds - this will also only speed the FOOH phenomenon along further and potentially give it real time applications. Simultaneously, AI generated video is producing ever better results and will get picked up much more widely.

Lego is a good first step to harnessing the potential of AR and VR, and we’re only just starting to see how AI is enhancing the experiential worlds. This will undoubtedly accelerate in the year to come, as brands overcome their reticence and embrace what emerging approaches can deliver for them. With all this in mind, I believe that next year’s Christmas crop could be the first to deliver truly unforgettable experience-first festive fun. And that’s something that all marketers should be happy to receive in their stockings.

Guest Author

Jay Short

Co-Founder and Client Services Director Solarflare Studio


Jay boasts a 15 year-long career in experiential marketing and an impressive portfolio of cutting-edge campaigns designed for the likes of UEFA, LEGO, F1, ASICS, Heineken, Ford, and NatWest. At Solarflare Studio, Jay works closely with clients to develop highly-tailored customer experiences, leveraging his consultative expertise and technological know-how to help brands capitalise on the vast possibilities of experiential.

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Christmas Experimental