Emotional Storytelling
Creativity Creative Thinking

The Power of Emotional Storytelling in Holiday Campaigns

10 Minute Read

I’m writing this in February, which means I can’t sing Christmas carols for at least nine months without getting dirty looks from my husband. Like most people, he thinks those songs should be saved for the holiday season, lest they lose their magic. But I learned differently from my grandmother. She watched Christmas movies all year—from classics like It’s a Wonderful Life to Hallmark Channel movies produced for its annual Countdown to Christmas marathon.

Grandmama loved the holidays, but I don’t think that’s why she watched Christmas movies in July. She enjoyed the emotional storytelling: the heartwarming themes about reuniting with loved ones, the kindness of strangers, the value of family, and, in the case of the Hallmark movies, falling in love during the holidays. These stories brought her joy, and she needed that pick-me-up all year (not just in November and December). So, she watched Christmas movies whenever she was having a bad day or was just in the mood for a happy ending.

That’s the power of an emotional story. When it makes people feel something they want to feel, it brings them back for more. It makes them want to share those positive vibes with others. And it makes them feel connected to the characters and to the storyteller who made them laugh, smile, or just feel happy.

With some creative thinking, holidays can also be a great time for brands to connect with their audiences. By tapping into the emotions that each holiday inspires, brands can tell stories that engage their audiences with just the right message at just the right time.

For Holidays, Think Happy

Emotional storytelling isn’t always about making audiences feel good. Fear is a powerful way to get a message across. Sadness is also a strong motivator. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many commercials about abused puppies and malnourished children. And suspense is a great way to get and keep an audience’s attention.

But holidays are supposed to be fun occasions when we feel happy and connected. Whether we’re ringing in the New Year with friends, cozying up with our significant others on Valentine’s Day, gathering with family for Thanksgiving, or celebrating any other major holiday, we’re usually doing it with people who matter to us.

Of course, the holidays can also be stressful, lonely, and disappointing, depending on your perspective, experiences, or even your mood at the moment. That’s why the most powerful holiday stories are heartwarming. They’re not always tearjerkers (though some of the best are), but they make us feel good. They help us get in the spirit and remind us why we’re celebrating whatever we’re celebrating. And they make us feel connected.

That’s why brand storytellers should take a cue from my grandmother. When it comes to holiday stories, opt for emotional themes, heartwarming plots, and happy endings.

In fact, positive storytelling is always a winning strategy. Studies show that content with a positive message is more likely to go viral than stories with a negative spin, and that sentimental ads score 50 percent higher in emotional appeal. And as Content Standard contributor Nicola Brown reported in her article, “How Our Negative Emotions Make Us More Creative,” positive emotions are actually associated with greater creative thinking.

Simply put: happy stories are more likely to engage audiences and are more likely to bring out the creativity in the brand marketers who tell them.

Mapping the Right Emotions to the Right Holidays

No two holidays are quite the same. Each has its own meaning, traditions, and associations and therefore pulls on different heartstrings. There’s the mischievousness of April Fool’s Day, the whimsy of St. Patrick’s Day, and the adrenaline (and sugar) rush of Halloween. As for the major holidays, those have even stronger emotional associations, and therefore offer greater opportunities for brand storytellers to tap into the reason for each season.

Which emotions are strongest during each holiday, and what are the emotional storytelling opportunities for brands?

New Year’s Day

The New Year is a time of hope and excitement—a season for self-reflection, fresh starts, and new goals. It’s this optimistic spirit that causes us to make New Year’s resolutions, even though we know from experience that we probably won’t keep them. But this time of year, when we tend to be most optimistic and most focused on self-improvement, is a great opportunity for brand storytellers to encourage us to be the best versions of ourselves, inside and out.

That could mean encouraging professional development, financial responsibility, and philanthropy. And yes, it could mean encouraging the most stereotypical (and typically the most fleeting) of all New Year’s resolutions: weight loss.

However, Weight Watchers UK’s short film, Yes, which premiered in January, isn’t so stereotypical. Rather than relying on celebrity endorsements, unrealistic before and after pictures, or body shaming, the documentary shares inspirational real-life stories about why people gain weight in the first place—a childhood trauma, work stress—and what inspires them to lose it.

Directed by filmmaker Gary Tarn, Yes features stunning camerawork and powerful, emotional stories to which audiences can relate. The focus is not on how much weight each person lost but on how they got healthy, achieved their goals, and improved their lives. It’s optimistic and empowering, and therefore perfect for the New Year.

Valentine’s Day

People have complicated feelings about Valentine’s Day. Some love it, some hate it, and others secretly love it while pretending to be above the commercialization of love. But cynics aside, Valentine’s Day is all about romance.

Sure, with some creative thinking, brands can open up holiday-related conversations about other types of love. For example, to promote its new fragrance, French fashion label Nina Ricci ran the #MyBestValentine campaign, which encouraged users to post pictures of themselves with their best friends (and their favorite perfume).

But for Valentine’s Day stories, the more powerful emotion is the more obvious one: romantic love.

Take, for example, Cartier’s 2015 short film, The Proposal. Created by award-winning filmmaker Sean Ellis, the six-minute movie shares three modern-day love stories—two of which end with proposals and another that ends with a sweet surprise for an already-married couple. It’s worth noting that the film, set in Paris, also serves as a tribute to the City of Lights and the romance associated with it.

Of course, jewelry commercials featuring proposals are a dime a dozen, especially around Valentine’s Day. But by adding compelling stories to the big reveal, Cartier made a much more heartfelt (and much more memorable) ad.

Independence Day

July 4 is a day of contradictions. It’s about independence but also unity, freedom, and patriotism. And in today’s current political climate, where Americans are struggling to agree on what it actually means to be American, these are even trickier (and more emotional) topics than ever. So, should brands focus on independence or unity this Fourth of July? It depends on the brands and what they have to say. There are great storytelling opportunities either way.

The first ad in Nike’s powerful new campaign, Equality, is a great example of emotional, patriotic storytelling. It’s not actually Independence Day marketing, but it touches on independence and freedom—both of which are important patriotic topics:

The ad features sports stars like LeBron James, Serena Williams, and Kevin Durant and debuts a new version of Sam Cooke’s song, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” recorded by Alicia Keys. We see images of people playing on tennis courts and basketball courts, and as we look at the boundary lines on the field, a voice-over reminds us, “Equality should have no boundaries. The bonds we find here should run past these lines. Opportunity should not discriminate. The ball should bounce the same for everyone. Worth should outshine color. If we can be equals here, we can be equals everywhere.”

According to AdWeek, the sports-apparel retailer wants to “encourage people to take the fairness and respect they see in sport and translate them off the field.” Along with the commercial, Nike is encouraging social media conversations about equality and plans to donate $5 million in 2017 to “numerous organizations that advance equality in communities across the US, including Mentor and PeacePlayers.”

Considering freedom and equality are among the reasons early Americans fought for independence from Britain, I can’t think of a more fitting way to celebrate the holiday than with a poignant reminder about what American has always stood for: diversity.


The actual Thanksgiving story isn’t a happy one, so as Americans, we tend to focus on the reason for the holiday, not the way it started. It’s a day where we slow down and express our gratitude for the most important things in life—family, friends, tradition—as well as the smaller pleasures (like, say, turkey).

And then, of course, we leave our family, friends, and turkey behind to go Black Friday shopping on Thursday evening.

In 2015, outdoor retailer REI decided to opt out of the madness and encouraged its customers to #OptOutside. The retailer closed shop on Black Friday, paid its employees to spend the day outdoors, and asked customers to share photos of themselves enjoying nature with family and friends.

To promote the campaign, REI created a fun video that begins with the question, “Will you go OUT with me?” Then it shows families and friends going on adventures together, none of which include braving crowds of holiday shoppers.

It was a risky move for the company to shut its doors on the biggest shopping day of the year, but it paid off: REI garnered 2.7 billion PR impressions in the first 24 hours after its announcement, and social media impressions rose 7000 percent.

As for the ad, it wasn’t the kind of Thanksgiving storytelling one would expect. There was no table, no food, and no tear-jerking conclusion. But it reminded us that we have more to be grateful for than Christmas gifts, and that time spent with family and friends is more valuable than time spent shopping for them. That’s both an important and poignant holiday lesson.


Like Thanksgiving, Christmas is all about family, friends, and togetherness. It’s also about making peace, feeling nostalgic, using your imagination, and rekindling the holiday magic that seems to fade as we age. These are all emotional fodder that makes for great Christmas storytelling. (Check out these five international holiday ads for examples.)

But there’s another important emotional theme at Christmas: opening our hearts to those who are less fortunate (and perhaps lonelier) than we are. Retailer John Lewis touched on this topic in the 2015 ad “Man on the Moon,” in which a little girl finds a way to send a Christmas gift to the lonely old man on the moon.

Apple did the same thing with “Frankie’s Holiday,” my favorite commercial of the 2016 holiday season.

In the storytelling ad, Frankenstein’s Monster doesn’t want to be alone at Christmas. He treks into town, where a crowd has gathered, and begins to sing “Home for the Holidays.” At first, everyone seems put off by his appearance. But one little girl is brave enough to approach him and sing along. As the crowd joins in and their appalled looks turn to smiles, Frankie sheds a tear (and so did I).

It’s a beautiful story about acceptance, embracing people we don’t understand, and making sure everyone has a Merry Christmas. And my grandmother would have loved it.

What Are Your Holiday Plans?

There’s nothing like timely brand storytelling. Content marketers don’t always have much time to prepare for current events and must move quickly to leverage them. But we have plenty of time to prepare for the holidays. Independence Day is just a few short months away, and it will be Valentine’s Day again before we know it. Start thinking now about emotional storytelling opportunities that make sense for your brand and how you can tap into the unique vibe of each beloved holiday.

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Taylor Mallory Holland is a freelance writer, editor, and content marketer specializing in technology, healthcare, and business leadership. As a content strategist, Holland contributes thought leadership content for some of the world's top brands, including Samsung, IBM, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, and UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. She has been a contributor for The Content Standard since 2014.

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