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Why Erste Decided to Go Darker for 2022’s Christmas Spot


Zauberberg Productions and Erste Group on the new take on their #believeinchristmas campaign, making an animation that is grounded and real, reflecting the current mood of the world, shares LBB’s Tamara Felemban

Why Erste Decided to Go Darker for 2022’s Christmas Spot

Erste Group’s Christmas campaign has become an anticipated part of the festive season since its first campaign back in 2018. From introducing lovely, fuzzy animals like Henry the hedgehog and Hannah the bumblebee to switching to human characters in the most recent years, the brand has managed to warm and inspire the hearts of many each Christmas. Now in its fifth year, the Vienna-based banking group has successfully found its place in the competitive category of Christmas ads, with its festive campaigns and spots achieving over 225 million views and 25 advertising industry awards in total. 

This year’s campaign, ‘#believeinchristmas,’ stresses unity and the importance of people coming together to stand against those who steal the light and joy of Christmas. Not only that but it also addresses many problems currently faced in society, one of which is the energy crisis. The spot aims to respond to these problems by putting out a positive, hopeful message to inspire the public, that ‘in times of need, strong communities help each other.’ 

This is both different and similar to Erste’s previous campaigns in many ways. Similar because the brand has always focused on delivering a positive message through an impactful story that resonates with the viewers, and different because instead of the lighthearted, timeless stories we are used to seeing from the brand, this spot is more grounded in reality and purposefully reflective of the current times and struggles. Erste has decided that for this year it will address the energy crisis and the dark cloud of despair hovering over society because it affects us all and ‘hits the most basic parts of our lives.’ 

A little bit of magic is added to the industry each year with all the different Christmas spots and Erste is one of the most valued contributors to this. So LBB’s Tamara Felemban spoke with Zauberberg Productions, who produced the spot, and Mario Stadler, head of group brand management & communications at Erste Group, to learn more about this year’s campaign, the story and the message it aims to spread.

LBB> What was your initial brief to the team at Jung von Matt (JvM)? What were you particularly keen to achieve with this year’s outing from a business perspective?

Mario> We actually gave JvM quite some freedom in exploring the approach to this year’s advert. We were looking for a story that was relevant for times that are difficult and uncertain – and, of course, the campaign should touch people within the Christmas context. 

In addition, the campaign had to be based on our brand narrative. And the focus was quite clearly on digital media, as the content had to work across our entire group.

LBB> And what was it about the idea from JvM that really resonated with the team at Erste?

Mario> We were touched by the story itself and probably even more by its relevancy.

LBB> As a production company, upon receiving the script, how did you choose to approach this year’s spot?

Zauberberg> With what is going on all over the world and especially with Europe at the moment, the script hits the times that we are living in pretty well.

Usually we are no big fans of spots with a highly topical narrative. We are usually more into making films feel timeless and not reusing the news, which can become irrelevant pretty quickly again. But this crisis is different. It hits the most basic parts of our lives. Something that we only knew from some dystopian future scenarios.

Nevertheless, we didn’t want to point fingers at something specific… we wouldn’t have had enough anyway. The goal was to reflect the mood of our world as it is right now, so that if some day in the future someone watches this, they will understand a little bit better the feeling that came with these times… mainly created by a few Grinches in human bodies.

LBB> On top of being a heart-warming, festive spot, the campaign highlights the unifying nature of Christmas and the holidays, and the light within the dark. What did you want to achieve in the messaging?  

Mario> The message should reveal that togetherness ensures that no one and nothing can take the joy of Christmas away from us – no matter what times we are living in and what challenges we are facing.

LBB> Erste has a history of really beautifully told animated stories in its Christmas commercials - what sort of inspiration did you take from previous years' campaigns and how did you go about making something new?

Zauberberg> I would say we tried to make it less beautiful. The story is not as lighthearted as the previous ones and that should be reflected in the pictures. We always try to keep our storytelling grounded and very real, nothing in real life is glossy, overly sweet or perfectly shaped. Animated spots make it actually harder to make things imperfect than perfect. So, bringing the grit into the visuals was something that we pushed for a lot. 

LBB> Erste’s campaign has become an anticipated part of the festive season since its first campaign in 2018. Now in its fifth year, how do you adapt the business and marketing strategy to embrace the latest trends and keep ahead of the competition during the festive season?

Mario> We try hard to stay relevant every year. That definitely does not get easier, given how fast-moving the times are. On the other hand, we have our clear purpose and brand narrative, these definitely help to give us orientation. And a bit of “braveness” is also important – something that’s also evident in this year’s advert, with its allusions to topical issues.

LBB> Storytelling is very prominent in the spots. How important is it when maximizing your customers’ engagement with the campaign?

Mario> We feel storytelling is a great way of connecting with people. That in turn creates engagement. But for us, the question is very much about “what” to tell and not only the “how”. 

LBB> Erste has previously expressed that their brand communication approach is very much based on emotion. Why is it important for you to stick to that approach and appeal to the audience’s emotions and engage with them in that way?

Mario> Clearly, emotions are important to reach people and to connect with them. But it’s not only about emotions - we also want to surprise and stay relevant on both a personal and a broader level. 

LBB> It's a wonderfully designed world - where did you start with the character design and general world building? What were some of the initial ideas for the character(s) and the style and how did they evolve?

Zauberberg> Our mood board was pretty extensive and we explored a lot of styles. In the end our general rule was: No straight edges, no smooth faces, etc. We wanted everything to feel slightly off, but in a way that is subtle enough so the style never distracts from the story.
We also took inspiration from stop motion films like ‘Paranorman’ or ‘Coraline’. We always loved the hand-made feeling of those films. But as always, we can talk as much as we want but, in the end, it has to be done the right way, and Able&Baker, the animation studio we partnered with, did a fantastic job bringing this look with all its imperfections into a full CGI film.

LBB> The entire spot takes place at night time, with the overall colour grade mostly being dark blues and black. Why did you decide to stick with that colour scheme and create an overall dark atmosphere? Can you share more about that choice and the tone you wanted to establish? How did you balance the need to create something atmospheric with the need to make sure it was easy for the audience to see and follow?

Mario> That’s very well observed! Animation styles evolve and we felt the adapted style supports the story, as well as the characters, even better.
Zauberberg> Not only is the darkness a core element of the story, it obviously is a great metaphor for the despair our villagers feel. When the villain comes, it is like he brings the darkness with him. The scene that reflects that the best is the one with the father and the son on the ladder. The darkness comes closer until it reaches them. The warm colours go away and blue tones take over. The colour strengthens the impact on the villagers.

We used the light in the beginning and the very end to build an emotional arc. Bringing light back into a dark and cold world feels like one of the oldest and most universal visual metaphors.

Creating a film that is mostly dark means thinking a lot about contrast and visibility. We often used the bright moonlight to make silhouettes stand out or tried to stage and light people in a way so they don’t disappear against a dark background, a bit influenced by the style of film noir.

LBB> From a craft perspective, what were the tech tools and creative partners that helped bring the spot to life and what did they bring to the table?

Zauberberg> The animation studio caught our attention with an episode of Love, Death and Robots that had a rather dirty look to it, so we knew these guys were on the same level.

With animations you have to give a lot of control out of your own hands and trust others, and Able&Baker did a great job in the short time they had. We talked to a couple of animation studios and with them we had a great connection from the beginning. They had the same idea of the style of the film.

LBB> The music feels very cinematic, with lush strings, and feels like it could come from a Christmas movie. Who did you work with on the music, what feelings were you trying to evoke? Were you deliberately trying to do something different from the usual Christmas ad music clichés?

Zauberberg> From the beginning we knew that we wanted a score that works in a classical way to perfectly underline the narration of the story. For the visuals, we probably took inspiration from the movies in the ‘80s and ‘90s to create this. The composition was done by 48k, a music company in Berlin. They work very closely with the film orchestra in Babelsberg and so we recorded this with 45 musicians there. We felt we had to record this for real to add another layer of hand-made reality to the animation.

LBB> This year’s ad is very much focused on the power of connection and community over the material markers of Christmas, which feels very reflective of the cost-of-living crisis, and economic challenges faced by consumers in Europe. What sort of conversations and strategic considerations did you have about how to respectfully navigate that situation?

Mario> Many people are in truly difficult situations right now. To be honest, sometimes people in our profession might lose sight of just how difficult day-to-day survival has become for large segments of our societies. Their struggles and perseverance really deserve our deep respect. And we have to keep this context in mind when making our marketing decisions!

LBB> What was the hardest challenge you faced on this project (perhaps in animation) - and how did you overcome it?

Zauberberg> The hardest challenge was in fact the short timing. This project got awarded in September and had to be finished in not much more than two months. Everybody on this project wanted to make the best film possible so everybody agreed that we keep the ways of communication as short as possible.

The agency and client are great, it is our fourth time working with them, which helped a lot with them putting trust in what we do. In the end we worked very closely with Able&Baker and kept everybody in a constant loop about the progress. But to be honest, I am still not sure how they managed to finish this in time.

LBB> What is your favourite detail in the whole spot and why?

Zauberberg> Favourite anything is always a difficult thing to make out from our perspective. For this one, it might be the overall level of detail that was achieved in such a short time. 

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Zauberberg, Wed, 07 Dec 2022 16:12:36 GMT