John Lewis' 2021 Xmas ad holds key HR teachings - can you spot them?

Whilst previous years featured Excitable Edgar, Sir Elton John and a charitable campaign, this year focuses on an extraterrestrial young girl who crashes into earth, in the middle of the festive season, to find companionship and kindness from a boy who sets out to help and befriend her.

For some, the advert will be a hallmark of the beginning of the festive period, for others it’s a reminder – as John Lewis intend – to start Christmas shopping.

In fact, it’s been reported that the advert has been released earlier this year with searches for Christmas products on the John Lewis website much higher at an earlier time as shoppers attempt to circumvent supply chain issues.

Key themes

After another difficult pandemic year, there are some clear themes in the piece. Speaking to The Guardian, Charlotte Rogers, the features editor at the trade journal Marketing Week, said John Lewis’s ad reflected a yearning for something comforting and familiar after more than a year of the pandemic.

“Last year felt so tough and different [brands] didn’t know what tone to strike and if they would be around [for Christmas],” she said.

Which is why the ad, entitled #UnexpectedGuest, is likely going to cut through – and not just with consumers because there are clear HR learnings too.

Inquisitiveness and learning

With the advert kicking off with the young male protagonist getting off his school bus to explore an incident in the woods, inquisitiveness is a key theme.

As is learning. The two lead characters exchange cultural items – a mince pie features heavily! – as well working together to troubleshoot fixing an alien spaceship. It might seem like this has nothing to do with the people agenda but HR Grapevine believes there are clear themes that dovetail with acute demands on the function.

As reported by shiftelearning, a recent survey showcased that for 70% of respondents, job-related training and development opportunities influenced their decision to stay at their job with this number rising to 87% for younger in-work cohorts.

It shows the clear need for employers to double down on investment in the area of development – think of how clearly the strength of the relationship between the two main characters becomes after the young boy helps teach the ‘alien’ about his culture – by not only delivering on requisite learning but also about desired learning.

This is something that Sean Hudson, Head of Learning and Development at Pfizer, wrote about for LinkedIn in a recent myGrapevine magazine piece.

“There's this whole space around desired learning,” he said. “Even if it has nothing to do with compliance and nothing to do with my role, what am I curious about?”


Of course, within learning, there is the theme of mentorship. For most of the advert, the young boy acts as a guide and cultural lode star for the young ‘alien’, guiding her through earth’s festive season.

Many in HR will know the importance of in-work guides too – the mentors within an organisation and the clear business upswing they offer.

In fact, in a recent survey of older workers, it was found that many were deciding to head back into work or stay put in order to share their skills.

It could offer an economic boost of over £1.8billion each year, according to calculations from Retirement Villages Group.

It is the use of mentorship that O2 is hoping to use in their efforts to boost internal D&I metrics and better gender equality within the business.

Speaking previously to HR Grapevine, Catherine Leaver, O2’s HR Director, said: “Gender equality across society is a work in progress, so we need to remain on the right track to a fairer workplace for all and continue to empower colleagues with the support and mentorship they need.”

Again, this could offer an economic boost with countless studies showcasing the strong correlation between improved diversity – of which mentoring and role-modelling is an important part – and business outcomes.


It probably doesn’t need to be written but inclusivity is an obvious key theme within the John Lewis Christmas ad.

With the young alien alone in the woods, our young male hero takes her mince pieces and finally gifts her a small Christmas tree; the subtext being that he’s worried she isn’t being included in festive celebrations.

In HR, many know the importance inclusivity can play in good business operations.

For example, Gartner found that inclusive teams improve team performance by up to 30% in high-diversity environments.

Kindness, as in allowing people to feel included in workspaces, is a crucial part of this. Being kind to one another in the workplace is key to fostering a positive and healthy company culture.

In fact, 2019 research published in the journal Emotion – as was reported by Forbes – looked into acts of kindness within the workplace and showed how kindness can have a positive impact on workplace culture as a whole.

The study also found that generosity and kindness spreads so if an employee showcases these qualities, it will likely catch on with others in the team.


Of course the advert wasn’t intended as a lesson for the people function but at HR Grapevine we think it does align quite closely with big in-tray items. However, we’re not the authority on this so please tell us in the comments what learnings you think the people function can take from this year’s John Lewis festive offering.

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