the jolly old brand

I had been thinking about writing a Christmas post, but couldn’t come up with an idea. Then I realized I’d already written the post; it was just ensconced in a book. What follows is an excerpt (pages 53-56) from Chapter 7 (Brands are Driven by the Message) of my 2010 book, Brand Zeitgeist where I used Santa Claus as a “case study” on using media and marketing to maintain brand consistency over the (very) long term…

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Page 55 of Brand ZeitgeistBrands are a long-term proposition. Just a few ads or a couple of PR mentions won’t have much effect over the short term. When you step back to look at brands that have used media and advertising over the long term, the power of a brand zeitgeist can clearly been seen.

The modern day image that most people have of Santa Claus, with the plump belly, red coat, and white beard has largely been shaped by media and advertising. For centuries, Santa Claus was portrayed as everything from a gnarled elf to a tall gaunt woodsman.

One of the first major steps to creating a unified Santa brand in the mind of the zeitgeist occurred with Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (commonly called “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”). Moore’s poem was published annually in numerous newspapers and periodicals and helped define the basic physical characteristics of Santa in the public’s mind:

Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;

In the latter part of the 19th century, cartoonist Thomas Nast built on the foundation of Moore’s poem. He depicted Santa Claus as a plump man in a red suit and further cemented other aspects of the Santa brand in the zeitgeist with things such as a North Pole residency in his drawings for Harper’s Weekly magazine.

The modern day image of Santa was firmly established starting in 1931 when Coca-Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblomto develop advertising images using Santa Claus. Sundblom further built on established canon by Moore and Nast and drew Santa as a warm and friendly human character. The Coca-Cola Santa was placed heavily in the company’s annual Christmas ads in national magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, National Geographic, The New Yorker and others.

Santa Claus is a brand that reaches almost every section of the zeitgeist. Stop almost anyone on the street and they could recite a checklist of all of Santa’s characteristics that have been established in the zeitgeist. If Santa is portrayed in the “wrong way,” consumers will reject it — i.e. skinny in a blue suit. He’s the ultimate example of a successful brand zeitgeist because everyone is on the same page as to what the brand represents.

However, there’s no way you can replicate his success with your brand. For one thing, the media atmosphere is much different today. The entire populace isn’t focused on a few big magazines and three television networks. You don’t have Coca-Cola’s media budget. You don’t have two centuries to wait for your brand strategy to kick in. Finally, let’s face it, you’re not Santa Claus.

But you can learn branding lessons from Santa on how to use media and messaging to establish your brand in the zeitgeist. Firstly, Santa has stayed true to a set of core brand assets and never drastically rebranded to keep up with trends and fads. During his busy season, he is everywhere. He’s at the mall, in parades, on TV, in magazine ads, and in your house. The brand image is inescapable. The image is consistent, clear, and repeated to the point of that the brand image of Santa Claus has been seared into mind’s eye of the public.

The Santa Claus brand was spread in the zeitgeist over the long term by using traditional media and word-of-mouth. While it might be impossible to build a similar juggernaut brand using those same methods, there’s now a new variable in the brand messaging and media equation. Until recently, Santa didn’t have to deal with the Internet.

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And that was an oh-so-clever segue into the “messaging in the digital zeitgeist” section of the chapter. If you’re interesting in reading the rest of the book, you can find Brand Zeitgeist on Amazon. Or you can become a fan of Brand Zeitgeist on Facebook.

Chris Houchens is a marketing raconteur & writer. Connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.

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3 comments on “the jolly old brand
  1. Jono says:

    Hi, Thanks for the article.. I just had one thought to add… And that is brand association. Its hard to separate Santa from the bigger picture which is the “Christmas Brand” and so although Santa wasn’t always a part of the Christmas equation, I think that his inseparable association with it has much or even all to do with the long term consistency and success of the Santa brand. ie, Santa isn’t a long term successful brand in its own right but rather it has maintained over the years purely because of its association with something timeless like Christmas. Nobody is looking to do a re-brand on Christmas and therefore as long as that fact remains, Santa will have no drastic changes. Jono

  2. Robert says:

    I saw the history of Santa Claus on The History Channel and was surprised that the modern Santa was created by Coke. At least they didn’t try to come up with a New Santa. As you point out, they would have been a disaster.

    While traveling in Italy we visited the Francis of Assisi church and saw a small manager scene. The tour guide said Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223 intending thereby to cultivate the worship of Christ. Boy, talk about successful branding!!!

  3. Great post! As a professional Santa Claus, and student of business, thinking about marketing Santa Claus and using new media to do it, along with how to brand myself while building on the larger brand is interesting to think about.

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