June 28, 2022

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Branding a Cultural Icon, Branding a Cola

Branding a Cultural Icon, Branding a Cola

Seasons greetings.  This is the inaugural column for “Familiar Marketing,” which will focus on marketing efforts that are familiar in one way or another.  Given that it’s the holiday season, it seemed all too appropriate to take a closer look at how one familiar, jolly, plump guy rose to cultural icon, and the marketing efforts that created his image.

I am of course speaking of Santa Claus.  When we think of Christmas’ most well-known figure, we all know exactly what the fictitious man looks like.  He’s a rounded man with a white beard, wearing a red coat with white fringe, pants and a hat that match, and a thick black belt. Right?

Not surprisingly, Santa is a more dynamic character historically.  He grew from a thin man from Anatolia (Turkey) to a representation of the Germanic God Odin to the congenial fat man we know from Coca-Cola bottles and department stores, posing along the way as the Ghost of Christmas Present for Dickens (clad in a long green robe with white fringe–close, but not quite).

The modern image of Santa grew out of a Thomas Nast comic that ran in Harpers Weekly in 1863. Department stores latched on to the image, and mall Santa was born — first either at Macy’s as claimed in that company’s marketing materials or by a Brockton, MA man in his dried goods store.  But it was really Haddon Sundblom’s work on the 1930’s Coca-Cola advertising that codified our Saint Nick.

What was in it for Coke? Marketing Santa has its perks strategically. Although he had an inconsistent physical presence before Sundblom, Santa was a household name by the time the Coke ads took off.  The soda manufacturer was able to piggyback on Santa’s seasonal affiliation to meet their marketing needs. At the time, Coke wanted to be seen as a year-round drink, rather than a summer-only refreshment.  Syncing up with Santa linked the cola brand to the winter season in an incredibly powerful way.  In other words, Coke wasn’t looking to create an icon, rather the company approached a marketing challenge the same way we ought to today:

  • Recognize a misconception or misperception about the product (i.e. Coke is only for fit for summer)
  • Establish a correct perception objective (i.e. Coke is good year round)
  • Develop an appropriate communications plan, including strategy and tactics, to get the new message out
  • Strategy=tying Coke to Winter to show that Coke is good year round
  • Tactics=Coke ads with Santa
  • Implement the plan and engage
  • This is where having a brilliant artist doing your creative helps
  • Evaluate against intended objective and for additional positive or negative outcomes (e.g. consumer engagement)
  • Repeat as necessary

That last step could be most important, even though it sounds like something you’d read on a shampoo bottle.  Coca-Cola worked with Sundblom from 1931 to 1964. It certainly didn’t take 33 years for consumers to get the idea that Coke is good year round.  According to the cola maker, these ads developed such a following that people would write in about slight changes like a missing wedding band or a belt being reversed from one year to the next. The Santa ads became a way for Coke to engage with their community, with their consumers, well beyond the initial goal.

This winter season, don’t think about what a holiday icon can do for you.  Think about your goals, business or personal, and go from there.  Maybe you end up creating a cultural figure, maybe not, but at least you’re keeping the reindeer before the sleigh.

Happy holidays everyone.

Sandy Kalik is a social media aficionado with one hand in PR, another in a money management start-up and a foot in retail.  She blogs at Sandying (http://sandying.blogspot.com), tweets @skalik and can be reached by email at sandy.kalik@yahoo.com.

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