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How Coca-Cola stole Christmas
Did you know that Coca-Cola stole Christmas? You might have been told that the brand invented the red Santa Claus we all know & love today. But what if I told you all of this was a lie? Curious? Let me tell you the truth 👇
Fifteen years before Coca Cola another drinks company White Rock had the idea of 'owning Christmas' & was already running several ads featuring Santa to promote their drinks range.
Ref 1: Long before Coca-Cola White Rock was running Christmas ads featuring Santa.
Even before that, a red and white Santa has been popularised by political cartoonist Thomas Nast and in fact one had already featured on the front cover of Puck Magazine in 1905.
Ref 2: A red-white Santa had been featured on the front cover of Puck Magazine in 1905.
So why do many still think Coca-Cola invented Santa? And how did this soda brand become so successful at 'owning Christmas'? Here are the four things brands can learn 👇
#1 BORROW FROM CULTURE
Brands try to create new characters & mascots all the time. While a handful may succeed, the vast majority will go on to fail. The majority tend to be cringe-worthy at best, or ineffective at worst. This comes down to the fact corporate environments don’t always foster a culture of creativity.
Ref 3: Wenlock & Meadville are just one of many cringe-worthy mascots companies have invented over the years.
The genius of Coca-Cola is that they identified a cultural icon which shared similar brand cues (red and white) and built an association with it. Why was this so important? Well, brand cues are powerful shortcuts to the brain that remind you of the brand, the minute you see them. Whether it be the purple that reminds you of Cadbury’s chocolate, the golden arches that remind you of McDonald’s, or the red of Santa that evokes Coca-Cola.
Ref 4: There are a wide variety of cues that help remind and prompt brands in people’s minds.
So what Coca-Cola did so well is that they borrowed from an established cultural figure (Santa) and built a link between him and their brand via cues (red). Not only does this avoid the risk of the brand developing cringe-worthy characters, but it is also a much easier way to gain traction.
#2 SHARED VALUES
When you think of an ice-cold Coca-Cola, you don’t instantly think of a bleak mid-winter. It’s no surprise that the sales of the brand have traditionally been far lower in winter months than in the middle of summer.
Ref 5: When you think of an ice-cold Coca Cola you think of Summer, not Winter.
The genius of Coca-Cola’s Santa campaigns is that not only does it tackle this sales issue head-on, but it also taps into a moment that shares the brand’s values. You see the brand could have chosen to invest heavily at Halloween or Thanksgiving, but it deliberately choose Christmas for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Christmas is a more well-established global event that would resonate with many more around the world. Secondly, and more importantly, it is a moment more closely aligned with Coca-Cola’s mission to "refresh the world & inspire moments of optimism and happiness". Christmas for most people (but not all) is one of the happiest times of the year. It is a time filled with family, friends and merriment. It is a time most closely aligned with Coca-Cola’s mission to ‘inspire moments of optimism & happiness”. So just as the brand is building a link between itself and the red of Santa, so too is it building an association between the feeling of happiness at Christmas and the values of the brand.
Ref 5: At its core, Coca-Cola has always sought to build an association between the happiness felt at Christmas and the values of the brand.
What Coca-Cola also does so well is that they cleverly appeal to a younger audience, at Christmas. This is beneficial to the brand in two ways. First, it helps to establish the habit of drinking a Coke at Christmas earlier on in life. And habits that are formed in childhood are incredibly hard to break, often being carried forward into adulthood. Secondly, to quote Spencer Dryden, drummer of Jefferson Airplane, “Get them while they’re young and bend their minds”. Coca-Cola cleverly evokes nostalgia with the brand, because it hooked so many in at a young age. How many times have you heard or seen a Coca-Cola advert at Christmas and been transported back to your childhood? It’s not an accident. Nostalgia is an incredibly powerful and evocative emotion & the brand cleverly taps into this.
Ref 6: Coca-Cola cleverly targets children, helping them form habits young and evoking the powerful emotion of nostalgia.
Finally, it’s worth considering that other brands have tried to emulate Coca-Cola's success at Christmas, but most have failed. Why have they failed? Consistency. Coca-Cola has been building association with Christmas & targeting kids, for over one hundred years. This is what the best brands do. They think long term, not short term. They think in decades, not days. It’s the same reason Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ or Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ is so successful. And by investing in Christmas for so long, the idea of Coca-Cola at this time of year is incredibly strong and hard to displace.
So what can we learn from this case study? Firstly it is often easier (and better) for brands to borrow from culture than trying to invent it from scratch. Second when looking for conversations to tap into try and find moments that can relate to your brand, either via cues or a higher purpose or mission. Third, try and find ways to build a relationship between your brand and a younger audience (if possible). Fourth, when building a brand always think long term, rather than short term.
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Finally, please excuse any typ0s…I’m proudly dyslexic.
Co-Founder | Strategy Partner