Since 1995, Santa trades in his sleigh once a year for a Coca-Cola truck and tours the UK, sharing the soft drinks that have become closely associated with the winter holidays. This year, facing pressure from health advocates, Coca-Cola plans to scale back the campaign.
Controversy aside, the Christmas trucks are a prime example of brand purpose and messaging aligning. The brand, which encourages consumers to “share happiness,” enacts this same principle on tour – embodied by the festive Santa that adorns the modern sleighs.
Coca-Cola and Santa Claus have developed an effective “partnership” in a series of holiday ads that stretch through the better part of a century. The two are so close in the popular consciousness that many (falsely) attribute Santa’s modern appearance to the brand.
In truth, the Santa that we know and love didn’t spring fully-formed from a hat (or a Coke ad). Brought to the U.S. as St. Nicholas—a benefactor to the poor and sick — Santa Claus gradually took shape in our collective imagination through a decentralized evolution.
Building a snowy story world
Over the years, Santa has been depicted as a gaunt gift-giver armed with a birch rod—for disobedient children, a supporter of the Union during the Civil War, and as a George Washington-esque figure riding a broomstick. Fortunately, none of those stuck.
Writers like Washington Irving and Clement Moore helped fill in Santa’s backstory, while artists like Thomas Nast popularized the Christmas hero’s iconic red coat and white beard. Though each iteration was created independently, together they formed the Santa we know today.
By the 1920s—when he first appeared in a Coke ad—the Santa story world was already a robust collection of poems, songs, and images. Coca-Cola built their holiday advertising campaigns on this edifice, linking themselves to a story that already had a place in our hearts.
While most brands won’t be lucky enough to tap into a ready-made story world that is so closely aligned with their brand purpose, Coca-Cola Santa can serve as a model for how such worlds are effectively built on — and where their greatest strengths lay.
More than milk and cookies
One of the most powerful aspects of the Santa story is its disruptive potential. While fully-formed stories do invite participation, when we are presented with an incomplete narrative we are more compelled to try and fill in the blanks — a phenomenon that drives empathic engagement.
We store Santa’s North Pole workshop, complete with Mrs. Claus, elves, and reindeer, snugly in our memories. The story is enriched by our personal experiences with the characters — and holidays past. Santa is thus never just a jolly elf; he calls us back to his world in its entirety.
Each time we see a Santa ad, we fit it into our own Santa — and Coca-Cola …read more
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