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Selling Christmas - Coca Cola's Christmas Legacy

2 DEC
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As the festive season fast approaches, the world’s biggest brands are filling our screens (and in some cases, our streets) with this year’s Christmas advertising offerings.

Christmas has always been a key selling - and therefore advertising - period for retailers. As such, the biggest companies spend millions of pounds each year to produce innovative new campaigns. Coca Cola are arguably the brand who have had the most festive advertising success, paving the way for other brands for generations. Here we’ll take a quick look at Coke’s unmatchable influence, not only on the world of advertising, but also on Christmas as we know it.

Coca Cola & Santa Claus

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Most people will have heard it said, somewhere or other, that Coca Cola invented the Santa Claus. Well, the Santa Claus we know today, at least, dressing him in Coke’s trademark red to push their own sugary agenda. While it’s not strictly true that Coke ‘invented’ Santa, their series of Christmas campaigns, beginning in 1931, had a remarkable impact.

Of course, Coke didn’t invent Santa. Santa Claus, in his many incarnations, has long been a prominent figure in Western folklore.  Our modern-day image of Santa Claus was inspired by several historical and mythical figures including 4th Century Greek Christian Bishop St Nicholas of Myra, venerated for his gift-giving, kindness and generosity towards children); Norse God, the fur-clad, white-bearded Odin (who led the Yuletide hunt on an eight-legged horse); and Sinterklaas of the Netherlands, who, wearing a bishop’s hat, rewards good children with gifts, along with his partner, Zwarte Piet, (who in some stories steps in to whip bad children). What Coca Cola helped to do was unite these disparate elements into one unified idea of the Father Christmas we recognise today.

 

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In 1931, Coca Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to produce an oil painting of Santa, enjoying a Coke on Christmas Eve. Sundblom based his Santa on both Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem ‘Twas the Night before Christmas’ (rosy cheeks, big white beard, belly that shakes ‘like a bowl full of jelly’, etc.) and his neighbour, Lou Prentiss.

Sundblom’s Santa, used by Coca Cola to this day, became an iconic image, replicated by artists, writers and film-makers alike. Coke, however, were far from the first corporation to borrow Santa’s image, nor were they the first to dress him in red. What Coke did do was create a Christmas campaign that truly captured the public’s imagination. Coke’s depictions of the ruddy-cheeked, playful Santa, have not only made their brand synonymous with the festive season, but have also made their version of Santa, the definitive version.


‘Holidays Are Coming’

Coke hit the nail on the head once again in 1995 when they first introduced Coca-Cola Truck adverts (although the original version’s lyrics were ‘Santa packs are coming’, later changing to the rather more catchy ‘holidays are coming’).  Many proclaim, in the UK at least, that ‘it’s not Christmas until the Coke ad is on’. People are so attached to the ad that when in 2006 Coke opted to try something a bit different - ditching the trucks and instead featuring (in my opinion) a rather creepy animated Sundblomesque Santa, handing out Cokes on foot - there was nothing short of public outcry. After complaints, Facebook groups and online petitions, the trucks returned in 2007, and everyone was happy again.

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In recent years, the Coke Trucks have made a UK tour throughout December. Thousands flock to see and have their photos taken with the legendary vehicles, to listen to Christmas songs and, of course, drink Coke. Taking the ad off the screen and into the streets has transformed the Coke Trucks into an experiential marketing campaign. Further strengthening the public’s association between the brand and the season.

Although no longer the main attraction, this year’s ad,Give a Little Happiness, features the now obligatory cameo of the Coca Cola Trucks. There is also only a fleeting appearance of the jolly Coke Santa (drinking - you guessed it - a nice bottle of Coke!). Coca Cola need only nod towards these traditional elements of their ad campaigns. They have become so iconic and so entwined with our shared idea of Christmas that only the loosest association to brand and product can be made in their advertising. 

Coca Cola & the Modern Christmas Campaign

This year’s Coke ad reflects the modern trend in Christmas advertising.  Successful campaigns have moved away from straightforward, overtly promotional ads to mini movies. Modern Christmas ads focus on storytelling and are unabashedly sentimental. These ads allude only subtly to the company or product they are promoting.

2014’s biggest television campaigns have enlisted WW1 soldiers (Sainsbury’s), benevolent fairies (M&S), overworked Nurses (Boots) and a CGI penguin (John Lewis) to spread festive cheer. There is no mention of any single product or push of a value offering, these ads barely even feature the retailers' branding. Instead, the focus is on creating emotive, enjoyable content that embraces the traditions, sentiment and excitement of the festive season.

This perhaps too is is part of Coca Cola’s legacy. Big brands don’t want to persuade you to buy a certain product from their store at Christmas, they’re aiming higher than that. They want to be part of your Christmas, just like Coke. Ultimately, they want to be Christmas, because Christmas sells itself.

 

Further Reading:

http://www.coca-colacompany.com/holidays/the-true-history-of-the-modern-day-santa-claus

http://www.coca-cola.co.uk/about-us/coca-cola-corporate-blog/coca-cola-blog-chris-ross.html

http://www.coca-cola.co.uk/about-us/heritage/christmas/haddon-sundblom-coca-cola-santa.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Claus

http://www.theguardian.com/media/organgrinder/2008/dec/08/coke-coca-cola-festive-ads-christmas