When you think of holiday marketing, odds are good you think of one big marketing campaign that’s become practically ubiquitous with Christmastime: Coke. Or, more specifically, jolly St. Nick himself sipping a Coke, probably while bouncing a child on his knee or sharing the beverage with thirsty reindeer. But how did this – at first glance – strange pairing come about?
It all began when the Coca-Cola Company started to ramp up its advertising around the Christmas season. During the 1920s, Coke posted a variety of different shopping ads in magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post. Since Coke was a soft drink, and “pop” was preferred ice-cold in the warmer months of summer, sales traditionally fell off in winter. Never one to rest on its laurels, the brand sought to rectify this with an aggressive barrage of themed magazine posters.
The solution? Connect the soda to Santa Claus, which would draw the attention of both kids and parents alike.
The campaign didn’t start as an industry-defining victory, of course. The first Coca-Cola Christmas advertisements with Santa showed up around 1930 when the artist Fred Mizen painted Santa Claus in a crowd drinking a bottle of Coke at a department store. The initial advertising was reasonably successful, but it wasn’t until the next artist, Haddon Sundblom, changed the design of Father Christmas from a stern old man to a cheerier fellow that the thematic ads took off like Santa’s sleigh.
Fun fact – the original “Coke Santa” model was a real person: a retired salesman named Lou Prentiss, who was a friend of Sundblom. Later, when Prentiss passed away, Sundblom used himself as the model for St. Nick by painting while looking into a mirror. Later, he used photographs to continually re-create and improve the iconic image of a jolly Santa Claus.
Between the 1930s and 60s, Coke depicted Santa engaging in his usual round of seasonal activities, like delivering toys, visiting kids, and enjoying a few cookies, all with a Coke cleverly clutched in a free hand. Notably, many of the Santa-themed Coke advertisements didn’t directly advertise the pop – instead, Coke was just there in the magazine scene, as if Santa had chosen to bring one of the icy, delicious beverages with him on his Christmas Eve journey as a matter of personal preference.
The effect was gradual but eventually powerful. You already know that Santa and Coke go together just as well as milk and cookies, and it’s all because of this decades-spanning campaign that tapped into the emotional core of the season – Santa and gift-giving – and connected a brand to it naturally, smartly, and successfully.
In many ways, the Santa Claus/Coca-Cola marketing phenomenon is a perfect example of just how holiday marketing can impact how we think about the season. It’s also a powerful representation of marketing when it’s done well.
Holiday marketing isn’t just about selling things. It’s about connecting brands with people (and, in Coke’s case, doing it so well that your brand becomes an inextricable part of the season overall!).
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