Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus

Santa Claus figurine on Christmas tree drinking from glass Coca Cola bottle.
Christmas is fast approaching, and if one dares to brave the retail crowds at shopping centres across Australia they will see evidence of this fact in full swing. Chadstone’s latest Christmas installation includes moving, talking robotic reindeer, a vibrant elf workshop, artificial snow falling from the ceiling and a jolly Santa Claus ho ho hoing away. While Myer are in its 64th year of bringing their windows to life with Christmas stories. Their free exhibition is the culmination of the 12,000 hours of work of 40 artisans. Myer’s gift to Melbourne attracts an estimated 1.4 million people – all enticed by the holiday of Christmas and its endlessly iconic hero, Santa Claus. Santa is a symbol of joy and generosity, a mythical icon in the western world. But how did he come to be so prolific? His origins stem from a range of sources, but the influence of Coca-Cola must be acknowledged. The western, modern idea of Christmas can be dated to 1822, when writer, Clement Clarke Moore, wrote a poem called “A visit from Saint Nicholas” – better known today as “The night before Christmas”. The poem presented Santa as an amalgamation of St Nicholas (a fourth century bishop renowned for gift giving) and Sinterclaus, the Dutch version of St Nicholas. Moore presented a version dressed head to toe in fur, hosting a jolly disposition, a beard as white as snow and those iconic rosy cheeks we know so well today. Moore also invented the sack of toys and the sleigh led by reindeer. This was not however, the fully fledged version of Santa we now know. This one smoked a pipe and was encircled in smoke. Further, rather than the clean, red coat we know today, this Santa’s clothes were tarnished with ashes and soot. It wasn’t until around 100 years later, that Coca-Cola began to feature Santa in their advertising, in an attempt to drive sales for the beverage during winter. During these 100 years, the image of Santa was evolving from other contributors, but few had breathed as much life into the man as Coca-Cola was about to. The “thirst knows no season” campaign starred a Santa brimming with personality. Artist Haddon Sundblom created the image, and due to its popularity, spent the next thirty years fine-tuning and popularising his vision of Santa. From 1931 to 1964, Sundblow showed Santa delivering toys, reading letters, engaging with the children and raiding the fridges of the homes he visited. During the depression Santa is pictured relaxing, with his sleeves rolled up, revealing a hint of red underwear. Santa is depicted as endearingly clumsy and occasionally irresponsible, often getting into trouble as a result. Just as he gives, he’s somewhat fond of taking too, and was often pictured stealing Christmas turkey from the fridge.   The success of these advertisements cemented the modern image of Santa Claus in the public consciousness. In an era before the popularisation of TV or the colourisation of film, Coca-Cola provided the primary exposure to the modern Santa Claus image, and consistently sustained this exposure for decades. Now we have the same Santa, but he isn’t confined to painted images – he’s taking photos with families amongst robotic reindeer and gracing our screens in film and TV. The story is an important one for its implications for marketing. The legacy of Santa is a persistent reminder of the mind-blowing cultural influence that brands can have. Just as Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus is as relevant today as it was then, so too are the principles this campaign was modeled upon. Great marketing is about great storytelling. Coca-Cola focused on a story first, their product second. The campaign subsequently resonated with people on a deep social and cultural level,  creating a human connection that transcends the product and the brand.