Few things say Christmas like the image of a bright tree, a warm fire, stockings on the mantle, and…a glass bottle of Coke? Why is a bottle of Coca Cola such an iconic symbol of Christmastime? I mean, it’s wintertime for goodness sake. Shouldn’t we be drinking hot chocolate or cider or something? And why is it always Santa that’s drinking the Coke? Why doesn’t Pepsi ever put out Christmas cans and decorations?
The questions go on and on. To look at one reason for Coke’s dominance over Christmas, we can take a look back at forward-thinking branding and advertising from the 1930s.
By now, you’ve probably heard the “fact” that The Coca Cola Company “created” Santa to sell more products. Not true, but not very far from the truth either.
Prior to Haddon Sundblom’s first rendition of the classic Coca Cola Santa in 1931, the image of Santa was a very inconsistent display of imagination.
Thomas Nast’s Santa Claus in Camp. From a medieval bishop to a Norse huntsman, the idea of Santa Claus differed from region to region, and from person to person. One of the first iconic portrayals of the character actually came from Thomas Nast in 1863, who originally portrayed him as a small, elf-like man in stars and stripes, strangling a small effigy of Jefferson Davis at the head of a Union encampment (Thomas Nast was a staunch Republican and supporter of the Union at the time, in case you were wondering). Nast’s slightly rotund, elfish Santa remained one of the most popularized images through the 1920s.
It was around this time that Coke began to experiment with using Santa as a brand representative to sell more soda in the wintertime. In 1923, they commissioned artwork for their new “Thirst Knows No Season” campaign, with imagery of Santa following the model set out by Nast in the 1860s.
After years of poor feedback on this…somewhat scary portrayal, Coke tried using paintings of a department store Santa in front of prominent Coca Cola landmarks before commissioning work from Haddon Sundblom in 1931.
Following direction from Archie Lee, the D’Arcy Advertising Agency executive working with The Coca-Cola Company, Sundblom created a “kind and wholesome” recreation of Santa, drawing inspiration from various precursors to create a new image that was fresh and heartwarming, yet familiar and nostalgic.
Now that’s all well and good, but so what? How were they able to keep this character all to themselves and change the imagery of Santa and Christmastime in their favor?
I’ll try and give a few reasons that I can immediately see as factoring in to their ownership of the holiday.
First off, Coke took a risk. Not many of their competitors were willing to try and expand drink sales outside of the summer season. It seemed like a senseless task that consumers wouldn’t like and companies couldn’t afford. Nobody thought it was possible, and nobody tried. Coke thought outside of the box, and went against the grain. I would argue that this sort of thinking is what made soda as popular year-round as it is today.
Getting there first
The Coca Cola Santa stood out from its precursors mainly because it was one of the first truly standardized and commercialized renditions of the figure. While Santa had been used for decades as a political cartoon, mail icon, or cover art on The Saturday Evening Post, Coke’s Santa had a long-term goal and smart direction.
Competitors like Pepsi-Cola (as it was called at the time) didn’t pursue similar usage of this icon until 1965, when they finally commissioned Norman Rockwell to produce his classic version of the character that he had been producing since before Coca Cola even began their campaign.
Now, granted. Sundblom and Coca Cola didn’t create Santa. What they did do was create a new tradition in holiday imagery – one that produced new images of the Coca Cola Santa each year from 1931 to 1964. The image became a fixture in Christmastime advertising and symbolism, one with which children and adults alike knew throughout a significant portion of their lives as one of the facets of Christmas customs.
Listening to consumer feedback
Coke tried and failed for seven years before commissioning Sundblom’s successful Santa. What’s important is that they did fail, but they (and their ad agency) listened to feedback in order to create an image that was more appealing to their consumers. They didn’t remain stubborn and assume that they knew what was best through their own creative intuitions. They changed to meet the consumers’ desires and meet their needs.
Changing with the times
Despite the desire to create a nostalgic vision of Santa, Coke hasn’t been afraid to change with the times. In the 1960s, it was showing off new toys and technology in an attempt to better connect with children of the time.
More recently, it was allowing their image of Santa to share the spotlight with their polar bear campaigns, and being comfortable with transitioning a large part of their efforts at Christmastime from nostalgic messages to ones of environmental activism. As the years go on, Coca Cola will have to continue to develop and transition their Santa Claus in order to maintain their brand equity over Christmas. Without it, the Coca Cola Santa will quickly lose relevance in consumers’ minds as a vital piece of the holiday in general.