The brand storytelling genius of the Coca-Cola Santa
Learn how Coca-Cola developed an effective "partnership" with Santa Claus in a series of holiday ads that stretch through the better part of a century.
Images courtesy of Coca-Cola
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 — story. In broad strokes, we know how the narrative begins and ends, but the colorful details (think a hungry Santa raiding the fridge) renew the story for us and draw us in again year after year.
Even Santa loves a bit of drama
Kris Kringle sits at the center of a story world that is well suited to brand messaging. The emphasis on sharing joy is not only a fortuitous partner to Coca-Cola’s brand purpose; it is at the heart of a compelling narrative structure that engages and informs.
The most effective stories are simple, clear, and dynamic; the contrast between beginning and end create a dramatic tension that encourages the reader to move from one to the other, while the middle offers a clear roadmap from a suboptimal present to a brighter future.
Christmas songs and storybooks teach children that if they behave well — if they share in the holiday spirit — they will be rewarded. As adults, we no longer think of this as a quid-pro-quo, but the essential message (really the Golden Rule) still resonates with us.
Transportation to a winter wonderland
As kids, we all participated in the Santa story as recipients (if we were good); as adults, we keep the story alive by assuming the role of gift-givers. Just as we enact the story in our own lives, we can see ourselves in the Santa that adorns Coca-Cola cans and ads every Winter.
Research has shown that this narrative immersion, which is triggered by dramatic tension, is driven by a measurable increase in the production of oxytocin, the neurotransmitter responsible for building empathic bonds and encouraging prosocial behavior.
The same neurological infrastructure that allows us to bond with our favorite characters in movies supports our struggle to enact the Santa story in our own lives. Oxytocin brings us into the story world and helps impress the values of kindness and generosity the tale imparts.
Not just nostalgia, it’s science
Every year we add to our personal Santa story, and Coke’s ubiquitous ads ensure that the brand plays at least a small role. These stories are cumulative and, adages aside, familiarity breeds fondness — the older we get, the more these stories mean to us.
Known as the mere exposure effect, even the grinchiest among us become fonder of the Santa story — and ads — over time; the same effect is what lodges that annoying pop song in our head and, after a few dozen listens, convinces us that we like it.
Though it seems obvious, it is important to note that at the heart of Coca-Cola’s strategy is their association with the story of Santa Claus. This goes beyond the symbolic linkage of purpose, or the fond memories it may call back: the relationship makes us feel better about Coke.
Known as the halo effect, the more that we associate Coca Cola with Santa (and we do), the more that our feelings about Santa (and the holidays) will inform our perception of the brand — a link Coca Cola encourages in their holiday ads (Taste the Feeling).
The Santa story sticks; yours should too
It is no surprise that the Santa story leverages so many narrative and behavioral principles. After all, it has become one of the most popular narratives among children and adults alike. It is difficult to imagine a world in which Santa isn’t ubiquitous but, even a century ago, he wasn’t.
The Santa story features a clear and compelling narrative arc; a plot that leverages the neurological infrastructure of empathy. Developed over decades with the input of countless writers, artists, and oral storytellers, the distinct pieces came together into the story we know.
Coca-Cola made excellent use of the similarity between their brand purpose and Santa’s and developed a close association between the festive figure and their products. In doing so, they were able to reflect some of the holiday cheer he elicits onto their messaging.
Both the Santa story and Coca-Cola’s ads apply behavioral and psychological principles that have been used for millennia to make stories stick. Modern research has begun to define, if not understand, these tools, which can be used to craft impactful content of all kinds.
The cynics among us may decry the appropriation of a heartwarming symbol for the sale of soft drinks, but smart marketers will see in the Coca-Cola Santa the well-executed transformation of a complex but powerful story world into a refreshingly clear branded narrative.