Putting Santa to Work

Large outfits have long recognized that tapping the holiday spirit builds their brands. Small businesses also can exploit that wisdom

By Carol Henderson

'Tis the season to be branding -- so why are there so few wonderful holiday ads? Like their larger rivals, smaller outfits can leverage the spirit of the season to promote their brands. And also like their corporate brethren, they must put in the thought and effort to get holiday branding right the first time, because it's anything but easy. How difficult? Well, here's a challenge that should make my point: Name 10 holiday brands. See, you can't. Coca-Cola (COKE ), Norelco, Budweiser (BUD ) come immediately to mind -- and they're about it.

Regardless how large or small a business may be, the link between brand loyalty and holiday advertising lies in the emotionally rich traditions of the season -- joy of family, keeping with tradition, and goodwill towards others. The entrepreneur's goal is to create an association with the happiest time of the year -- and gain the benefits of seeing the season's good cheer transferred to his or her brand.

Coca-Cola has perfected this strategy. Each year, consumers look forward to the arrival of the famous, apple-cheeked Santa Claus, created in 1931 in by artist Haddon H. Sundblom. The annual campaign promotes an emotional response to the brand -- a feeling of holiday nostalgia. A few generations later, Coke successfully introduced its politically correct, animated polar bears, which have become another tradition.


  The Norelco Santa is another holiday advertising icon. Sliding over the snow in his electric-shaver sleigh, the Norelco commercials have been a hallmark of the holiday season for 35 years.

With hundreds of manufacturers and retailers vying for shoppers, why do only a few holiday brands exist? The two-part answer is tradition and seasonal consistency.

Most advertisers want to create ads that incorporate new creative elements, and/or develop brands that are trendy, hip, and cool. They forget that the emotional qualities of a good brand are remembrance, familiarity and "comfortability." When is the last time you asked for a tissue? Chances are you didn't. What you asked for was a Kleenex.

Creating new holiday ads isn't glamorous, and has become the bane of most advertising agency creative departments. They don't win awards, and there is nothing new and exciting about them. But they are essential. As corny as it sounds, consumers want tradition. They want the same ads year after year because seeing them return evokes the emotion of the season and lends an optimistic glow to thoughts of things to come. When consumers see Coke's polar bears, or those majestic Budweiser Clydesdales prancing down the same snow-covered path, they associate the holiday season's arrival with those brands and their loyalty grows.


  When is the last time you heard a new Christmas carol top the music charts? You haven't. You may have heard contemporary versions of traditional songs, but that's it. Consumers don't want the new. At this time of the year, they crave what's old -- memories and tradition, in other words. In recent years, Gap (GPS ) has come closest to creating a new holiday tradition. Its commercials are hip, brightly colored musicals that appeal to younger consumers by incorporating classic holiday songs with a new twist, and this theme is rerun year after year. As a result, Gap ads strike a chord of anticipation and recognition with twentysomethings everywhere.

Target Stores (TGT ) almost had it right. For several years, the company brought back the little dog with a red and white target over its eye, but recently seems to have changed its creative direction. This season's dancing ornaments may be a good, fun idea, but we probably won't see them next year -- again, no consistency.

Amazon.com (AMZN ) also came close. A few years ago, it ran a holiday commercial with Mitch Miller-type singers. The ad created a feeling of warmth for buying gifts online, normally a sterile environment. Those ads could have been the start of what would have been a seasonal tradition, but Amazon switched tacks the following year and the potential was lost. Even bringing back classic holiday commercials (such as the "retromercials" on the TV Land network) and juxtaposing them with a new, up-to-the-minute products will resonate more with shoppers than developing new creative concepts.


  Brands may also have to adapt their strategies to tap into the traditions and nostalgia of the holidays. Promoting good cheer may not directly promote sales and will off-strategy for many outfits, especially smaller ones. The approach does help to create brand loyalty, however, and can contribute to a positive image during a season that is supposed to be all about peace on earth. Why do you think so many companies donate products to Toys For Tots, or the Today show's Holiday Gift Drive? Believe me, generosity is only part of the answer.

In the next few weeks, television commercials and newspapers will be filled with holiday clutter ranging from those used-car lot Santas to tacky shopping mall ads. With only a few recognized holiday brands, small companies can rise above the clutter if they bring creativity and consistency to the task of tapping tradition to build a brand. Just like Imodium AD's holiday commercial, which features Santa stuck in the chimney with diarrhea, the overall lack of holiday-season branding creates a healthy opportunity for the entrepreneur.

Carol Henderson is the creative director and partner for McKee Wallwork Henderson ad agency in New Mexico and has worked with some of the nation's smallest and largest brands, including BMW, Timex, Northwest Airlines, Ameritech, and 3M.

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