As everyone knows, companies and other organizations as well as celebrities and politicians spend millions of dollars in order to create “a brand identity” in the minds of consumers. Advertising agencies and public relations firms engage in marketing research including focus group testing and polling. Highly regarded “experts” in the field of consumer tastes and buying habits are consulted by these agencies for fees well into the six figures. Sometimes this market analysis can go on for years in an effort to create just the right look, the right colors, the right feeling, and the perfect image.
Advertisers would kill for the name brand of a Betty Crocker, Walt Disney, Coca-Cola, or Kleenex. A solid brand name is worth its weight in consumer purchasing dollars. People have a set expectation of quality and reliability when they see a recognizable brand. People also tend to buy what they know and trust. Keeping that trust with the consumer is an important part of protecting the brand image for the company; for as hard it is to create a positive, quality image, it takes no time at all to destroy it.
As cartoonist, storyman, and later as creative VP for Disney Consumer Products and publications, I took the image of the Disney characters and Disney name very seriously. I knew that these are precious commodities that should never be fooled with. People love the Disney characters and have a special bond with them; that bond cannot be compromised. Mickey Mouse is the most important character of all; he is the icon for the company.
When it comes to Christmas, there is no commercial icon that even comes close to the powerful image of Santa Claus. Santa is Christmas to most Americans as well as to many million others around the world. You couldn’t ask for a better image to represent the Christmas holiday season than Santa Claus. Santa is, of course, in the public domain and can be used (or misused) by any company or individual at their pleasure. No one company has the exclusivity to jolly old St. Nick. One company does come close, however … the Coca-Cola Company.
In 1931, The Coca-Cola Company commissioned Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa Claus. For inspiration, Sundblom turned to Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (commonly called “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”). Moore’s description of St. Nick led to an image of Santa that was warm, friendly, pleasantly plump, and human. For the next 33 years, Sundblom painted portraits of Santa that helped to create the modern image of Santa — an interpretation that today lives on in the minds of people of all ages, all over the world.
For generations people associated that lovable image of Santa Claus with Coca-Cola. They looked forward to seeing the advertising posters and commercials using that warm image carefully built up by Coca-Cola over many decades. It became a tradition, and people want tradition at Christmastime. In short, the Coca-Cola Company came about as close a company could come to “owning” the image of Santa Claus in the marketplace. Then they blew it. They threw him under the sleigh, so to speak. For no apparent reason, the decision was made to come up with new Christmas imaging in the last few years. Some genius in 1993 said, “Let’s do polar bears!”
This year they even changed the color of their cans from red to white! Customers rebelled and the Coca-Cola Company had to do some public relations backpedaling, but fast! Besides throwing Santa over the side, the other problem was these white cans were too similar to the silver Diet Coke cans, and it got too many consumers confused and angry. Many of them tweeted or emailed their complaints to the company. The result: The white cans are history, and the red cans are back in. The white can/polar bear thing proved to be a marketing failure.
The white cans were all part of an ad campaign with the WWF with the lofty ambition of raising awareness and funds to help create a safe haven for the polar bear, making an Arctic refuge. Good intentions maybe, but really dumb marketing. You just don’t throw away a classic feel-good image combination like Santa Claus and Coke for the sake of political correct environmental issues. How stupid can you be?
My advice to Coke would be this: Keep the traditional Santa Claus ads and packaging throughout the holidays and do the polar bear refuge thing in January, as another, separate campaign push. It’s Christmastime, dammit! People want Santa on their Coke cans and bottles!