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did coca cola invent santa?

Photo: Coca-Cola

History has offered many representations of Father Christmas, who has appeared in a range of clothing and colors over time. Perhaps the most famous portrayal, however, is that of Saint Nicholas of Myra, a 4th Century bishop depicted in familiar red robes.

The popular myth that Father Christmas owes his appearance to Coca-Cola –– the portly stature, bushy beard and red outfit –– is not entirely accurate. Rather, the Santa Claus image you recognize today was the image portrayed by Haddon Sundblom for Santa’s first appearance in Cola advertising in 1931, drawing inspiration from Saint Nicholas’ image.

Indeed, of the many contemporary portrayals of Father Christmas, Coca-Cola conveniently selected — as opposed to invented — the image we know today. Of course, this imagery conveniently matched their own famously colored branding.

Cola’s campaign has evolved over time, showing Santa in a range of scenarios which any customer might find familiar:

  • ‘Me too’ in 1936 was Santa in the Great Depression
  • ‘Give and take, say I’ showed children leaving out Cokes for him at night in 1937
  • In 1961, Santa attempts to hush the family dog ‘When friends drop in.’

Part of the campaign’s success is in engaging Santa in recognizable scenes. Customers reactions and traditions have followed. After 1937, children started leaving out Coke at night, while after another campaign showed Santa without a wedding ring, concerned fans wrote to Coca-Cola asking where Mrs. Claus had gone.

In adopting such a quintessential seasonal character, Coca-Cola can safely repeat their campaign each year. People expect to see Santa and, much like his wedding ring, would likely now question if he failed to make an appearance on Cola’s behalf.

While the red and white branding similarities are largely fortuitous for Coke, there can be little doubt that this has helped seal the association between the brand and Santa in people’s minds.

Holiday Marketing Takeaway

Is there is a well-known seasonal character whose features already match some of your branding? If “yes”, capitalize on this to build long-lasting associations in consumers’ minds.

Table of Contents

Intro150 Years of the Best Holiday Campaigns
Chapter 1 The Genesis of Holiday Window Displays
Chapter 2 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Brings Spectacle to the Season
Chapter 3 How Coca-Cola Invented The Father of Christmas (Or did they?)
Chapter 4 Budweiser Celebrates the End to Prohibition
Chapter 5 Montgomery Ward Employee Invents Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Chapter 6 Campbell’s Soup Speaks to the ’50s Housewife
Chapter 7 Mr. Potato Head Becomes First Toy Ever Televised
Chapter 8 NORAD Tracks Santa’s Journey Around the World
Chapter 9 Norelco Popularizes Stop-Motion Animation
Chapter 10 Kentucky Fried Chicken for Christmas? Why You’ll Eat KFC in Japan
Chapter 11 Folgers Advertises the Intangible
Chapter 12 Hershey’s Holiday Bells Defy an Ad Agency
Chapter 13 Coca-Cola’s Polar Bears Humanize Global Warming
Chapter 14 Coca-Cola’s Christmas Fleet Brings Truckloads of Cheer
Chapter 15 M&M’s Stumble Upon Santa –– No One is Left Standing
Chapter 16 Starbucks Red Cups Spark Consumer Salivating (and Controversy)
Chapter 17 Target Keeps it Simple with Their Black Friday Catalog Focuses on Price
Chapter 18 Pampers Silent Night Raises $40 Million for Charity
Chapter 19 Give a Garmin Hits on Travel, Humor and Holiday Stress
Chapter 20 John Lewis Focuses on Storytelling Over Brand
Chapter 21 Macy’s Believe Campaign Raises $10 Million, Involves Schools
Chapter 22 American Express Small Business Saturday Supports Local
Chapter 23 Apple Misunderstood Campaign Makes Technology and Family a Priority
Chapter 24 REI’s #OptOutside Campaign Bucks Tradition