A trail of half-eaten cookies and half-drunk glasses of milk can be traced back to 280AD – the legend of a monk named St Nicholas, the protector of children, from what is today, Turkey. Fast forward to 2020 and like clockwork, naughty and nice lists in hand, Santa Claus is coming to town. Unmistakably dressed in his velvet, red coat with white fur trim, his nightcap framing his rosy-cheeked face and big beard, and his large-buckled, black belt. It is his look after all – but it wasn’t always.
Illustrator Thomas Nast first drew Santa in 1862 and initially depicted him as a slightly terrifying elf-like creature. Not surprisingly, the kids didn’t love it, so in later drawings for Harper’s Weekly, he redesigned him as a skinny, old man – sadly though, still dark and gaunt and a little gnome-ish even. The jolly one needed an image makeover and it happened in 1931 when Santa was reimagined for an advertising campaign by Coca-Cola. Inspired by Clement Clarke Moore’s ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas’ poem, artist Haddon Sundblom’s folded him into the drink company’s universe with twinkling eyes, a smile, a warm disposition, and his now-famous Santa suit. He had been dressed in red before, but never the vibrant Coke red with his look and demeanor transformed from somewhat menacing to happy and magical. Now, Coke’s relationship to Santa has been forged forever between their annual, ‘no you’re crying’ advertising campaigns and the red colour connection. The drink company found a way to own Christmas.
Seeking real-life moments you can take ownership of is the secret sauce to brand building and memorability. Station promotions and show prep are not things you only plan for tomorrow – there are anchor points that you can and should be working on weeks and months ahead of time to maximise your brand’s unique spin and hopefully, impact. Calendar events like New Years’, Valentine’s Day, and Easter are no-brainers; one-offs like movie premieres are ripe for the picking if there’s audience interest in them, but it’s local activations that create the best opportunities if you can find them. By piggybacking on large city events, creative plays around openings of cool new retail or restaurant offerings, or honouring meaningful, in-market charities – you can create lingering perceptions that are powerful.
At its heart, Santa and Coke is simply a great example of context vs content. Any brand can create a character and paint him or her the same colour as their product, but the dagger of memorability comes from the topicality of it. Radio stations and shows that mirror the social consciousness of their audience can create lean in moments with much more ease than those that rely on divine creativity and the audience’s bandwidth to care. Commit to cutting through the noise – talk about and bring to life the things the market is already talking and thinking about. By focusing on context you will make it easier for listeners to listen, to care, and to love you for it.