How Coke Co-Opted Santa Claus

This is an excerpt from the bestselling book, Why Marketing Works. Jeff mined the history of marketing and history overall, to find stories that inform, warn, and inspire marketers today.

Coca-Cola has spent 130 years making its brand synonymous with happiness. And what’s a happier image than Santa Claus? According to the company’s website, Santa was first paired with Coke for an advertisement in the December, 1930 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. The ad shows kids admiring a department store Santa Claus who is enjoying a glass of the cola. 

A year later the D’Arcy advertising agency developed a series of images envisioning the life of the “real” Santa Claus rather than a department store version. They mined Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” which begins with the famous line, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Over the years, Coca-Cola’s Santa reviews lists, delivers toys, eats treats, and visits children, always while enjoying a Coke. Santa became a seasonal celebrity for the brand, gracing store displays, billboards, posters, and calendars. 

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Robert Woodruff was president of the company from 1923 to 1954. Under his leadership, Coke moved from away from selling a soft drink to selling an idea. That concept seems to have driven Coca-Cola’s culture of “happiness” ever since. 

The D’Arcy advertising agency helped drive Coca-Cola’s optimistic and positive tone all year round. They focused the marketing on the pleasure Coke delivered.

Illustrations from Norman Rockwell and N. C. Wyeth from the 1920s and 1930s helped people visualize the joy of Coke in their daily lives. Wyeth’s soft tones provided paintings featuring Huckleberry Finn-like characters with a fishing rod and Cokes. Every illustration by Wyeth for Coke suggests simple enjoyment and fulfillment.

Rockwell’s work told more layered emotional stories. One advertisement shows a keen young man in a suit delivering a tray of Cokes to a company Vice President. This suggested Coke was one of the benefits of hard work and accomplishment; drinking Coke signaled success and achievement. Another depicts two young suburban couples enjoying a groomed backyard and chilled Cokes. The message of this ad is clear: Happiness and the good life comes with Coca-Cola.

Coca-Cola has had 46 tag lines in 130 years, including: “Enjoy Thirst,” “Makes Good Things Taste Better,” “Have a Coke and a Smile,” “You Can’t Beat the Feeling,” and “Open Happiness.” Each slogan seeks to resonate emotionally with consumers. They all reference a positive emotion or allude to happiness.

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In January 2016, Coca-Cola announced that for the first time, all of the company’s beverage brands would be united in one global creative campaign called “Taste the Feeling.” The tagline connotes the idea that drinking a Coca-Cola product is a simple pleasure that makes everyday moments more special. Chief Marketing Officer Marcos de Quinto said, “We want to help remind people why they love the product as much as they love the brand.” 

Rodolfo Echeverria, Vice President of Global Creative, Connections and Digital at Coca-Cola, avoided calling this a campaign or set of ads. He referred to them as “emotional product communications.” The company is using emotional storytelling and showcasing moments people share while drinking Coke. Coca-Cola is going right for the emotional jugular by telling stories of first dates, first kisses, and first loves. Clearly, Coca-Cola remains committed to communicating and selling happiness.

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