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For most of us, the image we have of Santa Claus is a portly, jolly, white-bearded man in a red suit, but that wasn’t the case before the ‘20s. You may have heard before that Coca-Cola invented the idea of Santa Claus. A great marketing ploy? Those who feel strongly about the magic of Christmas might be glad to know that it’s actually a popular hoax. Coca-Cola did not invent Santa Claus. What it did, though, was reinvent it through ads, and yes, steadfast marketing and branding. Santa, before 1931, was portrayed as everything from a tall and lanky man to a creepy mythical-looking elf. The history of Santa dates as far back as the 4th century, Saint Nicholas, but the modern image of it was put together by Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast, who started off drawing Santa as a small elf-like figure, later evolving his illustrations closer to the sprightly figure we know today. And then Coca-Cola stepped in and changed everything: the Santa that we’ve come to know and love is Coca-Cola’s Santa. Just how did a beverage company take over a figure that’s nearly 1,800 years old? The answer is probably much simpler than we expect: marketing.
Coca-Cola’s Christmas ads of Santa first landed in major magazines in the ‘20s, primarily the Saturday Evening Post. The initial rounds of the Santa campaigns were received well by readers, and as time went on, Coca-Cola decided to invest more and more of their efforts in promoting the jolly red character. In 1930, Coca-Cola commissioned artist Fred Misen to paint Santa on the walls of a department store, where Santa is seen drinking bottles of Coca-Cola amid a crowd. The ad was accompanied by the world's largest soda fountain to which onlookers would never be able to forget. The same illustration was replicated in print ads that same Christmas season and spread out to reach the general public.
This happy and relatable Santa Claus became so successful that a year later Coca-Cola asked Dutch illustrator Haddon Sandbrom to recreate almost the same version of Santa Claus, which was the biggest turning point in the company’s holiday marketing. The D'Arcy Advertising Agency, which had an executive partnership with The Coca-Cola Company, wanted Santa to be a wholesome figure who was both realistic and symbolic, so they worked with Sandbrom to reinvent Santa. Sandbrom was inspired by the poem ‘Visit from St. Nicholas’ written by Clement Clarke Moore in 1822, where Santa was described as the famous red figure who could magically walk through chimneys and travel around the world with a small sled carried by eight reindeers. Coincidentally, the use of red and white colors in Santa's outfit took reference from Thomas Nast’s illustrations, inspired by the real-life attire of St. Nicholas, rather than a tribute to Coca-Cola’s brand colors.
From 1931 to 1964, Coca-Cola Christmas ads showed Santa delivering toys, reading letters and enjoying Coca-Cola in his visits with the kids who stayed up to see him. In addition, the ads always showed Santa reaching into the refrigerators of those children’s homes for an ice-cold Coca-Cola. The original oil paintings Sundblom created were adapted for Coca-Cola advertising in magazines and on store displays, billboards, calendars, posters, magnets, plush dolls and various other novelties. Many of those items today are popular collectibles.
For many years, Coca-Cola’s advertising and marketing used images of Santa that were based on the original work of Sundblom, but in 1964, the artist created his final version of Santa Claus. These paintings are among the most prized works of art in the company's archives department and have been exhibited all over the world, in famous locations such as the Louvre in Paris, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, the Isetan department store in Tokyo and the NK department store in Stockholm. Many of the original paintings are on display at World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Georgia. Fast-forward to 2001, Santa became animated, created by Academy Award-winning artist Alexandre Petrov. The rest is history.
Why was making Santa a mascot such a priority for Coca-Cola and how did they know it was going to work? Coca-Cola's idea of connecting Santa Claus with the brand's identity was a big risk for a company selling soda. Since the very beginning, Coca-Cola has made it their mission to connect their brand with ideas of community, joy and happy emotional experiences. For more than a century, their marketing campaigns have promised happiness to their customers. It’s rare to see a company that has existed for as long as Coca-Cola has to keep the same core values they originally set off with and remain competitive. Furthermore, Coca-Cola and Santa’s red and white branding have greatly associated the two, despite the color coordination being mere coincidence. Christmas holidays and Coca-Cola are linked because Coca-Cola represents the past and family traditions. A campaign that would’ve seemed impossible to actually pull off, Coca-Cola is one of the rare companies whose ads and campaigns have helped define a significant part of modern Western culture.
Coca-Cola can safely repeat their Santa campaigns each year because they’ve successfully adopted a quintessential seasonal character that’s appeared for over 100 years. People now expect to see Santa. There can be little doubt that this has helped seal the association between Santa and Coca-Cola.
It's true that Coca-Cola didn't invent the idea of Santa Claus, but it's also true that Coca-Cola brought it into popular culture. What is indisputable is the fact that the Santa Claus we know today, the Santa that Coca-Cola recreated, is a microcosm of Christmas.