How Coca Cola made Santa

December 14, 2023
Posted by
James Windle

Throughout history, the image of Santa has taken on many shapes and forms - the most accurate being that of St. Nicholas from which the entire fantasy gets its origins. However, it was actually the work of one of the world’s most iconic brands that cemented the appearance that we know and love. In fact, the likeness of Santa that is most prevalent is actually a likeness of someone that wasn’t like St Nicholas at all.

The story begins with Coca-Cola. Leading up to the 1931 Christmas period they wanted to launch a new marketing campaign.

To create something a little more marketable, Coca-Cola employed the services of illustrator Haddon Sundblom. Sundblom had his friend, Lou Prentiss, act as a live model. Taking inspiration from an 1822 poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ by Clement Clark Moore, Sundblom put his focus on rosy red cheeks, a white beard, twinkling eyes and the Coca-Cola red jacket that is now iconic. He drew Lou sitting in a chair, enjoying a Coca-Cola.

The marketing department at Coca Cola took their new, vibrant illustration and got to work creating a campaign. Making the most of the company’s deep pockets, they were able to access the best media placements and put their work in front of millions of eyes. With additional advertising over the following years they reinforced the association of Coca Cola and Christmas but it was the illustration that took centre stage. This campaign had a tremendous impact on the perception we have of this hero of the holiday season.

The outcome of this iconic campaign can be summarised by the fact that when you think of Santa Claus your mind immediately visualises a Coca-Cola illustration, even though most don’t realise it.

Lou went on to pass and Sundblom was forced to use himself as a live model. In later campaigns he even used his neighbours' children to model in his depictions of Santa visiting some lucky kids!

Sundbloms final version of Santa Claus was created in 1964, however, Coca-Cola continued to use his original version in advertisements for several decades. These illustrations are now prized collectors items and have featured in some of the most prestigious galleries and museums including Paris’ Louvre with many of the original pieces now residing at the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, GA.

Sundblom’s original illustration was adapted and used across many advertising formats showing this jolly character delivering toys and visiting children, pausing only to read a letter and enjoy a Coke, of course. These advertisements featured everywhere from National Geographic to plush toys, billboards and calendars.

Eventually, a time came where the character of Santa surpassed his role in Coca Cola’s advertising and became cemented solely as the man who slid down chimneys, stopping at nothing to ensure your child had their presents delivered - unless they have been naughty, of course.

Although he is still used in their seasonal advertising, Santa and Coca-Cola don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand anymore but it’s no doubt they played a massive role in his origin story.

This story is about more than just Santa. This is a case study about how marketing, specifically advertising and branding, inadvertently shapes the world we live in, sometimes to a great extent. It’s only now, almost 100 Christmas’ since the reframing of Santa as a jolly fat man with a white beard, that we can actually picture him without a bottle of Coca-Cola in his hand.

Coca-Cola considered not only how their branding influences the way people perceive their company, but also a period of the year. This was obviously achieved with a massive advertising budget, but that doesn’t mean the same principles can’t be scaled down and applied to your business.

Does your advertising tell a story? Does it let the consumer know your company is creative and forward thinking without having to say it outright? Coca-Cola considered everything about their advertising down to the wedding ring Mrs Claus gave Santa. Maybe these tiny details in near-century old advertising don't interest you, but at Beans, they have us hook, line and sinker.

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