The Marketing Campaigns That Changed Holidays Forever

Holidays in America seem like such an institution that it’s hard to remember that many of the traditions that are considered canon are quite recent innovations. Many of these traditions have solid old-fashioned American marketing to thank. While marketing has always been a force in the American economic system, the general economic prosperity in America in the last century, and the development of communications technologies to connect more people across longer distances, has meant that a solid marketing campaign can go a lot farther than it used to. You’ll be surprised to find that many of our cherished Christmas traditions started as marketing ploys and became increasingly associated with the holidays as the years passed. Let’s look at some of the better known ones, and then end on some recent marketing trends that may mean something to future generations too!

Display Windows

Holiday Display WindowsHoliday Window Display with Kids

Display windows were one of the first modern holiday innovations that was a direct result of economic manufacturing practices. It wasn’t until the last part of the 19th century that large manufacturing processes improved enough to be able to make large sheets of glass. Department stores and retailers began to display holiday tableaus with the products as a bid to entice shoppers to buy through their entire yearly inventory. It was also the same large scale manufacturing innovations that made the mass production of children’s toys possible. That combined with increasing affluence in America at the turn of the century meant that marketing to children and families increased, and Christmas as the season to get gifts for children really took off.

Coca-Cola Santa

Coca-Cola SantaThe history of Santa is long and complex. In fact, it would surprise many readers to know that to this day in parts of Europe, Santa isn’t the one delivering presents. It may be a Christkind (a kind of childlike Christ figure), or in parts of Southern Italy, a good witch named Befana – complete with broom – comes down the chimney. In America, the general tradition of Santa was taken from British precursors, like Father Christmas, who makes an appearance as the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  Father Christmas wore green robes trimmed with fur, and for years American depictions of Santa reflected the differing origins of American immigrants, with Santa in all different kinds of names, robes and gear. Santa was occasionally depicted with red robes trimmed with white fur in the late 19th and early 20th century, but it wasn’t until Coca-Cola started a major advertising campaign in the 1930s, using the red-robed version, that the tradition of Santa became associated with that particular color palette (and obviously, Coke’s color branding as well). This was a strong marketing move by Coke, which would use their position and popularity to become a major player in future holiday marketing all the way to today. Remember Coke trucks, polar bears and penguins? Well, that’s because Red Santa started it all.

Montgomery Ward’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Original 1939 copy

Yes, even ol’ Rudolph is not immune to the machinations of the holiday marketing machine. In fact, Rudolph owes its existence to it!  Many people may not have heard of Montgomery Ward today, but it was a major catalogue retailer for almost a century. While display windows were all the rage in big cities that could support large department stores, people in other parts of the States often wanted the same products, but didn’t have a good way to get many of them. So Montgomery Ward created a mail-order catalogue of many of these products (up to a four pound book’s worth at one point) and became a highly successful retailer, eventually opening up stores all across America. In the 1930s the company was giving away coloring books to children and their parents in the stores, all based on a character and poem called Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer developed by a Montgomery Ward employee named Robert May. While the Rudolph character took off (pun intended), not many people remember the days of Montgomery Ward today. That’s because in 1947, the company decided to generously hand over the copyright to Robert Lay, who was experiencing financial difficulties after the death of his wife. Rudolph just kept getting more popular when made into song by Mays brother-in-law, as well as the famous stop-motion film made in 1964 that regularly runs today. Now it’s hard to imagine an American Christmas season with a Rudolph appearance!

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

It would seem obvious that Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a marketing campaign. But since it is a 90 year tradition, it’s become and institution, and difficult for anyone to image a year without it. It is even familiar to those who have never watched it,who at least have heard of it, since its now broadcasted each year on local networks and basic cable. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade started in 1924, for the opening of the largest department store in NYC.  It was incredibly popular from the outset and now up to 4 million people will line the streets to watch the displays with many more millions tuning in from their homes. Particularly popular innovations to the parade included Santa traveling by sleigh, themed floats and giant balloons. Although the parade features different themes from year to year, there is a particular focus on entertaining children, and marketing the toys that gifts that children will be asking for in the coming weeks.

John Lewis Holiday Commercials

The John Lewis brand is not very familiar with American audiences, because it is basically a high-end British retailer. However, it gets noted here because its holiday campaigns really embody a trend that more and more brands are picking up on.

It’s impossible to get away these days from the incessant holiday marketing. From Black Friday on, many brands are using every tactic in the book to bombard people into buying more and more. This post is proof of that! John Lewis’ marketing takes a different approach, and for the last 6 years, has kept the focus to telling a story in their commercials, and not getting too hung up on getting products in front of the cameras. Because of this, their yearly commercials have become highly-anticipated, from their 2012 snowman adventure, a 2013 beautifully-animated short film, a 2014 Monty the penguin, to the 2015 story of the Man on the Moon. Their stories are emotional, poignant and instant classics.

This trend has been picked up in recent years as a reaction to the present materialism of the holidays. Many companies now pair their holiday marketing with donations to non-profits, and are working on telling a story that can bring people together rather than simply presenting deals.

REI’s #OptOutside (and others like it)

REI #OptOutside

Which brings us to REI’s 2015 campaign #OptOutside.  In 2015 REI did something that many brands would consider inconceivable. They CLOSED for Black Friday, giving their employees an extra paid day off. They drummed up support for the day by encouraging their customer to shirk the material demands of the holiday commercial machine and #OptOutside, to get out, go to park, hike and enjoy nature and each other’s company. This campaign was wildly successful in generating PR for the company. And many other brands got on board, closing their doors to encourage people to become more conscious consumers. Patagonia, another outdoor clothing and gear outfit, had a similar campaign this year, donating 100% of its Black Friday sales to conservation non-profits.

This seems to be a trend that is increasing rather than decreasing. While there are cultural debates on the use of ‘Merry Christmas’ vs ‘Happy Holidays’, no matter what holiday you celebrate, the reason for the season comes back to caring about your family, community and wider world. It’s about allowing yourself to be hopeful for a good change that can happen inside and out, and reaching out to your neighbors and loved ones in empathy. Gifts are most meaningful when they reflect this sentiment. Companies that want to stay relevant for the holidays should probably look a little deeper. For many, Christmas gift-giving is increasingly stressful and financially difficult. While we might all have slightly different ideas on the ‘True Meaning of Christmas’, it comes back to wanting to do something good for one another.

In the spirit of that last statement, we at Shoplet wish all of you Happy Holidays, whether it’s Hanukkah, Christmas or Festivus. Be safe and be kind to one another this year.