There’s a part-myth that Coca-Cola ‘invented’ the modern Santa Claus as we know him today. The truth is that Father Christmas had appeared in a red coat before Coca-Cola’s illustrator Haddon Sundblom painted him, but he had also appeared as tall and gaunt, short and elflike, spooky and strict. Sundblom certainly played a big part, however, in creating the popular image we have of Santa today. He drew his inspiration from Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”.
This new Santa image first appeared in 1931 and immediately engaged Coca Cola’s customers in a way brands would yearn for today. Fans would write in (imagine!) when they noticed changes – for example, one year Santa’s belt was back-to-front (perhaps because Sundblom latterly used himself as a model and painted looking into a mirror). Another year, letters enquired what had happened to “Mrs Santa Claus” when Santa appeared without a wedding ring.
This led me to think what an incredible brand relationship Coca-Cola has with its customers. It has been in business 126 years – 126!! – yet has managed to retain its relevancy and ‘cool’ pretty consistently through all this time, without really even having to re-invent itself in any significant way. Yes, it’s had its PR disasters (Dasani – ouch!) – but none have had any major lasting impact. According to Interbrand, it is still the most valuable brand in the world, with an estimated worth of $78 billion. It is certainly hard to think of a brand that reaches more people. And unlike almost every other major brand, it has barely even touched its logo. (See here for a tongue-in-cheek look at what Coca-Cola’s logo might look like in 5000 years).
There are challenges ahead – Coca-Cola uses 1.36 litres of water for every litre of drink it produces and the likelihood of scarcer water supply in coming years will put it (and other drinks manufacturers) under even stronger pressure to reduce wastage. It has a whacking 56,180,920 Facebook ‘likes’ (compared to Pepsi’s 9,224,928) – but does a lot of posting and not much ‘engaging’ so there is work to do here. At TomorrowToday, we talk a lot about disruption, and there will be plenty ahead for Coca-Cola to face. But maybe the lesson it can teach us is, in fact, not to change too much (or at least not the important, outward things) and to stay true to a clear, consistent brand message. I would be surprised if my grandchildren aren’t still feeling the magic of that warm and jolly Coke Santa in 2138.