Did Coca-Cola invent Santa Claus?
By Trung Phan
PLUS: Some festive memes to tide you over.
Happy holidays, all. Thanks for subscribing to SatPost.
I wanted to sneak some laughs in before the holiday weekend by answering a timely question: Did Coca-Cola invent Santa Claus?
PS. Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey has been going absolutely bonkers on Twitter this week (roasting people — mainly VCs — left, right and centre). There’s too much to unpack rn, but rest assured I have a folder of his tweets I plan to write about.
PPS. I received some early holiday cheer when the one-and-only Hasan Minhaj gave me a shoutout on the My First Million podcast (thus validating all the hours I’ve wasted making dumb memes).
So, did Coca-Cola invent Santa?
I hate to be indecisive guy, but the answer is “yes” and “no”.
While Coca-Cola didn’t invent the idea of Santa, the character we know today — white beard with a gut and jolly AF — was popularized by the beverage brand starting in the 1930s.
The urban legend of “Coca-Cola created Santa” is so persistent that the company literally has an FAQ on its website addressing the question.
Santa was another Coca-Cola marketing coup
Today, Coca-Cola spends $4B+ a year on marketing. But the company has been uber-brand conscious since Day 1.
The beverage that became Coke was invented in 1866 by pharmacist John Stith Pemberton. It was originally created as a headache reliever and the early iterations did in fact have trace amounts of cocaine (from the coca leaves).
The coke / cocaine connection led to an urban legend that the logo turned sideways is a dude snorting some booger sugar. That story is not true (but this photo of John Lennon pretending to snort a bottle of coke is very true).
The brand’s name — coined by Smith’s bookkeeper Frank Robinson — combined “coca” and “kola (nuts)”, a caffeine-infused ingredient in the drink.
Coca-Cola is a head nod to the ingredients AND also brilliant branding: the back-to-back “Cs” is a great use of alliteration.
As any marketer or poet will tell you, alliteration — like rhyming — is a powerful tool for memory recall (other corporations that use the technique include Best Buy, PayPal, Google, Krispy Kreme, Dunkin’ Donuts).
Robinson def knew what he was doing.
Speaking of marketing chops, don’t forget how Coca-Cola designed its distinctive bottle. In 1915, it floated a creative brief that asked glass companies around America to create a “bottle so distinct that you would recognize if by feel in the dark or lying broken on the ground.”
Here is the patent for the winning design we all know so well:
Back to the initial question: Why did Coca-Cola make its version of Santa Claus? Clearly, they have a bunch of marketing geniuses over there and they thought “oh, Christmas seems like a popular day, let’s try and own it.”
How did Coca-Cola create its Santa?
In 1931, Coca-Cola — after (maybe) saying “let’s try and own this whole Christmas thing” — commissioned artist Haddon Sundblom to create a Santa ad.
Up to that point, there were many versions of Santa (tall and thin, elfy, scary).
The OG Santa is based off of Saint Nicholas, “who’s tale begins in the fourth century AD in what is now modern-day Turkey.” This individual started as a bishop and was eventually canonized, becoming one of Christianity’s most popular saints.
Sundblom did a slight pivot from these previous Santas. Instead, he based his character on the classic 1822 poem, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
The poem references someone called St. Nick and mentions very noteworthy physical features that you’ll recognize on any Mall Santa:
“His cheeks were like roses”
“His nose like a cherry”
“A bundle of toys he flung on his back”
“The beard of his chin was as white as the snow”
“He had a broad face and a little round belly”
Here was Sundblom’s first Coca-Cola Santa:
Some version of this Santa ran until the 1960s. It was obviously a huge win for Coca-Cola and they only paid Sundblom $1000 for his initial effort (for reference, a car costed $700 at the time).
While Sundblom left a lot of money on the table by not waiting 90 years to create the art and sell it as an NFT, he gifted the world a ubiquitous holiday meme. Cheers to that.
SIDE NOTE: If you want another marketing masterclass, check out this thread on why Red Bull owns an F1 team.
The Google Trend of Mariah’s “All I Want For Christmas” slowly trending up in October is easily my favorite X-mas meme:
Another good running X-mas joke: Bezos has all the tools to be a Santa…
…but based on recent photographs of the Amazon founder — looking super yolked — enjoying a beach getaway days before Christmas, he’s def not Santa.
Also, leave the Grinch alone:
Finally, some “is Die Hard a Christmas movie” tweets (it is):