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Did this Brand Invent Santa Claus?

Close your eyes and think of Santa Claus. What do you see? Most of us would picture a fat, jolly man with white hair and a white beard wearing a red suit.

Of course we would. That’s Santa Claus after all, a figure with a long history in folklore that can be traced back centuries to, um, Scandinavia. Or Holland. Or maybe some other northern European country. Regardless, Santa has been around for a long, long time. That’s for sure.

Nope. Santa’s image was largely a 20th century creation and it was propagated by Coca Cola in a 1930s advertising campaign.

It is overstating it to say that Coca Cola invented the image of Santa Claus, despite what the company claims. But it is fair to say that the image of Santa we have today was cemented in the popular consciousness thanks in large part to Coke’s marketing.

According to the company, Archie Lee, who worked with their ad agency, wanted the advertising campaign to show a wholesome Santa. Haddon Sundblom, a Michigan-based illustrator, developed the image of Santa that we see in Christmas advertising and everything else Christmas related to this day.

Sundblom’s Santa debuted in 1931 in Coke ads in The Saturday Evening Post. It’s been part of Coke’s advertising strategy for almost a century.

The popular image of Santa evolved in the early twentieth century from the work of a variety of writers and illustrators and tended to portray Jolly Old Saint Nick as a happy, rotund guy in a red suit. Before this, Santa was often portrayed as a spooky-looking elf or a tall, gaunt man. He wore everything from a Norse warrior’s animal skin to a bishop’s robe. He was also illustrated as a stern-looking man in a green suit.

A pre-Coke illustration of Santa Claus.

Coke’s illustrator took that pop culture ephemera as well as inspiration from the 1822 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, which you might know better as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” That poem portrayed St. Nick as a warm, pleasant and plump human – not a scary elf. With all this as his jumping off point, Sundblom created the iconic Coke image of Santa.

Sundblom continued to paint Santa Claus for nearly 30 years for Coke ads.  Many of these are on display at the World of Coca Cola Museum in Atlantic Georgia, a must-visit place for any marketing nerd.

That image of Santa Claus has become ingrained in North American culture. So while Coca Cola didn’t actually invent the modern image of Santa, they certainly helped coalesce it around the one we consider definitive today. From every shopping mall Santa to every other advertiser,  Coca Cola’s Santa is pervasive.

Allan Gates

Allan Gates is a partner with Bonfire.