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Whenever we think of Christmas the image of smilling old man whith fluffy beard and a red and white suit comes to mind. And with it the iconic Coke bottle we all know Santa drinks when he needs to make a pause from the exhausting task of delivering happiness to all children across the World. But how did a brand of soda became so connected with a holliday in shuch a way that it dictates the way we portray the figure of Santa Claus?

It all started in 1931 with a campaign developed by the artist Haddon Sundblom published in the Ladie’s Home Journal that pictured Santa holding a glass of Coke hailing it for the refreshing pause it brings. From 1931 to 1964, Sundblom created a new advertising piece for Coca-Cola according to Christmas imagery the brand developped, as Phil Mooney, Coca-Cola’s VP for Heritage Communications, explained to CNN’s Eatocracy. The goal? Improve Coke’s sales in Winter time:

In 1931, Coca-Cola was trying to convince consumers that Coke could be consumed in the winter months as well as the summer months. Coke decided to be associated with the holidays by advertising Coke for the holidays. So the character of Santa was chosen because he has to go around the world in one evening and he is definitely going to get thirsty. So the campaign shows Santa pausing during the evening to enjoy a Coke.

By repeating the same theme year after year, the brand managed to create a strong association between Christmas and itself becoming a part of the collective memory for the occasion and ensuring that its always present when one think of Christmas.

True as this all may be, the notion that it was Coke that created the red and white version of Santa Claus is a myth. A myth that the company is happy to ride and foster, as it helps to associate the brand with the season. Whil Coke can state that Sundblom developed  his version of Santa Claus from the poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’, written in 1922 by Clement Clark Moore, the fact is that red and white Santa’s with fluffy beards have been around form at least 1866 in ilustrations by the artist Thomas Nast, and have been used by other companies like Oldsmobile, Waterman’s pens, Murad cigarettes or Michelin.

While the creation of the red and white Santa can’t be atributed to Coca-Cola, the proliferation and globality of the imagery are due to the brand’s advertising efforts.

And this was how Coca-Cola ‘stole’ Christmas for its marketing efforts and created one of the most powerfull branding associations of the World.

You can read Phil Mooney interview with Eatocracy here.

You can see some pre-Coke red and white Santas here (page is in portuguese).