December 23, 2010 11:02 pm

Father Christmas

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The jingling bells and open sleighs of a global brand

Father Christmas must exist. Who would conceive of such a sinister character today? This is, after all, a strange, fat, old man with facial hair who enters houses via chimneys to deliver “goodies” to sleeping children.

Yet the notion of a kindly father figure who greets us once a year persists around the world. Father Christmas has endured, growing out of the St Nicholas legend to become a happy, secular totem. This is no accidental success story. Father Christmas understands the principles of global branding: a strong identity, a unique selling proposition and the power of open markets.

He was smart to establish his brand early, jingling his bells across a range of media. Santa Claus featured in 15th-century carols, had a cameo role in a 17th-century Ben Jonson play, and found a powerful patron in Charles Dickens, who inflated his stature in A Christmas Carol.

Dashing through the snow, Santa Claus embraced borderless markets long before Adam Smith. He survived the demise of chimneys and rise of central heating to deliver presents across the globe, undeterred that some did not believe in him – the same is true of God and global warming, of course.

To those who claim that globalisation makes us all the same, Father Christmas is living proof that it does not. Each culture reinterprets him – no government muzzles him with rigid regulation.

As with many brands, however, Santa Claus chose his transformational moment. In the 1930s – a cheerless decade for many – he appeared in a Coca-Cola advert. Previously dressed in a rainbow of colours, thereafter Father Christmas was always seen in red.

In a youth-obsessed era, this elderly gentleman still has kudos. A diverse employer, he practices affirmative action to recruit vertically-challenged operatives. He also offers long holidays and opportunities for travel. The ice ceiling remains, however: as far as we know, he employs no women.

Unlike most celebrities, Father Christmas rations his appearances – no waltzing on Strictly Come Dancing for Santa. Instead, he retains a relentless focus on the core activity. This, after all, is no sleigh ride in the park. Just consider what he consumes on Christmas Eve. By Boxing Day, he has eaten more than 1,000 tonnes of mince pies and drunk more than 3m litres of (largely cooking) sherry in the UK alone. His head must be pretty sore the next day – no wonder he does not surface for another year.

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