REBRANDING SANTA CLAUS
You may know of the annual SantaCon pub crawl.
Originally launched as a performance-art event in the Pacific Northwest, this international festival of dystopian mirth descends upon more than 383 cities in 53 countries around the globe.
The city of New York especially enjoys its annual parade of drunken mayhem by louts in red suits honoring the most joyous day on the Christian calendar, probably because it brings Manhattan a flood of treasured Christmas tidings such as drunken fisticuffs, public elimination, and rampant vandalism.
LOCK YOUR DOORS!
Yes, New Yorkers hate SantaCon.
No word on how the other 382 celebrating cities feel about enduring their annual red menace. (Here in Utah, it's difficult to imagine SantaCon being anything less than a festival of sugared-up street glee. But who knows? I live atop a remote mountain ridge with my wife and a lunatic feline who can distinguish the rustling of a bag of frozen shrimp from 100 feet away.)
In the wake of SantaCon and other dystopian tidings such as the inexplicably popular Billy Bob Thornton film Bad Santa and its far less successful spawn, Bad Santa 2 (tanking now in a theater near you!), it seems like an interesting exercise to examine the rebranding of Santa Claus throughout history.
Because yes, Santa has gone through many brand evolutions.
And no, Billy Bob Thornton's Bad Santa doesn't get to corner the market on bad behavior. See also: heavy drinking, hallucinations, physical abuse, slavery and prostitution.
BRING ON THE YULE!
Before the Christian Church brings light to people across England and the Germanic countries, Yule is the big deal.
Yule is the celebration of the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year.
Unsurprisingly, the pagan trappings of Yule include much feasting, quaffing of ale, and supernatural happenings like the mad and ghostly Wild Hunt: a turbulent rampage of spirits through the night sky. (One assumes this turbulent rampage occurs after the quaffing of ale and not before.)
The leader of the Wild Hunt is supposedly the god Wodan--better known in Norse as Odin. Other names include Jólnir, meaning "Yule figure" and Langbarðr, meaning "long-beard" in Old Norse. (Thank you, Wiki-certain-pedia.)
See where this is going? Gorging, booze, ghosts and beards. Sounds like a long weekend at Burning Man.
BLAME IT ON ODIN
He's where it all begins for Santa Claus.
A long white beard.
A hooded robe.
Nightly rides on his horse or (in North America) on his magic reindeer.
Visiting people with gifts in the night.
Though, since part of Odin's gifts to his people were intoxication and battle-madness, we may owe equal obeisance to the old Norse god for the behavior exhibited on Black Friday.
But I digress.
HELLO, BLUE SANTA
Maybe you're familiar with the famous "Blue Santa Claus" figures brought to the US in the 1800s by German immigrants.
If so, you're already beginning to see the connections to the craziness of Yule and Odin to the "Ho ho ho!" dude of the Coca-Cola ads.
Blue-robed, white-bearded Odin begins morphing into something else--much with the help of St. Nicholas.
But who was St. Nicholas?
Not a Coca-Cola merchant, surely.
His full name is Saint Nicholas of Myra, a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop from the Byzantine Empire in what is now Turkey.
St. Nicholas is famous for his generosity to the poor. He goes door to door presenting them with gifts. Most notably, he is very generous to three needy and devout yet unmarried Christian girls so they could avoid a life of prostitution. (Job opportunities for single women in the 4th century Byzantine Empire were far fewer than today than one might realize.)
ST. NICHOLAS OF MYRA BECOMES KNOWN AS THE PATRON SAINT OF CHILDREN
He's also the patron saint of sailors, which is almost the same thing. (Speaking as a sailor.) Also, prostitutes, archers and pawnbrokers.
But again, I digress.
Patron saint of children.
And he becomes very big with the Dutch.
The Dutch especially like his reputation for secretive gift giving, and begin practicing it during a December feasting season in his honor.
Additionally, through various linguistic transliterations and corruptions (as one might expect when having cross-cultural characterizations from two crazy languages like Greek and Dutch), his name evolves from Saint Nicholas to Sinterklaas.
And guess how Sinterklass traditionally appears in Dutch iconography?
HELLO, WHITE BEARD AND RED ROBE!
Yes, the brand evolution is starting to look a lot like something we already know.
Except that Sinterklaas wears a mitre. How Catholic is that?
He also doesn't have a magic sleigh with eight tiny reindeer that hauls him from the North Pole, but a boat that comes from Spain. (One might guess the carbon footprint of his boat is somewhat less than that of a sleigh and reindeer. Less reindeer-sourced methane. But I digress.)
Sinterklaas also has a seriously interesting MO that's unlikely to pass muster with Child Services.
Yes, he distributes candy and presents to the good children, as per lore.
But what about the bad children?
Forget leaving coal instead of candy in their wooden shoes. Sinterklaas spanks the bad children with a broom, throws them into a sack and takes them back to Spain.
An interesting folk story for keeping kids in line, though not nearly as horrific as, say, Sweeny Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street who enjoyed slashing throats with his razor. (Thank you, Brits!)
CHILD ABDUCTION NOTWITHSTANDING...
During colonial times, Sinterklaas is imported to the Hudson River Valley by the Dutch and becomes firmly ensconced in the New World.
Eventually, the blue-robed Odin character with his magic reindeer and the red-suited Sinterklaas character begin to merge.
And through the magic of those delightful linguistic transliterations and corruptions, he becomes known as Santa Claus.
But we still don't know exactly the reason for all this gift giving, do we?
It's one thing to bestow gifts upon the destitute.
But where does all the universal gift-giving to good children evolve from?
Here's where we can thank Martin Luther, he of The Reformation.
Wanting to focus kids' attention away from the veneration of saints, Martin Luther spreads the idea of gift giving to children to "focus the interest of the children to Christ." (Yay, Wiki-surely-pedia!)
We can see how well that worked out. (See also: Black Friday mayhem.)
BUT WAIT--BABY JESUS HAS FINALLY COME INTO PLAY!
Yes, because, as we all know, the reason for the holiday is to celebrate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
Except that, until now, we've been talking about Yule and the Wild Hunt, right?
Yes. Leave it to a savvy church to recognize the importance of the Winter Solstice celebration, and co-opt an existing and beloved pagan holiday to help spread the gospel.
So, the Santa Claus brand has so far evolved from the old-world pagan Norse Odin and the Greek-Christian Saint Nicholas and a winter festival of debauchery.
It has survived a dysfunctional myth of beating and enslaving miscreant children.
It is steered by Martin Luther's PR machine to questionable effect.
And it has landed ashore in the New World for further brand evolution.
CUE THE BRITISH!
No, not the melodramatic, penny-dreadful, Sweeny-Todd British.
The refined-sensibilities, much enlightened Victorian British!
And the Puritans who outlawed Christmas!
Yes, Christmas was a pox!
Christmas was deemed a papist celebration unworthy of the reform Protestant sensibilities of the Church of England!
Christmas is banned!
As the Fabulous Honey Parkers people would saying by this point, "Oy vey!"
As a mildly rebellious personification of the typical adult merriment and feasting of the season, the Victorians give us the red-suited, white-bearded Father Christmas.
TESTY VICTORIAN SENSIBILITIES ABOUND!
Yes, despite the notorious child labor practices of the period (seems not all children are created equal and many end up in the workhouse), the Christmas season begins to evolve into a child-centric celebration of light and cheer.
And guess who helps sway Father Christmas from a personification of an adult celebration into a child-focused season of gift giving?
New World Santa Claus!
Phew. This is exhausting. The Greeks. The Dutch. The Americans. The British.
But how did Santa suddenly become a US export to the UK?
Thank Clement Clarke Moore and the Coca-Cola Company.
US MEDIA DOES IT AGAIN!
A potent New World propaganda machine spreads the product of a corrupt culture far and wide!
Well, maybe that's hyperbole.
But since we're living in an age of hyperbole, it seems the thing to do. And I digress.
And yes, our mash-up of Odin Sinterklaas has evolved into Santa Claus, and Clement Clarke Moore has written what is regarded as the single most popular verse ever penned by an American.
And it's entirely possible that his 1823 description of a midnight visit from Saint Nick entirely changes the Santa Claus brand into the laughing, bowl-full-of-jelly-bellied, merry old elf personified in the company's 1930s Christmas advertising.
Granted, Coke wasn't the first. But they were certainly the most prolific.
But here's an ironic sidebar for you...
CUE HADDON SUNDBLOM!
Yes, Haddon Sundblom. The famed American artist of Finnish descent who created Coca-Cola's Santa character.
And in Finland, the long-running personification of Christmas has been not Sinterklaas, but (ready?)...
Also known as the Christmas Goat and previously the Yule Goat.
A character extracted from the Wild Hunt (remember that old pagan chestnut?), he is a goat who turns into a man and is personified how...?
IN A RED SUIT WITH A LONG WHITE BEARD!
Oy vey, indeed.
For the sake of simplicity, it just seems like we should all default to the miracle of one-night's worth of oil lasting for eight and be done with it.
So, what is the lesson to be gleaned from pagan Norse Odin Greek Saint Nicholas Dutch Sinterklaas Germanic Blue Santa Clement Clarke Moore Coca-Cola Santa Sidebar Joulupukki?
Control your brand.
Because if you don't, the public will control it for you.
Your brand will not be what you want it to be, but what the public deems it to be.
In the meantime, have a fabulous Christmas holiday, no matter where on the pagan/Christian spectrum it may fall.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
TO GET THERE, YOU HAVE TO DRIVE THROUGH BOURBON AND CUBA
Sadly, on the way, you do not get to also drive through nearby Festus or Huzzah.
This place is about 120 miles into the southwest of nowhere.
It's called Licking.
It's in the Ozarks.
Cue the banjo music, right?
Not yet, my friend.
I'm on my way to see a client.
WHAT KIND OF CLIENT IS OUT HERE IN THE OZARKS?
A client who lives in Miami, actually.
It's a construction materials company.
Two brothers have developed a revolutionary cold asphalt product. They license it for production across the US, and in 20 countries around the world.
These are great guys to work for.
But the question remains: why have I driven out here into the Middle-Of-Nowhere, Missouri, down the road from an Amish farm, to a place originally called "Buffalo Lick," whose high-school basketball team is nationally renowned, and is the place where the Japanese-born Mrs. Livingston from The Courtship Of Eddie's Fatherspent her final days?
HELLO, CORPORATE RETREAT!
Yes, it's a corporate retreat in the Ozarks just three weeks away from Christmas.
And yes, other business owners have called these guys crazy. So be it.
As I drive up to their farmhouse getaway, the brothers are working in the enormous outdoor kitchen they've built on the back patio. One of them is roasting walnuts in a wood-fired oven.
It's great to see these gentlemen. It's been too long. As always, they are welcoming with big hugs and big grins. They thank me for coming, especially because they gave me late notice. I tell them it's no problem, happy to do it. Because (as the faithful reader to the screed knows), we at Slow Burn Marketing have a policy.
THERE IS ONLY ONE KIND OF CLIENT WITH WHOM WE DO BUSINESS
And that client is the one with whom we'd look forward to having dinner.
So when when the walnut-roasting international entrepreneur before me thanks me for coming, I mention the dinner qualifier.
He looks at me and says, "You stole that from us!"
"Our litmus test for whether we'll do business with someone is are we willing to break bread with them, and will they pick us up at the airport?"
And here we at Slow Burn thought we were being so smart.
SEEMS WE'RE NOT ALONE IN BELIEVING LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR ANYTHING LESS
These brothers do business in locations as far flung as Napa Valley and the Australian outback, the Yukon and the Caribbean.
Their product saves customers huge money on infrastructure repair. (This product can save as much as 50% over the traditional asphalt repair process.)
And their baseline for doing business with someone regards an agreeable dinner and airport livery.
They visit licensees around the world who will essentially drop everything for several days and rearrange their schedules to make an hours-long airport run and spend that time with these guys.
SOMETHING INTERESTING IS HAPPENING HERE
I've known these brothers for years, and they've always been a pleasure.
I've also always ascribed their convivial good nature to being raised in close proximity to their Swedish heritage. If you've spent any time with Swedes, you know they tend to be a gregarious people with a willingness to laugh and have a good time.
But in a fast-moving international business climate, who expects to see this kind of demeanor in business relationships?
As your relentless screed is pondering this, the walnut roaster tells me something else really interesting.
He says he was recently having a conversation with one of the dinner-companion/airport-driver clients, who asked him, "How many people do you have on staff, anyway? One hundred? Two hundred?"
A REASONABLE QUESTION
After all, with dozens of licensee producers across the US, and many more in 20 countries spanning the globe, it's a noted brand with a substantial operation.
But not all is as it seems.
The brothers accomplish all this with a staff of 13 employees.
It's a jaw-dropping answer to a question from someone whose employee headcount probably numbers in the thousands.
This globe-spanning operation is run by a baker's dozen.
HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?
That's a good question.
A lot of it boils down to efficiencies. They run a lean operation that has zero fat.
It also has a lot to do with management's attitude.
Yes, they embrace the new technologies that make streamlining possible.
More importantly, the brothers have eschewed the traditional top-down, authoritarian management culture that has been the norm of modern business-school thinking.
They let their people make stuff happen.
During this retreat, there was a morning meeting with all of the employees. There was considerable discussion about company culture. And three words were used prominently: "character," "excellence" and "respect."
As one of the owners said in a round-table discussion, "We couldn't to what we do in 20 countries with only 13 people without character, excellence and respect."
And something else...
"EMPLOYEES ARE NOT YOUR GREATEST ASSET"
Yes, he also said that.
And he followed it with, "Excellent employees are your greatest asset."
Not mentioned during the conversation that morning was this following quote:
The highest type of ruler is one of whose
existence the people are barely aware...
The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words.
When his task is accomplished and things
have been completed, all the people say,
'We ourselves have achieved it!
ANY CHANCE YOU RECOGNIZE THAT?
It's from a fundamental philosophical text that dates to the 4th century BC.
It's not dissimilar to a passage a faithful reader to the screed might recognize:
...whoever wants to become great
among you must be your servant,
and whoever wants to be first must
be servant of all.
And for a contrary quote you're utterly unlikely to recognize:
The laws are applied by officials each
of whom is servant to the men over
whom he has directing control. In vain
does president or vice-president, manager
or superintendent, issue orders and
delegate power under current organization.
THE FIRST QUOTE IS LAO TZU WRITING IN THE TAO TE CHING
The ancient philosopher is a legendary figure in Chinese culture. His work is embraced by a range of thinkers, from legalists to anti-authoritarians. (How's that for irony? One: "We're for bureaucracy!" Other: "We're for anarchy!" Both: "Yay, Lao Tzu!")
The second quote is from the Gospel of Mark, a book whose hero is a man of action, a healer and a worker of miracles.
The third quote is from Harrington Emerson, an engineer and efficiency expert, writing in his 1911 book, The Twelve Principles Of Efficiency. Emerson had issues with "the industrial problem" of authoritarian management.
In their own way, each of these three thoughts represents a philosophy that has influenced a management style that has become known as "servant leadership."
SERVANT-LEADERSHIP PHILOSOPHY DATES BACK OVER 6,000 YEARS
However, the term "servant leadership" never came into use until the phrase was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf.
Mr. Greenleaf was a management consultant who "felt a growing suspicion that the power-centered authoritarian leadership style so prominent in U.S. institutions was not working." (Thank you for the quote, Conveyor Of All Veracity, Wikipedia.)
It's nice to know that this suspicion isn't limited to a somewhat obscure, mid-20th century thinker.
In an article at ManagementParadise.com, "Guru" Netra Shetty discusses the management philosophy at that weird little company called IBM, which touts "collaborative influence":
In a highly complex world, where multiple
groups might need to unite to solve a
client's problems, old-style siloed thinking
just won't cut it, and command-and-control
leadership doesn't work. "It's really about
winning hearts and minds..."
HALLELUJAH AND A POX UPON THE SILOS!
Winning hearts and minds, indeed.
And it's not just about winning the hearts and minds of customers.
It's also about winning the hearts and minds of the people inside the business who must meet the customer challenges, reach out to the customer with solutions and, in the process, extend those winning efforts accordingly.
What this little international company of 13 employees is doing in management is, at its core, not much different than the management essentials practiced by one of the biggest, most successful corporations in the history of world business.
AND LET'S NOT FORGET: CHARACTER, EXCELLENCE AND RESPECT
For some businesses, that whole character, excellence and respect thing can disappear in the daily grind of actually doing business.
Not for these brothers and their 13 globe-spanning employees.
One of the reasons we love this powerful little company is that they are a truly authentic brand.
And one of the key reasons they are authentic is because they recognize that their brand is about people.
Their brand is about how the core customer feels about the business.
And how the core customer feels about the business is a direct result of how the employees feel about the management.
And all of that is potent, indeed.
Here's to dinner, airport pickups, and your brand.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
REWIRING YOUR BRAIN FOR FUN & PROFIT!
Let's revisit the Slow Burn branding mantra about what brand is. Ready?
It's the one way your core customer feels about your business.
Because emotions are key in the decision-making process.
You know all this.
But have you ever considered that one of the reasons branding works is because it rewires the brain?
"ALL MY TUBES AND WIRES!"
Thomas Dolby aside, this isn't so much about being blinded by science as being programmed by media.
Messages coming to us from the media change the way we think and feel.
Rolling Stone magazine has an article from October 6 of this year called, "Why We're Living in the Age of Fear."
The central thesis of the piece is simple: we're living in a time in history that is safer than ever for the average person, and d espite this fact, fear is at an all-time high.
HELLO, 24-HOUR NEWS & MEDIA!
With the internet and social media, "we are plugged into a non-stop feed of information."
And since fear is (as you know) a key trigger in selling, fear is used by politicians to manipulate buying decisions (i.e., winning votes) that can be worth millions.
As we've seen, say something enough times and it becomes "true."
Never mind what the actual facts are.
And with fear messages being pumped into the news and broadcast media, and all those messages being recycled into social media by your hysterical nitwit brother-in-law whom you've finally had to unfollow on Facebook, guess what happens...
Yes, you end up with a brain reprogrammed for FEAR OF EVERYTHING!
MEET YOUR AMYGDALA IN ACTION
We've talked about the amygdala before. It's that little, almond-shaped part of your brain that operates your emotions.
Despite all kinds of updates to the human operating system, especially the neocortex which is running the Lollipop Ice Cream Panther Pants OS, the amygdala still operates on version 1.0.
If the amygdala had a website, it would look like Yahoo circa 1994.
But hey, it's primitive and it works.
But psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman has coined the term, "amygdala hijack."
He uses the term "to describe emotional responses from people which are immediate and overwhelming, and out of measure with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat." (Thank you, Wiki-All-Things-True-Pedia.)
"WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE UNLESS TRUMP STOPS IT!"
Come on. If life were the movie Titanic, Trump would not be helping women and children into the lifeboats.
He'd be the idiotic, Billy-Zane character chasing Leo DiCaprio around a sinking ship with a gun just because he has a thing for Kate Winslet.
Realize, I'm not saying Hillary is Kathy Bates as the Unsinkable Molly Brown. Neither of these people is at the top of my list for foxhole buddies. I digress.
The point is this: they are politicians and they indulge in amygdala hijack. It's what campaigning has become all about.
As the Rolling Stone article says the hijack describes "what inflammatory rhetoric and imagery are designed to do: trigger the emotional brain before the logical brain has a chance to stop it."
And the kicker: "This is what both the right and the left believe their opponent's media are doing to people."
This is why you end up with chicken-little idiocy all over your Facebook feed.
AND YOU GET SUCKED DOWN INTO A DEATH SPIRAL OF UNWINNABLE ARGUING OVER SPECIOUS ISSUES
Whatever happened to sharing pictures of cousin Nathan's bar mitzvah and cat videos?
Anyway, this is not about politics or the presidency or the fact that your relentless scribe is willing to be an equal opportunity offender when it comes to partisan mockery.
This is about your brain and your amygdala being hijacked by little terrorists of false fear.
But your amygdala isn't always a victim of the sinister. There can be great joy involved in the hijack.
There's a reason Kevin Hart talking about his dad punching him in the head during his mom's funeral can make you involuntarily spit light beer all over your Vizio big screen.
Triggering fear is like shooting fish in a barrel. We need to be wearing emotional Kevlar.
AND YES, YOU CAN CONTROL THIS
Dr. Goleman's amygdala hijacking thesis is based in part on the work of Dr. Joseph E. LeDoux.
Dr. LeDoux says that despite the hair trigger in amygdala, you can teach your neocortex to rein it in. (The neocortex is the part of your brain that's involved in higher functions like saving a bunch of money at Holiday Inn Express or excelling at beer pong.)
So what does all of this have to do with branding?
Glad you asked.
Let's agree that media is essentially a message delivery system.
In a way, branding is a kind of media.
It's a delivery system for the way you want your core customer to feel about your business.
AS SUCH, BRANDING CAN ALSO REWIRE THE BRAIN
It can hijack your brain to make you feel differently about your business.
Notice I'm talking about you, not your customer.
It works for the customer, too.
And that customer is the single most important person in the branding equation.
But the way the business owner feels about the brand directly impacts their confidence, how they present themselves and how they treat the customer.
We've heard it repeatedly.
"I AM SO PROUD!"
This is exactly what a client of ours said upon the completion of rebranding.
Instead of having a business name that sounded like a hair salon, with a website that was kinda wonky, they now had a business name that sounded upscale and contemporary and a website befitting a luxury real estate agent.
Another client had a business consultancy brand with a generic name and a brand image that felt very much like a feminine product.
The male employees hated handing out the business cards because all they could think of was "freshness when you need it."
A unique and surprising and elevated brand makeover suddenly made everyone proud to be there. Their productivity went through the roof.
An upscale wellness clinic with an arcane and confusing name rebranded with a clear and aspirational and resonant name and brand image--and suddenly everyone working in the practice was galvanized around the clarity of their mission. They became better at their jobs.
IT'S INTANGIBLE--YET POWERFUL
Changing how the brand feels to the people inside the brand is potent and profitable.
That's because the people inside the brand directly affect how the people outside the brand feel about it.
And the people outside the brand are the ones showing you the money.
And for them to show you them money, they have to feel good about the brand.
Rewiring the brain for fun and profit.
It takes some effort. It'll make you sweat. It can be scary.
But in the end, it's nice to be able to hijack all those amygdalae for the side of good, right and true.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
Blaine Parker is prone to ranting about any and all things related to brand. In many ways, he is a professional curmudgeon. While there is no known vaccine for this, the condition is also not contagious. Unless you choose it to be so.