The holiday season is a time to catch up with family and friends, share a home-cooked meal, reflect on the year, and prepare for a new one. It’s also a time when we gather around TVs, computers, smartphones, and tablets to engage with some of our most cherished and memorable holiday marketing campaigns.
Many of these companies use characters or mascots to tie in holiday-focused ads with their year-round marketing strategy. Others take on a more human voice by focusing on the message of giving during the holiday season.
Regardless of their approach, they’ve found a way to stand out from the competition and the thousands of marketing messages we’re exposed to every day.
After sifting through the archives of advertisements, here are five of the most enduring holiday marketing campaigns to date.
Coca-Cola – Northern Lights
As early as the 1920s, Coca-Cola began advertising during the holiday season. Unlike most brands, they’ve been able to utilize not one, but two notable characters in their promotions. Their earliest holiday ads started with Santa Claus, who drank from the iconic glass bottle while carrying a bag of toys or making a pit stop at a family’s fridge while delivering gifts on Christmas.
Despite his absence in recent years, 2014’s ad reintroduced Santa through the “Make Someone Happy” campaign. Coca-Cola wanted to step away from the consumerism that often plagues the holiday season and focus more on spending time with our loved ones, what they deemed “presence over presents.”
But arguably the more memorable characters in Coca-Cola’s marketing are the famous polar bears. They too started appearing in print advertisements in the 1920s, and their first-ever TV commercial debuted in 1993. The concept of polar bears started as a result of then-creative director Ken Stewart, whose yellow labrador retriever puppy resembled a polar bear.
Building off the fact that Coca-Cola is such a staple at the movies, the ad featured a group of polar bears with drinks in-hand watching a “movie,” or the Northern Lights. Today, they remain a crucial component of Coca-Cola’s holiday marketing campaigns, as they go back and forth between a more traditional Christmas theme and their iconic mascots.
M&M’s – Faint
Most candy companies amp up their marketing around holidays like Halloween and Easter, and the winter holiday season is no exception. M&M’s has always been among the most heavily promoted candy brands this time of year, typically taking a more comedic approach to their marketing.
The famous Yellow and Red M&M’s always find a way to get themselves into trouble, and this classic ad carries on that theme. It was originally launched in 1996, but due to its vast popularity over the years, it’s still aired on TV today. And this ad continues to perform well without having the highest quality animation or digital features.
The focus of the commercial is to bring consumers back to a more innocent time in their lives, when they likely believed in Santa. In the short ad, you see an encounter between Yellow, Red, and Santa, all shocked that the other party in fact “does exist.”
M&M’s marketing strategy and this ad in particular bring a more lighthearted feel to the holiday season, where many other messages take a serious route. Their choice to focus on humor helps mix up the marketing we interact with, as well as play into the generally laidback nature of the brand.
John Lewis – The Long Wait
UK retailer John Lewis has become known for its heartfelt, non-promotional holiday ads, and its 2011 rendition emphasizes the true meaning of Christmas.
For the majority of the ad, you see a young boy anxiously awaiting the arrival of Christmas, doing anything he possibly can to help speed up time – attempting to be a magician, playing on his swingset, and even going to bed early. But no matter what he does, Christmas just won’t come any faster. Like any child eager for the holidays, you expect that he is waiting to receive a gift he’s been dying to have for months.
But that’s not the case. When he wakes up on Christmas morning, he races to his parents’ room to wake them up and give them a present. It’s not about hurrying to the tree to see what Santa brought him; he’s been anxiously waiting to give them a gift himself. The ad reminds us all that it’s better to give than to receive, no matter how old you are.
Hershey – Merry KISSES Bells
Brands like Reese’s and Kit Kat are traditionally the more heavily marketed products in the Hershey family. But during the holidays, consumers wait in anxious anticipation for an ad that has been playing on TV since 1989.
A group of 11 “bells” (Hershey Kisses) are laid out in a Christmas tree shape and play the well-known Christmas tune “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” At the end of the ad, one of the Kisses gets a little too enthusiastic about the holiday and keeps ringing, even after the song is over. The “trunk of the Christmas tree” serves as the conductor and finally gets the last bell to stop playing, who then proceeds to “wipe his forehead” in relief that they nailed the song.
There’s a great sense of nostalgia with this commercial, and it never seems to get old because it’s straightforward and lacks outright product promotion. It’s obvious that the bells are Hershey Kisses, but rather than just telling you to go buy a bag, the company wishes you a Happy Holidays instead. The ad stands out because there are no words spoken; it’s just the Christmas carol. And its simplicity has made it an audience favorite for over 25 years.
Macy’s – Believe
During the season of giving, some companies choose to focus their marketing efforts on supporting a particular charity or initiative. One of the most impactful has been Macy’s “Believe” campaign for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Macy’s is seen as a holiday brand, serving as the official sponsor of the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. However, it’s their charitable work that really steals the spotlight.
The Believe campaign lets children take part in the giving, encouraging them to write a letter to Santa and in turn have $1 donated to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. They can either write a paper letter and deliver it to their local Macy’s or submit one online, and up to $1 million will be donated to grant wishes for ill children and their families.
To date, Macy’s has raised $100 million for Make-A-Wish and has even established “National Believe Day,” which was on December 9th this year. On this day, retail locations across the country host special holiday events and send-offs for kids having wishes granted. To keep spreading the message, social media users are encouraged to use the hashtags #SantaProject or #MacysBelieve. Last year, Macy’s launched a short film on their website called “The Wish Writer” to build excitement around the holiday season and the importance of giving back.
From providing comic relief to giving back to people in need, these companies have distinguished themselves from the competition with their holiday marketing strategies. While the companies in these examples are all household names with inconceivable budgets, there are several key takeaways that any marketer or business owner can utilize.
First is to find ways to make your brand stand out during the holiday season. Some of these brands chose to take a humorous approach to break away from the norm of focusing on more serious elements.
Second is to be careful with product promotion. It’s easy for brands to be all gung-ho about pushing sales in the spirit of gift giving, but it’s pretty overdone at this point. Taking a more subtle approach like Macy’s or Hershey will still keep consumers in a buyer frame of mind without it feeling like you’re taking their wallet right out of their pocket.
Finally, and most importantly, stay true to your brand. No matter what time of year, people like brands that have an established identity.
These are just some of the most well-known holiday marketing campaigns out there. What are your favorites? We’d love to hear about them in the comments!