How Coca-Cola rules Christmas marketing: campaigns analysis

Alina Gorbatch
by Alina Gorbatch on December 15, 2020

In our minds, Christmas is forever tied with Coca-Cola ads. Through decades of classical conditioning, the world-famous company made sure we sing the song of their choice when the holidays are coming, imagine their trucks, and think of their version of Santa (although, despite the popular belief, it wasn't the company who came up with the cheerful white-bearded man). 

On the one hand, it's pretty clear how the soft drink giant achieved that result. Coca-Cola jumped on the most effective marketing technique ever - selling happiness. They defined happiness as Christmas: the time most people genuinely cherish. Then, they kept the connection firmly year after year until the world gave in and built a strong association. Consistency in marketing often pays off.

On the other hand, it's impressive how Coca-Cola kept its relevance and the reputation of a "happy family brand" through the growing popularity of healthy lifestyle, the rightful demonization of sugar, and the fact that it's a cold non-alcoholic drink advertised as something perfect for winter holidays.

In 2020, Coca-Cola's ad was crowned "the most effective Christmas campaign". It's the year when family and friends can't get together to celebrate Christmas, the annual Coca-Cola Christmas truck journey has been canceled, and people are depressed, tired, and not in a holiday mood all around the world. Yet, Coca-Cola still got their win.

In this article, I attempt to figure out why the Christmas campaign was that effective this year, what happened in the previous years, and which marketing conclusions we can derive from their experience.

So, brace yourself: the winter and the analysis of the latest four years of Coca-Cola Christmas marketing campaigns are coming.

Coca-Cola Christmas campaign 2020: escapism & nostalgia

If you've seen "The Letter", the latest Christmas ad by Coca-Cola, you've probably teared up. I did. But then again, I tear up from each one of their ads (the research for this article was quite emotional).

"The Letter" was created by Wieden + Kennedy London and directed by Taika Waititi. As you'd expect, it's beautiful, and touching, and magical. The ad shows the father going through all possible Bear Grylls-style challenges to deliver his daughter's letter to Santa only to find out that it was him home for Christmas that she wished for. 

Probably the thing that makes this ad so powerful is the notion of escapism shown at first - the North Pole, giant wales, Northern lights - that turns into a heartwarming reminder that home is always better. The catchline "This Christmas, give something only you can give" is very compelling. It gives the audience a sense of control - something that's been lost in 2020. It reminds us of the overwhelming importance of being there for your loved ones.

On top of that, the ad wards off the notion that corporations have turned Christmas into the celebration of capitalism, where the cost of a present represents love (many corporate ads before have been criticized for showing exactly that).

Image credit: Marks & Spencer. Watch the whole ad:

In "The Letter", Coca-Cola points out that they are not like other brands. They don't care about you buying a Coke for every one of your family members. They just want you guys to be together. 

"The Letter", however, wasn't the only ad Coca-Cola fired this year. The good old "Holidays Are Coming" also hit our TVs and other media outlets. 

"Holidays Are Coming" was extremely effective. It was the top-performing ad in seven out of 10 key measures, according to data shared in Marketing Week. The ad scored 96 out of 100 in terms of long-term return potential, 100 in terms of remembering the brand, and 96 in terms of creating branded memories.

Why was this ad this effective?

In the times of a crisis (and this year definitely was one), we rely upon nostalgia, searching for comfort in the memories of the better times. The old "Holidays Are Coming" ad hit this nostalgia button, and worked best than it did in the previous years. It was wise and timely for Coca-Cola to remind us of how Christmases used to be like.

The role of social media in promoting the message

Every year, and this one was no exception, there is a social media vibe around the ads.

Coca-Cola used the hashtag #TogetherTastesBetter on their multiple social media accounts and referred to the challenges we've faced and the ways we've overcome them together.

They also carried out contests and advent-like activities with the #HolidaysAreComing hashtag.

The hashtag moved to Instagram, where Coca-Cola announced holiday contests and surprises through Stories.

In some countries, Coca-Cola partnered with local influencers. For example, in Germany, Coca-Cola partnered with  Roman Lochmann - a singer and an Instagram influencer with 1.5 million followers. 


A post shared by Coca-Cola Deutschland (@cocacola_de) 

Together with Roman and McDrive, they announced local discounts under the #DasGeschenkBistDu (you are the present) hashtag.

Want your holiday campaign to be as effective as Coca-Cola's?

While it's slightly possible that you don't have the budget to hire Taika Waititi or partner with McDonald's, there are still some lessons you can learn from this (and the following) Coca-Cola's Christmas campaigns.

  1. Don't promote the product. Holidays are not the times for hard sell. Instead, decide on the emotions that you want your product to be associated with and work on promoting this association. 
  2. Be empathic. Understand what your audience has been going through emotionally. Please, please don't just guess what this is. Use world surveys, local surveys, and social listening.
  3. Create social media vibe - if Coca-Cola still has to do this, you should do this too. 
  4. Partner with other brands and social media influencers to promote your message.

Coca-Cola Christmas campaign 2019: unity & huge media spend

In 2019, the populations in the UK and the US were more divided than ever (except for 2016).

In the UK, Brexit negotiations have reached their peak. In the US, people went through the longest government shutdown and the congressional investigation that ended with the House voting to impeach President Trump.

As we know from the 2016 voting, people were divided by almost 50/50 on both Brexit and Donald Trump. The topics of immigration, unemployment, and racism were the ones that fueled the discussion. 

In their 2019 Christmas ad, which still ended up controversial if you look through comments on social media, Coca-Cola attempted to spread the message of unity. It wanted us together for the thing that unites many of us: the winter holidays.

They didn't stop at the TV ad. The soft drink giant also partnered with Ogilvy Colombia agency and Google on a holiday campaign that leverages Google Trends to show how people searched for controversial topics throughout the year but united at searching for dinner meals and Christmas presents on winter holidays. 

Unfortunately, it just wasn't the year when the message of unity could find the support of the audience. 

As if the company actually knew that, they also brought back the same old Holidays Are Coming ad which was backed by the biggest media spend ever. They also launched the Christmas Truck Tour, which stopped at 19 locations, evoking a large and so needed user-generated content increase, and partnered with Snapchat to release a dedicated filter.

The combination of traditional media, social media marketing, and offline marketing made sure people still talked about Coca-Cola in 2019. 

What can we learn from this campaign's mistakes?

  1. Don't overestimate the power of your brand - while it might be able to bring the holiday spirit to some, it definitely can't solve major issues that have cut nations in half. Coke should've learned that from the same mistake Pepsi did in 2017. Back then, Pepsi's Kendall Jenner ad indirectly claimed that a can of the soft drink can solve racism. Pepsi got their backlash and so did Coke.
  2. While people often appreciate a brand taking a stand on political or social issues, they never appreciate the selling that happens alongside. Don't attempt to support immigration and sell a drink in one video. Show your support by making a statement or performing an action in support of immigration - this will still affect your sales indirectly and there will be much fewer hypocrisy accusations.

Coca-Cola Christmas marketing 2018: zero sugar & altruism

Christmas campaign of 2018 actually jumped on something we mentioned above: people's relatively recent disapproval of sugar. The company focused the campaign on its Coca-Cola Zero product, promoting the famous non-sugar alternative. This was the year of active offline marketing: Coca-Cola Christmas truck visited 24 locations only in the UK and handed out more than 240,000 Coca-Cola Zero Sugar or Diet Coke samples.

Social media and influencer marketing also got a gig that year. Coca-Cola sponsored a live stream of Capital Radio’s Jingle Bell Ball via Twitter.

In an even bigger campaign, it partnered with the cheeky kings of social - LADBible, which explored the company’s archives to reveal how Holidays Are Coming became the anthem we know today.

As for the TV ad, in addition to the traditional one, there was the #BeSanta ad that showed how anyone can - and should! - be Santa. The ad is heartfelt and timeless, and encourages people to do small good things. 

What can we learn from this marketing campaign?

  1. Influencer marketing is a deeper game than you might think. It's not just about brand awareness. Coca-Cola's choice showed that they desperately need to attract younger audiences. Think which audiences you need to attract and who their social heroes are. 
  2. It's OK to be brave. Surely, many brands would stay away from LADBible. But Coca-Cola, the family brand, shows us it's OK to risk it when you're after the new audiences.

Coca-Cola Christmas marketing 2017: gratefulness & social contest

In 2017, Coca-Cola turned to creative social media marketing. For Christmas, they offered a sleepover in the famous Christmas truck (I can feel my younger self getting instantly excited even just writing about it) as a price for the contest winner.

Contestants had to explain why they’re the “ultimate Christmas fan” to win the sleepover. The winners also got presents from Santa, festive films, and a load of Christmassy food for their stay in the truck.

The ad from this year was about gratefulness. Indeed, holidays like these are often a good reason to remind ourselves why we're grateful for what we have and show our gratefulness to our loved ones.

And what can we learn from this campaign?

  1. User-generated content is always a good idea, and it's done best with the combination of offline and online marketing. With UGC, promotion is literally done for you. All you need is a truck (or you know, any other product that will make people take photos and post them online). 
  2. Contests don't have to be focused on the product. Coca-Cola's campaign creators didn't ask contesters to explain why they love their product, and still the campaign obviously serves to increase Coca-Cola's brand reputation.

Have you read this far?!

You're a true Christmas miracle. Hopefully, you've learned a lot from this analysis. If you have any questions or things to share, let me know in the comment section!


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