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GP17Mar04: The Branding of Christmas
Jock Elliott. The second chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, the world’s greatest advertising agency during its early years, believes in “big people,” as well he might, for he’s no slouch in his own right. It’s rumored that a month or so back, on his way up to his office, Elliott found he had forgotten his security pass: The building guard waved him through anyway. “Oh, you’re one of our royals,” murmured the guard, explaining this special dispensation. Whether this is true or not, Elliott’s clearly cut from a different piece of cloth.
Ogilvy & Mather. Now part of a British marketing combine, Ogilvy was in a class by itself back when advertising was about great ads. Nestled along Madison Avenue, comforted by martinis, the chefs of the advertising fraternity, clad in Brooks Brothers suits, spun confections that tempted America’s consumers. David Ogilvy, the founder, put together a first class roster of clients and served up Tiffany adfare for them. It was not enough for his adverts to move merchandise off the shelves: They had to give each client a touch of class, be it Wedgewood, Guinness, or Hathaway, the shirt-makers featuring the chap with the Hathaway patch over one eye. For more on David O, take a peek at Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man, An Autobiography, and Ogilvy on Advertising. Also read about him at www.goodbyemag.com/jul99/ogilvy.html.
A Big Brand Called Christmas. If you are not lucky enough to experience Elliott’s charm in person, then we recommend, as a strong second best, that you get hold of his book Inventing Christmas: How Our Holiday Came to Be, published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (We had previously touched on this gem in our Dear Santa letter of December 24, 2002.) It’s clear, informative, easily read, and beautifully illustrated with prints and pictures from his very copious collection of Christmas books and the like. While you are waiting for Spring to brighten up your life, you can use it, in lieu of a trip to the Caribbean, to escape the current abundant crises that are causing fear and trembling throughout the world.
You’ll meet Jock Elliott head-on here, since his writing persona is no different from the splendid fellow of good cheer you will encounter in the precincts of New York City. He comes from the 20th century, when advertising men could still write, so you won’t want to put this book down. Years ago, we’re reminded, we sent a key lime pie from Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami to a Silicon Valley chief executive as a birthday present. He reported back, “I ate it at one sitting. Very good.” Well, we gobbled up Jock’s book just as fast one afternoon last week, and it got here in time for our birthday.
You’ll see the Elliott family in its pages. Such memories! Golf club in hand, he is pictured beside the family tree in 1937, contemplating his Christmas loot. Not to be missed are some of his early childhood notes to Santa where he lays out his wish lists for himself, for his younger brother, even for his bird.
What the book reveals (and this makes it important as well as amusing) is that Christmas and Santa Claus as we know them today got invented in the 19th century. Christmas trees (originally a German idea), gift books of America and England, England’s Christmas cards, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas,” carols revived from the past—these all came together in a short space of time to create the Christmas that so absorbs us in the present day. A brand was born.
Branding Lessons. There are at least 3 lessons we can learn from Jock Elliott and Christmas about branding, which is useful knowledge, indeed, as we replace our national brands with global products and symbols. Branding, taken by some to be old-fashioned nonsense, has never been so important. Like a good cowboy, however, you’ve got to pick up the rules of the range. Then you’ll be able to plant a distinctive mark on the haunch of your steer. If we’re to get a sympathetic worldwide audience for our products, ideas, and institutions from here to Timbuktu, then we’d best learn a whole lot more about deep branding.
Profound Need. In Mr. Elliott’s eyes, Christmas came about in part because society was trying to heal the fissures caused by the Industrial Revolution, using symbols and celebrations that might bind us together. “As cities grew,” says Elliott, “so did unemployment and racial strife, and the gap between rich and poor broadened.” Christmas was a response to such alienation. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol brought Scrooge into a more joyous state of mind where he could share laughter and the spoils of his enterprise with his employee Bob Cratchit, all in the spirit of Christmas. Dickens as well as other poets and writers burned Christmas into the soul of the Western World.
Similarly today, as we move from an industrial society to an Information Age, we have a need to humanize a robotic civilization. Our leaders, on both sides of the aisle, are a dreary lot, and we require a change of mood to get through these trying times and on to something more hopeful. The gap between rich and poor nations threatens to grow ever wider, magnified by a factor of 1000, according to some futurologists. (For more on this, see Big Ideas 163, “The Genetic Century”). We need some kind of new Christmas with broader cultural roots to bridge this gorge.
Big Men. Should your enterprise or institution require branding, we would urge you, as we do all our clients, to secure big men of imagination as counselors. Pygmies, who today populate our advertising and marketing worlds, create miniscule, ephemeral brands that do not capture enduring value or create a sustained relationship with the vox populi. They dispense small beer. These nano-nerds, micro-marketeers all, focus their energy on the warts and minor traits of little bits of the population in zip codes surrounded by gated fences with the hope of picking up dribs and drabs of attention.
David Ogilvy, Jock Elliott, and their comrades made American Express into a club you wanted to join and Rolls Royce into the car that purred so silently at 60 mph that you could only hear the clock. They didn’t just build brands: They built brands that said quality, quality, quality. Unique branding is still the cheapest, best way to gain marketshare, but only giants know how to paint the striking pictures that underlie timeless brands.
Wrapped in Culture. If great brands and popular ideas are created by “big men” who can reckon with the changes that are sweeping across the historical landscape, they achieve even greater resonance if they capture and amalgamate rather diverse cultural strands that are waiting to turn into “traditions.” As Elliott says, “Up to the nineteenth century, Christmas as we know it had never existed in this country. No Santa Claus, no shopping for presents, no Christmas trees, no Christmas cards, no Scrooge. Between 1823 an 1848—a surprisingly short twenty-five year period—all these ‘traditions’ were invented.” It is not always understood that great brands are wrapped in history, even if they point us to the future.
The super-brand we know as Christmas came together because imaginative men wove together a tapestry that put a friendlier face on a dissolving agrarian society well on its way to becoming an Industrial Behemoth. Do we have the energy and feeling to do the same for peoples that are now variously enslaved by too much information and the Digital Imperative?
The Intangible Nature of Big Brands. Understanding how our Christmas came to be strikes to the heart of branding in the present day. Yvon Chouinard has built Patagonia around love of the outdoor life, a passion for climbing, environmental devotion and action, leading-edge design, and compulsive product advancement. For important brands today a cluster of intangibles has become as important, or more important, than the physical product itself.
Virginia Postrel’s The Substance of Style claims that aesthetics are integral to commerce today. We’ll have more to say about her at another time. But it’s enough to understand that the look and the feel of things have become so entwined with our culture that products dare not do without them. She, too, illustrates the connection between broad societal trends and the nature of branding. Santa had best fly in on an aerodynamic sleigh today and dispense his gifts from a Gucci-esque bag. Big brands not only sate our appetites: They also quicken our spirits.
P.S. Happy St. Patrick’s. It’s a long, long ways from December 25 to March 17.
Copyright 2004 GlobalProvince.com