We recently published Holiday Ecommerce 2018: 15 Marketing Strategies from +$1B in Online Sales where we examined the best of the best holiday campaigns from top ecommerce stores.
But since we’re in the holiday spirit — and because we get all goosebumpy around this time of year — we thought we’d take a look back at some of the most memorable, industry-altering, and best holiday advertising campaigns of the past 335 years.
That’s right … 335 years because that’s how long — at least on record — companies have been using holiday campaigns to grow sales.
Get out the tissues as we walk through a winter wonderland of history, inspiration … and profitability.
- Frost Fair 1683: Commerce Meets Christmas
- Dickens 1843: The New (Old) Holidays
- Macy’s 1874: Over a Century of Holiday Innovation
- Coca-Cola 1923: Go Against Tradition and Iterate
- Sears 1933: The OG of Gift Guides
- NORAD 1955: Inspiring Google Years Later
- M&Ms 1957-1996: Time to Mashup the Merry
- Norelco 1960s: Cutting Edge Advertising (Literally)
- Office Depot (OfficeMax) 2006: Elfing 1.5B People
- Old Spice 2011: MANta Claus Is Coming to Town
- Westjet 2012-Present: Bringing Miracles to Life
- Lego 2012: Resurrecting a Brand with Holi-play
- Christmas 24 2015: Presents for Strangers
- Starbucks 2015: Red Cup Controversy (Cupgate)
- Air New Zealand 2017: A Very Merry Mistake
- Amazon 2017: Give A Little Bit … Or, A Lot
- PooPourri 2017: You’re Doing the Holidays Wrong
- IKEA Spain 2017: The Other Letter
- Spotify 2017: Building #2018Goals From Customer Data
- Tropicana Canada 2010: Brighter Mornings, Brighter Days
Keep reading to get timeless inspiration
But if you’d like to go behind-the-scenes to find out how thousands of high-growth brands are launching more holiday campaigns, faster … download our exclusive ebook.
1. Frost Fair 1683: Commerce Meets Christmas
Up until the late 1600s and for sometime thereafter, Christmas was a somber affair. But when a series of freak ice storms hit London in 1683-84, they were just the excuse people were waiting for to go a bit wild.
Hosted on the frozen River Thames, the Frost Fair was a mix of seasonal celebration, pop-up commerce, and — in the words of one historian — “debaucherous party … where the main trade was booze and the principal activity was having as wild a time as possible without breaking the ice.”
Given its time of year and the mix of merchants and merriment, Frost Fair became a cultural hinge in the development of Christmas in the West.
The lesson is one that savvy online-to-offline businesses know well:
It’s nice when customers come to you. It’s better when you go to them. But it’s best when the whole thing comes off as one big party.
That lesson is still true today.
Gymshark, for instance, increased their holiday revenue 197% year-over-year in 2017 and hit $128 million in FY 2018 revenue.
Much of that global success comes from local pop-ups run like full-scale events: one part shopping, one part fitness-influencer rock concert, and all parts experiential.
2. Dickens 1843: The New (Old) Holidays
Charles Dickens may not have “invented” Christmas, but it was — as Time Magazine recently noted, “a decidedly second-rate holiday in Great Britain, compared even to Boxing Day.” Meanwhile, in America, it was outlawed in many states throughout the 18th century.
Originally a pagan festival more akin to Halloween, Puritans during the 18th and 19th centuries cracked-down on the holiday in response to the kind of Frost-Fair revelry mentioned above.
Then, in December 1843, Charles Dickens changed everything.
The massive and unforeseen success of A Christmas Carol reshaped the holiday along jovial lines and made it about friends, family, and — of course — presents.
Naturally, A Christmas Carol wasn’t so much a holiday campaign as it was a runaway success in and of itself. Still, that success contains a critical lesson we’ll see show up over and over in many of the campaigns below:
Better than discounts, better than sales, better than advertising itself: stories sell.
Window displays don’t exactly sound innovative.
But, in the latter half of the 1800s — when plated glass first become widely available — owners and managers that built large windows running the length of their stores were at the cutting edge.
Macy’s in New York City was the first to use window displays to showcase holiday stories for all to watch. The window had porcelain dolls and they recreated scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
For more than 25 years, Macy’s was one of the only major retailers to do this. It became an attraction for local New Yorkers and tourists alike. The holiday window display competition became fierce in New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
Today, disruptive brands are continuing to use emerging technology to innovation and create spectacle, particularly through augmented reality.
When Brand Jordan celebrated the 30th anniversary of their iconic sneaker, they teamed up with Snapchat, Darkstore, and Shopify to offer NBA All-Star guests a Snap code to purchase the new shoes in-app and receive them that evening.
Similarly, Magnolia Market was one of the first home furnishings brands to bring AR into the online store — powered by Shopify Plus:
Best of all, AR is now an accessible reality for businesses of all sizes … even though very few have begun putting its innovative power to work.
Jolly old Saint Nick didn’t always look jolly. In the original imagery crafted by artists in the 19th and early 20th Century, Santa was tall and slender, scary and not friendly.
Enter the Coca-Cola Company.
In 1923, they commissioned an artist to create a likeness of Santa for a print ad – one of the oldest holiday advertisement examples we could find.
The first two iterations were less than popular. These Santas didn’t make anyone feel warm and fuzzy for the holidays.
So, in 1931 they decided to show a more wholesome Santa and commissioned American illustrator Haddon Sundblom, who successfully brought him to life as the fun-loving, jolly, rounded belly, ho-ho-ho Santa we all know and love today.
Because this all took place during the Great Depression, canvas and paint were considered luxury items so Sundblom painted over the first Santa (from 1923). Sundblom would later illustrate all Coca-Cola Santa ads from 1931 through 1964.
It’s always risky to go against tradition. But remember …
Coca-Cola iterated for nearly a decade before their Santa became the new standard.
When your brand goes big, expect the same.
5. Sears 1933: The OG of Gift Guides
Long before social media, before the internet, before TV advertising … there was the Sears Wish Book.
For over 80 years, Sears ruled over the holiday dreams of children and parents alike through an annual piece of direct-mail brilliance. The first Wish Book — then entitled, the Sears Christmas Book catalog — came out in 1933.
Within its pages were products like the “Miss Pigtails” doll, an electric train set and car — listed as “An Entirely New Idea” — fruitcakes, a five-pound box of chocolates, and live singing canaries.
As tastes, styles, and trends evolved, so did the Wish Book, making it a staple of holiday list making:
While the Wish Book saw it’s final printing in 2017, gift-giving guides and online lookbooks are still holiday campaign magic and can be a lucrative source of organic traffic both through social media (e.g., curated Pinterest boards) and search.
They also make for welcomed pieces of promoted content through native advertising platforms — instead of the often clickbait rubbish — as well as “sponsored” or “branded” content on mainstream publishers.
Google may have digitized Santa tracking, but they didn’t invent it. That honor belongs to NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command) in 1955.
In a happy coincidence, Sears put a holiday ad in Colorado Springs for kids to phone Santa. The only trouble was, there was a one-digit misprint, which led curious and excited children to reach the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD, NORAD’s predecessor).
Not wanting to crush children’s dreams, they played along and reported Santa’s location to their young callers. And that is how a top-security-level federal government agency in America became the tracker of sleighs and flying reindeer.
Fast forward over 50 years, Google decided they could do better. They used the Keyhole Earth Viewer — the original name for Google Earth — and every year have added more games and interactive experiences for children of all ages.
The lesson: Google took an incredible idea (tracking Santa) and used their intelligence (Google Earth images) to bring it to life.
M&Ms “spokescandies” can be traced back as far as 1954 when the first talking M&Ms (one plain and one peanut) appeared in their ads.
What makes this campaign concept unique is how they brought two famously fictionalized characters — Santa and the M&Ms — to celebrate the holidays together.
While it may not be holiday related, Purple did this brilliantly with their usual mix of humor and science in a series of Mother Sasquatch ads:
Ask yourself: what cultural or brand icons can our company mashup for more holiday merriment — and profits?
9. Norelco 1960s: Cutting Edge Advertising (Literally)
In 1964, NBC and Rankin/Bass Productions broke new ground by airing the first stop-motion animated holiday film: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It instantly became a modern classic.
What you might not know is that Norelco — makers of electric shavers since 1939 — was the first to use this emerging technology for a holiday retail campaign.
On the heels (or rather, the hooves) of Rudolph came Santa, riding a host of Norelco products:
All through the late 1960s into the 1980s, Norelco improved upon the quality of production. They even returned to the concept in 2011 (bottom right image below), but by then the sparkle had worn off.
What’s the lesson?
Much like Macy’s window displays, Norelco moved fast to integrate the latest tech into their ads and it paid off. Unfortunately, you can only go back to the same inspirational well so many times before it dries up.
One-point-five billion elves have been created since 2006. That’s enough to cover just over 20% of the world’s total population.
ElfYourself was created to help make the holidays more interactive. The execs at Office Depot hired creative agencies to develop 20 holiday-themed websites in lieu of traditional 30-second holiday TV ads. And elfyourself.com was born.
The first five weeks of the campaign saw 36 million visitors to the website and 11 million elves created.
Sometimes you don’t have to spend exorbitant amounts of money on retail advertising (especially with the heavy competition of the holidays). With digital, you can use the web to do the heavy lifting at a fraction of the price. And, often, with greater and more immediate results.
Hiring Isaiah Mustafa to be “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” has been an immeasurable concept to reinvigorating the Old Spice brand.
In 2011, Old Spice launched MANta Claus series of videos. Day 1 has “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” offering presents to all seven billion residents of earth, the citizens of Philadelphia, and to Australia.
What Old Spice does is take their running joke — “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” — and kicks it up a notch for the holidays. The continued theme of over-the-top, extra ridiculousness works for them and they use it to their advantage.
Year-round consistency — being on-brand, in season and off — is what makes this a great holiday campaign.
Chubbies, a Shopify Plus merchant, excels at this … particular through their Thighber Monday campaigns on social media and YouTube.
When the big days hit, the brand goes all out. This includes hilarious new videos each year, social posts designed for each network, and plenty of influencer merriment:
On top of all that, they also leverage a micro-site to release new offers and products every hour:
Canadian airline, Westjet, wanted to do something different in 2012 for their customers on Christmas Eve. They surprised everyone at the Calgary airport (the airline’s hub) with a flash mob of carolers, dancing elves, and a blue-and-white Santa — Westjet’s brand colors — to brighten up everyone’s pre-boarding night.
The following year, Westjet upped their Christmas game with The Westjet Christmas Miracle campaign, which they’ve been refining every year since.
The 2016 Christmas Miracle hit a little closer to home, however. That summer, Fort McMurray, a town in Northern Alberta, was hit with a devastating forest fire that forced the city-wide evacuation. Support came pouring in from across the country and around the world, but residents had lost everything and were forced to start over. We dare you to not shed a tear watching the story.
The moral of the marketing story is the holidays are a time for doing good and hitting people in the feelers.
Your holiday campaign may garner sales, but if you’re trying to make something brand-defining, put everything you’ve got behind it.
Part two of the Westjet lesson is with the huge success of their initial campaign, they were able to rebrand an old classic (A Christmas Miracle) and recreate a similar experience year after year.
This also means the team at Westjet is able to use the framework and customize the experience based on a particular need each year.
Lego had a near-death experience in 2003 when they reportedly were $800 million in debt.
This isn’t about that story. This is about how innovation has repeatedly helped the company stand out as the top player (get it?).
Lego wanted to bring their bricks to life (pre-Lego-Movie) and be a part of the real world. They called it “Brickmented Reality.”
Gathering all photo submissions (user-generated content), Lego wrote a fairy tale and made a video using the images they received. The three-week holiday campaign reached 119 countries, the videos were watched more than 150,000 times.
By creating an emotional bond between people and their product, this advertising example brought everyone back to their love of Legos.
The lesson: you’re never too old to enjoy toys and games … and reminding people of their emotional bonds will help build excitement and bring your brand values to life.
As Santa says, “Presents are for giving, not for receiving.” And right he is.
The all-Christmas-movies all the time UK TV channel, Christmas 24, chose to bring the true meaning of Christmas (giving prezzies) to life. They set up a larger-than-life present in the middle of Birmingham New Street (the largest and busiest subway station in Birmingham, UK) with a magic telephone.
What passersby didn’t realize was that on the other end was Santa offering up free presents to those who answered the phones. But, there was a catch …
Because as awesome as it is to get a gift, it really does make you all warm and fuzzy on the inside to be able to give someone else a lovely surprise … especially if they’re a complete stranger, completely unaware of what’s about to happen.
Channel 24 is all about getting folks excited about the holidays. And this activation in the busiest station does exactly that. This campaign marries the brand’s core values and brings them to life for everyone in an unexpected way.
Starbucks is everywhere. Seriously. Wherever you are in the world, you can be certain you’ll come across a Starbucks at some point.
Jumping on the holiday branding bandwagon, Starbucks started redesigning their cups for the holidays. Patrons grew anxious year-after-year to see what festive designs the coffee mega-giant would have.
Until, 2015. That year would go down in history as the time the internet (and the world) broke.
That year, Starbucks decided to shake it up by not designing their cups. Instead, they used plain Santa-red cups with their green logo. Simple, minimalistic, modern. However, no one (almost no one) agree with them on their choice.
In fact, it was all too much for the caffeinated public to stand and they were vocal about their distaste for the design.
The lesson to be learned is sometimes you just can’t please everyone. Your brand is yours and you should use it the way you feel is best. Don’t let the haters hate (unless you actually do something wrong).
And by the way, according to their most recent report at the time of publishing (dated July 26, 2018), Starbucks is still in the black since #cupgate. They reported consolidated net revenues up 11% YoY to $6.3 billion.
So ya, we’re not worried for them.
English is spoken around the world with different accents. It’s so fun to try to guess where someone is from based on their accents, eh? (#CanadaEh) Not to mention, expressions and idioms combined with a heavy accent, and sometimes you just don’t know what someone is saying.
Air New Zealand knows exactly what that’s like and wanted to tell everyone it’s OK, they know they speak funny (even Santa doesn’t understand them).
This Christmas learning moment is all about being able to make fun of yourself. Tell the world you know they struggle with [insert-weird-thing-you-do-that-is-a-gross-stereotype-but-not-offensive-to-anyone-at-all] and use it to your advantage.
Flip the script and be a part of the joke. It will show a more human side to your brand and endear you to your audience.
The holidays are a time to give. Give joy. Give love. Give … presents. And Amazon, the ecommerce giant, wanted to remind everyone.
What works is the use of their smile logo to do a karaoke-type commercial of packages (being prepared and sent) singing the song, “Give A Little Bit” (original by Supertramp).
This works for a company like Amazon because their brand is essentially about ecommerce for everyone. Remind your audience this is the time of year to make everyone feel special, no matter how small.
To build on the giving theme, Amazon’s “Delivering Smiles” campaign didn’t stop there. They organized a holiday tour, with 30 stops where Amazon employees live and work. They donated $1 for each mile they traveled as well as thousands of items to families, children, and women to help them fight homelessness.
All told, Amazon recorded five billion items shipped around the world through their Prime membership, and fourth quarter sales were up 38% to $60.5 billion. This clocked Amazon taking an estimated 45-50% of the online holiday retail sales pie.
Every carbon-based lifeform has one thing in common. PooPourri takes care of that.
Humans also share the common holiday stress of “What do I get Karen from accounting for Secret Santa?”
Holiday gift-giving is challenging to say the least. PooPourri went with a funny (on brand) ad featuring JP Sears who is known for his satirical humor, and this works perfectly. Watch.
The holiday takeaway is to use common holiday struggles to unite your customers. Even if your brand isn’t this funny, making light of stressful times is a great way to bring a little levity to your products during the holidays.
Traditionally, children are asked to send old Saint Nick their wishes.
In a compelling and waterworks-inducing holiday campaign, IKEA Spain asked children to write two letters: one to the Three Kings (their version of a Santa) followed by one to their parents.
IKEA is all about furnishing the home. This ad is all about reminding families that a home without furniture is just a house. (The “furniture” being the love of family.)
Stripping the concept down to its core, this is another example of reminding customers about your core values during the holidays and making them stop in their tracks in the way you bring that to mind.
The digital music giant Spotify used their data intelligence to create a fun (and hilarious) out-of-home (OOH) campaign in 2017.
They took the names of playlists and habits of their customers to show the fun side of the brand and (probably) invite more creative playlist names …
The Spotify #2018Goals campaign was seen around the world, and is based on a similar concept they used in 2016 in which they pulled user stats to write “Dear User” billboards ask poignant and very important questions, or make statements.
The lesson to glean from Spotify’s awesome campaigns is to use your customer data for good. If you have some interesting and fun insights (like them), it’s a unique way to get engagement. We suspect these campaigns will also encourage users to be more creative with their playlist naming as well.
The Arctic succumbs to 24-hour darkness from mid-November through the end of January. To brighten up the day of residents of a small Arctic village, Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada, Tropicana decided to bring them some daylight, 31-days into the Polar Night.
Though this took place in January and is somewhat unrelated to traditional holidays, it’s still worthy of a mention because it embodies everything the holidays should stand for: bringing smiles and light to people.
‘Tis the Season for Holiday Retail Campaigns to Bring the Magic
When it’s all said and done, how do you want consumers to remember you for the holidays?
What these brands all showed is no matter your customers’ race, religion, or creed, everyone relates to this time of year and responds to innovative and stand-out campaigns.
Don’t be afraid to think big, to think outside of the traditional Christmas present box. Go beyond your usual campaign parameters and hit your audience in their feelers — awww or hahaha — if you want to hit your own holiday goals.