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Branding at Christmas – who’s been naughty and who’s been nice?

Design Bridge Amsterdam’s Executive Creative Director Claire Parker served up some festive advice for brands looking to get in on Christmas branding. Originally published in Dutch for Verpakken Magazine’s December 2018 issue, we’ve translated the article below.

Like receiving a Christmas gift, branding in the festive season means infinitely more if it’s done thoughtfully. The naughty ones are empty gestures without meaning, wrapped in cheap Christmas paper. The nice ones are touching and timeless. There are brands that laid claim to the Christmas story decades ago. Urban myth has it that Santa Clause is, in fact, red, white and jolly because of the iconic seasonal Coca-Cola ads from the 1930s. Prior to this, Santa was decidedly skinnier, less jolly and was often seen in a robe-like outfit, more akin to Sinter Klaus.

It can be argued that Coca-Cola hasn’t successfully leveraged this tie to Christmas to its full advantage – whilst other brands have overtaken them in the mission for festivity. For as long as anyone can remember, brands have tried to own Christmas. What’s important is whether they’ve managed to reinvent themselves in a way that resonates. The clichés of Christmas will likely never change: trees, candy canes, snow and reindeers. Brands that win look to use these clichés in a way that amplifies who they already are and what they stand for all year round. Or perhaps something they stand for that’s latent in people’s consciousness.

Clichés are clichés for a reason, and if done badly, will be tired. If done well, they can elicit an emotional response deeply rooted in nostalgia. Who can fail to love Harvey Nichols famously repackaged Christmas pudding as a giant old-fashioned sixpence. They replicated and amplified the experience of finding a coin in your pudding – a personal moment of pure joy.

Tony’s Chocolonely knows everyone covets the biggest, chunkiest middle piece of the bar. Their Christmas bars feature a Christmas tree shaped central chunk – still the biggest chunk, and now with the added challenge of keeping the shape intact when you break it up and tuck in. Another standout example is Smirnoff’s Peppermint Twist. Bold, brave and impossible to miss, the bottles made people stop and pay attention. And because people were so delighted by the designs, they not only became bestsellers, they became Smirnoff’s most shared social media posts.

Candy canes are a classic Christmas symbol but it was the reinterpretation of the visual cliché that landed so well. The immediate recognition of something you love, in a way you wouldn’t expect. The spirit not only looked like a candy cane, it smelt like it too – the trigger of an expected flavour and what it represents. Either way, breakthrough Christmas branding is about having an opinion and saying something. Plastering Santa and his reindeers awkwardly onto your biscuit box is an impersonal touch. It’s the brand equivalent of bubble bath.


There are rituals around Christmas – eating, drinking and decoration – that make these categories the most active participants in Christmas branding. And transforming your brand into a ‘gift-able’ object is one way to tap into the festive spirit.

But forget chocolate – who could resist a cosmetics advent calendar? Because, of course, the ultimate Christmas gift is anticipation and unboxing a tiny sample of your delight. UK department store Liberty cleverly made their mark with the luxury take on a confectionary countdown. Asos, Jo Malone and The Body Shop followed. Locally, Rituals and Douglas will do the same this year.

This is smart reinterpretation of a Christmas staple, and the brands responsible understand the consideration given to each sample is intensified when the recipient has waited 24 hours to open it.

On the other end of the spectrum, Burger King delivers fast food and quick laughs with take-out bags branded with Santa’s beard and belly. Not necessarily memorable or ownable, but a nod to the Christmas purely designed to trigger an involuntary response: a smile. KFC’s recent Christmas campaign reflected their desire to become a vibrant, urban social hangout with hand-illustrated art made entirely of KFC visual cues, like the Colonel’s tie and the red bucket. A simple, considered and well-executed idea that gave the brand a new direction.

We all know the disappointment of receiving a thoughtless Christmas gift. It says nothing about you or the person gifting it. It was clearly conceived at the last minute, with minimal effort. Remember this feeling when considering whether to ‘festify’ your brand. Proceed only if you can reasonably appropriate something that motivates you for the other ten months of the year. Otherwise (truthfully) you’re just the sad, drunk uncle in a Santa suit.



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