The Real (Marketing) Story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

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It was 75 years ago that a social outcast made a huge debut in the hearts of children visiting their local Montgomery Ward’s department store with their parents during the Christmas season. This outcast had a large red nose that “glowed, like the eyes of a cat,” and resulted in him being nicknamed Ruddy. He almost received the name of Romeo or Reginald before his creator decided on Rudolph- as in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

In 1939, a copywriter by the name of Robert May was assigned by Montgomery Ward to create a children’s coloring book just in time for the Christmas shopping season. This book would be handed out for free to kids- provided that they showed up with their parents in tow. In this way, the book would be used to drive traffic to the department store.

Robert May created content around a sad and lonely reindeer named Rudolph, who was picked on by other reindeer thanks to his nose, which was “red, very large, and quite shiny.” Store execs worried that the red nose might be construed with alcoholism; however, despite some misgivings, the Rudolph marketing campaign was given a green light. And an American icon was born later that year.

In 1939, a print run of 50,000 copies was considered to be a best seller for a book. May’s book was printed and distributed over 2.4 million times. The next year, Rudolph-themed merchandise joined the holiday extravaganza at the Montgomery Ward stores. And in 1946, another 3.5 million copies of the book were distributed- wartime restrictions on paper had prevented a reprinting until that year.

May eventually left Montgomery Ward to handle the business side of Rudolph sales and merchandising- in an unprecedented gesture of generosity, Montgomery Ward had transferred the copyright of the Rudolph book to May, who had been struggling financially following his first wife’s death. This transfer enabled May to collaborate with Johnny Marks, a songwriter, who set the Rudolph tale to a musical number sung by Gene Autry in 1949. By 1964, Rudolph became the star of a stop motion animated film.

What made Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer so popular in the hearts of children, and even adults? And what can you as an affiliate (or other) marketer learn from this highly successful marketing campaign?

1. Tell a story that resonates with your readers.

In the heart of Depression-era America, and especially in a racially and ethnically diverse town like Chicago, youngsters and their parents would probably not relate well to a story about a rich or popular character who has a trouble-free life. But they could certainly relate to poor Rudolph, a character who is down on his luck and being made fun of for looking different than the others.

As a marketer, it’s imperative that you gauge who your audience is and what its major concerns are. To this end, you can use Google Analytics or other analysis programs to find out who is engaging with your website and its products. You can also conduct surveys, contests and other promotional events to learn more about your audience.

Once you’ve studied your audience, one of the best ways to get it on your side is to relate to it in some way. Classically, this has been done time and time again through stories, from the parables told by Jesus to the “Joe the Plumber” anecdotes provided by politicians. A good story is welcomed and easily remembered. And it can be easily included in one of your blog posts, emailed newsletters, or even spun out into an entire article series.

2. Use a free item to drive traffic- and sales

Although it’s overlooked now, Montgomery Ward intended for the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer coloring book to drive traffic to area department stores. Books that were sent to Ward stores came with specific instructions from May on how they should be promoted and handed out. For starters, children could receive a copy of the book, but only if they were accompanied by adults. This was intended to limit “street urchin’ traffic to a minimum, and will bring in the PARENTS;” in other words, traffic of the paying kind.

Montgomery Ward stores also used the coloring book as fodder for newspaper announcements and other publicity. This would not have been as successful if the book had to be purchased; however, because the event was a giveaway, it was very easy to promote the event and get area journalists on board.

Because everyone loves freebies, you could also create a free item for your readers as a goodwill gesture. However, before that freebie is distributed, you can collect “payment” by having your subscribers fill out a contact form, complete a survey, or otherwise engage with your website or products. You might even create a series of e-books or other promotional items where the first item is free, but the remaining items must be purchased.

3. Create freebie spin-offs and other merchandise.

In 1939, Montgomery Ward gave away 2.4 million copies of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. A second print-run was not performed until 1946, when the wartime paper shortage ended. How did the department store make money on Rudolph in the interim?

Rudolph was successfully spun-out into a series of products that made the socially awkward reindeer a household name more so than the original coloring books. Over time, Rudolph-themed stuffed animals, Christmas stockings and ornaments made their way into American households. Then, in 1949, Johnny Marks worked with Robert May to set the Rudolph story to a song that became a #1 hit single.

In short, strategic upsells and cross-sells made Rudolph a marketing success more so than the original freebie this reindeer was intended for.

You can use the same strategies employed by Robert May and Montgomery Ward to upsell and cross-sell affiliate products, training and educational materials, samples, e-books, etc.  In fact, after distributing your freebie, you might even put that item on hold and promote paid products for a little while. This creates demand for the “freemium” item and helps draw potential customers to your other offerings.

Your Rudolph marketing plan

Long after the death of its creator and marketers, the “free” Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer coloring book continues to make money for the children and grandchildren of Robert May and Johnny Marks. And 75 years later, Rudolph continues to teach affiliate and digital marketers how to create highly successful marketing campaigns.

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