Effectiveness Is Coming – 5 Lessons From Coke’s Christmas Trucks

Maybe the best way to appreciate the Coca-Cola Christmas Trucks, which have starred in Coke’s ads since 1995, is to look at what they replaced. Here’s a Coca-Cola ad from 1994.

Some of the familiar iconography is there – the dear old Santa illustration, the colour red, and the song – but it’s being used to mimic an MTV video ident, making it the 1990s equivalent of those modern ads which are desperate to feel like a TikTok video.

The “Holidays Are Coming!” ad is only one year younger, but couldn’t be more different. Real people in a wintry setting with bags of character. Lots of excited unspoken glances between viewers. A sense of occasion, which spills over into the viewing audience. And that great red convoy of trucks coming over the hillside, each decked out with 30,000 bulbs by Industrial Light And Magic.

Coca-Cola at Christmas has always been about harnessing the power of distinctive brand assets, long before they were called that. From the 30s to the 50s it relied on its iconic Santa design by illustrator Sunny Sundblom. Later came the polar bears, and now its holiday campaigns are defined by the trucks. Aside from a brief early 00s rest, “Holidays Are Coming!” has been re-issued every year since, sometimes with minor variations, like the ad’s action being framed by Santa opening a book, or like this year’s ad with the music lightly remixed.

It’s a 5-Star ad, among the top 1% of ads on TV in our Ad Ratings database. What’s more, it was a 5-Star ad the first time we tested it, back in 2013. It also lands in our top Spike bracket, for short-term sales impact. Defying conventional advertising wisdom, which says ads wear out with the public, “Holidays Are Coming!” keeps its appeal, year on year.

What keeps Coke at the top of the tree? They back a winner – this year’s UK trucks campaign is the “biggest yet”, according to the brand. But that’s not all – here are five lessons anyone can take away from this evergreen ad.

1. Persistence Pays Off

We don’t know what “Holidays Are Coming!” would have scored back in 1995. But it takes more than one year to build a tradition, and Coke’s consistent use of the ad to build familiarity with the trucks is evidence of a valuable long-term perspective. 

Lesson: You’ll get bored of a good idea before your audience will – give it time to thrive.

2. Right-Brained Richness

The original ad, by W M Doner, has a lot of the right-brained elements Orlando Wood identifies in his recent book Lemon – implicit communication, a strong sense of place, and following the action through a single scene. In other words, it’s a very human ad – and as Lemon shows, those elements are what builds effectiveness.

Lesson: Make sure the execution of your ad gets the attention of the right-brain.

3. It’s All About The Assets

It may be very human but the ad is also very strongly branded. In fact, Coke pull off a difficult trick – they turn their branding into the event. The familiar red, the iconic bottle and the jolly Santa – all these are decades-old assets, and the music also built on previous ads. But be careful! Clumsy use of distinctive assets can work against an emotional ad, distracting from the story (and the magic).

Lesson: Use your distinctive assets to brand your ad strongly but also organically.

4. 80% Familiar, 20% New

The job those old assets are doing is to introduce new ones – the “Holidays Are Coming!” music and the fleet of Christmas trucks. The trucks are particularly strong because no other brand has anything like them. While Coke may feel a special claim to Santa, the fact is that any brand can and does use him. But the trucks are truly distinctive. The fact they felt like a natural part of Coke’s Christmas branding so quickly is an example of Fluency done right – to make an innovative idea stick, surround it by what’s already familiar.

Lesson: Use older assets to introduce and bed in newer ones.

5. Multi-Media On Wheels

Finally, while the trucks originated on TV, Coke used the ad as a springboard for a truly multi-platform experience, with the trucks tour turning the brand into an active part of Christmas entertainment. These days, plenty of brands aim to provide experiences as part of their marketing. Coke’s wisdom lies in realising that their broad-reach TV campaigns were the bedrock which allowed the branded experiences and the buzz around them to work. The TV commercial primed audiences worldwide on how to react when the “Christmas Caravan” comes to their own town. 

Lesson: Experiential work builds on broad reach foundations.

“Holidays Are Coming!” is 25 years old next year, and it’s still a masterclass in using brand assets to make great advertising. 

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