Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the one with the very shiny nose. Where did he come from, how did he start pulling Santa’s sleigh and what does it have to do with your company’s PR strategy?

It was a foggy winter night (probably) in 1939. Robert L May looked out of the twinkling Chicago department store window as he penned his story: a lone Reindeer, a social outcast, bullied by the other reindeer. One Christmas eve, his glowing red nose helped Santa see through the fog, deliver presents to all the children and save the day. You know the one.

Why did May write such a story? Marketing of course.

Department store Montgomery Ward had been giving away free colouring books at Christmas. This year the store decided they could save money by making their own pamphlet in-house. They asked copywriter Robert May to write a story to promote it (and he nearly called him Reginald the Reindeer!). That year they gave away 2.4 million copies, almost triple the best-selling book of the year, Grapes of Wrath.

May kept Rudolph’s popularity going, marketing him as a franchise and licensing books, comics and toys. Ten years later, in 1949, May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks adapted the story into a song, giving a new life to the Reindeer. It’s fair to say all the children loved him, and they probably shouted out with glee “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer you’ll go down in history.”  And they certainly wouldn’t have been wrong. By 1980’s 500 people had covered the song and it became the second best-selling Christmas song of all time.

By the 60s, marketers had capitalised on Rudolph’s popularity and introduced him to the television screens as a stop-motion Christmas special, the longest-running of all time. From there, endless films and TV appearances, until Rudolph has become fully cemented in the festive cheer of Christmas.

What marketing lessons can we learn from Rudolph?

Find a unique angle – Department store Montgomery Ward’s saved money by finding a unique marketing angle to stand out from the crowd, resulting in a huge success. No matter how great your business is, catching people’s attention is key to success.

Know who you want to reach and understand what drives them – May capitalised on the emotions of his target audience; the magic of Christmas combined with the feeling of not knowing where you fit in in the world. His 4-year-old daughter enjoyed the reindeer mentioned in the poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’, they weren’t a Christmas staple before then, May wrote his story in the same rhythm. Rudolph becomes modern folklore. Ronald D Jr Lankford writes “Rudolph’s story is for children; more specifically, it is a children’s story about overcoming adversity and earning, by personal effort, respect in the adult world.”

Keep up with trends, timing is everything – Utilise things that are popular and reach your audience where they are. May kept the momentum going and every few years Rudolph appeared in a new medium as technology evolved. Today, technology is evolving faster than ever and keeping up with the changes is important to stay relevant.

People like to be entertained – In the days of social media, this is more important than ever. Increasingly social media is being used for entertainment over news. May found different routes to keep his story entertaining, from songs to TV, until it took on a life of its own, engraining itself in popular culture. In a modern world of mass media consumption and short attention spans, the bar is high to create page-turners and scroll stoppers.

Most importantly, always add festive cheer.