Santa Claus and Peppa Pig

Quick Read: If ‘brand’ is a story and if ‘we’ constitute a culture, interesting things begin to happen when a culture seeks a story or when a story seeks a culture – all in that classic quest for resonance. 

When a Culture Seeks Out a Story

Rovaniemi – is a Christmas lover’s dream. It is a Finnish town that has – over the years – established itself as the home of Santa Claus. This sleepy town of around 60,000 inhabitants manages to attract over 500,000 visitors annually from all over the world all seeking the story of Santa Claus, or in other words the experience of the brand Santa Claus. 

It has the Santa’s office where people queue up for a brief 3 minute meeting with him, Santa’s post office that receives a flood of letters from all around the world addressed to  “Santa Claus, Lapland”, the Santa’s official elves and you get the drift – essentially the entire Christmas package that you could ever ask for. 

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Santa Claus at Rovaniemi. Source

While this could constitute a fascinating case study in itself about the power of an iconic brand as an enduring story, the last 18 – 24 months have seen an interesting phenomenon emerge. 

Let’s start with the letters. The Santa’s post office is said to have received upwards of 500,000 letters in 2018. Till 2017, most of the letters used to come from the UK. But now China is said to be way ahead. Apparently the Post Office is said to have received more than 100,000 letters from China alone last year. (source)   

Now the visitors. By some accounts in 2017 alone, close to 580,000 visitors flew into Rovaniemi (double the number in 2010) and much of that  growth is said to be driven by visitors from China. In fact as per this article..

Now, just about everywhere in Rovaniemi accepts Alipay, Alibaba Group’s mobile payment system, which is also available on Finnair flights from seven Chinese cities to Helsinki. …At (hotels) you can pay in Alipay and communicate with reception using WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese social media/messaging service.

 

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Xi Jinping with Santa. Source

Now this is the interesting thing. 

Christmas is not an official holiday in mainland China, and has in fact increasingly been banned in various cities in recent years. On Dec. 15 2018, security officials in Langfang, a city in Hebei province, issued a notice prohibiting the display of Christmas materials and spreading of “religious propaganda” in public areas including schools and plazas. The notice also warned against selling Christmas products and instructed local workers to ensure a “healthy and orderly environment” during the Christmas period. One city even said it would fine individuals caught selling or making fake snow. (more on that here)

But Chinese visitors and letters addressed to Santa from China constitute the majority. Why?  

Most Chinese children may not be fully aware of Christmas’s religious background nor of China’s complicated relationship to the holiday. But the story of Santa Claus and Christmas –  the universal values of generosity, hope, and gratitude, could be what’s driving them to write to Santa Claus or visit the town of Rovaniemi. 

In many ways this phenomenon could be said to be the classic example of a ‘culture’ seeking out a ‘story’.

Nothing represents this sentiment better than the following lines from a letter written by a 19 year Chinese girl to Santa (as quoted in this article)  

“In China, we don’t have Christmas, and family is more important than gifts,” she wrote in both English and Chinese. ”But you know, one small present can mean so much to a child, and bring so much happiness. Although you don’t really exist, kindness does. In my heart, you represent kindness.”  

When a Story Seeks Out a Culture 

If you are not a parent, let me quickly get you up to speed on Peppa. 

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Peppa Pig. Source

Peppa Pig is a British preschool animated character that has spawned a multi billion dollar worth empire of TV series, toys, books, films, theme parks, merchandise and even video games. Each day this muddy puddle loving pre-school character has been winning legions of little fans from all over the world.  

In 2018 Peppa’s memes were banned from social media platforms by Beijing. So its chances looked dicey in China.

Well that was till early this month. 

By mid January 2019, Peppa Pig has been experiencing a huge boost to its popularity in China after the runaway success of a trailer released to promote a Peppa Pig film.In fact the trailer’s Mandarin hashtag #WhatisPeppa had been viewed more than 1.45bn times on popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo and the official video had garnered hundreds of millions of views across various streaming platforms. (source)

This short video, co-produced by Canadian media group Entertainment One and China’s Alibaba Pictures story has supposedly found its best resonance with the Chinese audience given the timing of its release –  the Chinese New Year marking the start of the year of the Pig – and for realistically depicting how societal changes such as urbanization and generational culture gaps have had an impact on Chinese families.

Given this, the short video makes for an uplifting story of the potential that could be unlocked when we have a story that successfully seeks cultural resonance. 

Now Try This Exercise

Think of a phenomenon gone viral or a campaign that back fired. And for each such example that comes to your mind: 

  • Identify if the brand or the central theme has a clear story to tell, a positioning that it seeks to carve out in people’s minds with a clear and a consistent narrative. Is it coherent or half baked? Is that rooted/ does it seek to root itself in the zeitgeist of the times or does it look like it is pushing its luck by tapping into a topical trend
  • Now, look at the recipients of the story (or sometimes the seekers of the story). Is there a tenet that unifies them –  a common characteristic, a cultural theme that binds them? Can there be a common story that could appeal to this culture? Or is the underlying cultural theme too fragmented or too nuanced that no single story could have a satisfying chance to resonate with it?  

Chances are that, a successful campaigns/ popular phenomena would always be rooted in strong stories appealing to strong cultural themes or the other way round. Have either one of these stand on weak or flimsy grounds you have a recipe for a backfire. 

[Featured Image: Peppa and Her Family Dress up as Santa Claus for Christmas, Video thumbnail

TGFA

Quick Read: Some communities resort to fascinatingly extreme means to preserve and propagate their culture. Fortunately for the rest of us there is advertising.

On the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa is an extremely closed community called Kleinfontein.

It is home to a small group of 1,200 Christian Afrikaners who embrace traditional Afrikaner culture and exclude all others from their settlement.  

They are so excluded from the larger population that at the entrance of the settlement is a gate monitored by security guards 24 hours per day who let in visitors only if they have an invitation.

NatGeo

(Pic Erica Canepa, source: Nat Geo)

No wonder then, when Erica Canepa – a freelance Italian photographer started researching the community she couldn’t find even a single photo of the place. Thus began her quest to get into the community that culminated in a brilliant NatGeo piece.

The big insight that dawns from her NatGeo picture story is that the Kleinfontein’s way of life is more about preserving their unique cultural identity than simply keeping others out. 

“I found it’s not about the race; everything is about the culture, and racism became a consequence of their desire to protect themselves and their culture.”

After all, isn’t this need to preserve our collective DNA (a.k.a culture) universally applicable?

Ask the ultra orthodox Rabbis if you are still in doubt. 

Recently as part of their long struggle to keep the modern media from corrupting their ultra orthodox Rabbi community also called the Haredi, their council gathered earlier this year to discuss a “great spiritual danger” a.k.a WhatsApp.

Why?

Because it turns out, it has become a popular method for their followers to form groups for exchanging gossip and even “immodest” images and video clips. (source)

Consequently, as the economist reports..

The ultra-Orthodox community’s purchasing power is such that Israeli mobile-phone providers agreed to market special “kosher connection” smartphones, without the offending apps and allowing only carefully regulated information services. To make sure the faithful use them, these devices have their own group of phone numbers and a distinctive ringtone.

Haredi Phone

(A Haredi man with a mobile phone. Pic Source)

Apparently, what do the younger Haredim that want to ignore the edict do?

Interestingly, as the report says, they buy two mobile devices: one for calls within the community, while tucked away in another pocket is a smart phone to keep up with the outside world.

The extent to which these younger Rabbis go to, to get what they want while still ostensibly trying to appear “kosher compliant” speaks (ironically) about their commitment to be part of the larger community moment to preserve and propagate their core cultural ideals and ideas.

Meanwhile elsewhere..

Did you know of this ongoing plot to liberate North Korea with smuggled episodes of Friends?

Not just Friends. In fact by the estimates of the group that has been meticulously executing this cross border “culture smuggling”, over 3,000 USB drives filled with foreign movies, music, and ebooks land into the North Korean territory annually.

Kang Chol-hwan, the founder of this group likens the USB sticks to the red pill from The Matrix: a mind-altering treatment that has the power to shatter a world of illusions.

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(Kang Chol-hwan and the thumb drive guerrilla invasion. Pic Source)

Now that’s some real transformative power of cultural propagation.

Fortunately for the rest us there’s advertising to lend a helping hand. 

See any festive ad now – anything that you can think of.

And arguably it would be about this one single thing – preserving and propagating our culture, within communities and across generations.

This festive season, amidst all the fun and frolic, among family and friends as you exchange your warmest gifts and greetings why not reflect for a moment and ask yourself..

Would this festive occasion still hold the same special meaning to us with all its finer nuances and rich textures without this thing called ‘advertising’?  

Festive Greetings and Thank God For Advertising! 

(Featured image source)