Content marketing that went down in history: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Dec 18, 2017

Do you recall the most famous Christmas content marketing example of all?

It dates to the 1930s, when the largest retailer in the United States, Montgomery Ward, was planning its holiday promotions. Like other department stores, they had elaborate displays and attractions to compel parents to bring their children, including a Santa Claus that handed out coloring books.

In January 1939, the store asked one of its catalog copywriters, Robert L. May, to write a story for that year’s book giveaway. May was 35 and felt like he was squandering his potential.

“Instead of writing the great American novel, as I’d once hoped, I was describing men’s white shirts,” May later said. “It seemed I’d always been a loser.”

So, he wrote an underdog story about an outcast reindeer that came to lead Santa’s sleigh.

“For gosh sakes,” his boss said. “Bob, can’t you do better than that?”

Undeterred, May went to the art department to create a rough draft. Only then did he get buy-in on his idea.

Montgomery Ward distributed more than 2 million copies of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” that year.

Title page of the original 1939 giveaway booklet.

But leadership still only viewed it as a promotional gimmick.

Believing it could be much more, May asked his executives for the rights to the story. They granted his wish.

That’s when Rudolph took off. May secured a book deal, and asked his brother-in-law to write and record a song. That led to a short cartoon in 1948, a re-recording by Gene Autry in 1949 that became a No. 1 hit, and countless more books, movies and songs since.

Long story short: Montgomery Ward executives twice doubted the potential of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer because they had a myopic view of what marketing content should be. Don’t let narrow-mindedness keep you from going down in history.

 

This article first appeared in our weekly newsletter, Long Story Short. It was written by Lee Procida.

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