It’s, of course, interesting to learn that a beloved childhood yarn was initially intended only to be “the perfect Christmas crowd-bringer,” and that Montgomery Ward, the company that developed it, laid out strict guidelines for its distribution. These would, the company’s leaders assured their subordinates, “limit ‘street urchin’ traffic to a minimum, and will bring in the PARENTS … the people you want to sell!”
But this remarkable story/happy corporate accident does not, in itself, teach us anything other than this: “the next time you’re wondering if content marketing is just fad that will go away, remember that most famous reindeer of them all and realize that content marketing has been around for a long time and will continue to be.”
Aughtmon’s narrative doesn’t satisfactorily answer the dreaded “So what?” question. That doesn’t mean, however, that content marketers can’t take something away from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Rudolph’s Rare Success
The story of Rudolph’s development is absolutely worthy of examination. In 1939, Robert L. May, an advertising executive at Montgomery Ward, was assigned to create a coloring book for the store to give away during the holidays. May conceived of the idea of a reindeer protagonist and “drew on memories of his own painfully shy childhood when creating his Rudolph stories.” He wrote Rudolph’s story in verse, as a series of rhyming couplets and, after overcoming some instinctive trepidation among his higher-ups, saw the story become a success. Montgomery Ward’s shoppers loved the book; in the first year of its publication the store distributed more than two million copies. When the books were reproduced again, in 1946, they sold nearly twice that number.
The story eventually became a song. The song, released in 1949, sold more records than any other Christmas song, excepting only the venerable “White Christmas.”
Virginia Herz, one of May’s daughters, said her father would be surprised by the lasting success of his creation. She said, “I think he would be startlingly amazed. It really is an eternal part of Christmas. He would have been amazed.”
Rudolph was a content marketing coup but the reasons for its success –and what its success can teach Robert May’s successors – have gone curiously unstudied.
Until now, that is.
The Reasons for Rudolph’s Success
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer started out as a character in a poem but that poem told a story. This may have been its greatest strength. Scientific research is increasingly demonstrating that stories exercise a peculiar pull on the human imagination. Melanie Green and Tim Brock are two psychologists who have researched how narratives contribute to our ability to process information. They found that a story “radically alters the way information is processed” and that, when humans listen to a story, they ingest the information contained within it with relative ease. They also found that, when humans are absorbed by a story, they are unlikely to see the inaccuracies, errors, logical fallacies and outright deceptions contained within it.
Content marketers are starting to rediscover the potency of narratives. There’s a reason why Caliber’s Ian Humphreys argues that Apple, Samsung and Microsoft are using stories to sell their products rather than enumerations of product features. He has said, “The marketing messages don’t really mention the features of the phone, instead they sell a lifestyle and imply that the product will allow you to go on great adventures.”
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” succeeds as content marketing because, to the reader entranced by its narrative, it doesn’t look like marketing at all. It furthered the Montgomery Ward brand by distancing itself from the company that devised it.
II Memorable Characters
Rudolph is a young reindeer buck with what some would call a deformity or handicap: a luminous vermilion schnoz. This sets him apart from other reindeer.
Rudolph is a memorable character for two reasons: he is physically different from his peers and he has a back story that inclines readers to empathize with him. His red nose, blazing against backdrops of pristinest white, sets him apart in the reader’s imagination but his plight, which is unfortunately shared by many readers, makes him identifiable and appealingly different.
III Conflict and Resolution
The conflict in May’s original poem was expanded considerably in later iterations of the Rudolph tale (Rankin and Bass saw fit to include the Abominable Snowman. And to call him “Bumble.”), but has always remained essentially the same: Santa Clause is confronted with adverse weather conditions that threaten to ground him. The conflict is resolved because Santa recognizes the value of Rudolph’s glowing nose. The trait, which had caused Rudolph to be spurned by his community, turns into a blessing; it’s an old and uncomplicated theme but it is also one readers can quickly become interested in.
May’s poem, which briefly introduces a conflict, before resolving it in tidy fashion, is memorable because of the drama it contains.
Is May’s poem ever going to be confused with Breaking Bad? No. But it keeps you engaged, which is more than can be said of most content marketing.
It’s not hard to explain why May’s creation ended up being such an enduring success. Like the best contemporary content marketing, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a story and it features all the things that make stories special and memorable. For content marketers and anyone else developing content for the Web the takeaway is simple: pretend you aren’t marketing anything at all and focus on crafting a good story.
And now, for those of you experiencing symptoms associated with Christmas withdrawal:
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