The Top 5 Things Santa Can Teach Us About Behavior Change Marketing

I first realized Santa’s role as a behavior change marketer when my oldest son, Sam, was about four. At the time, I was spending my days caring for an infant, a toddler and a very strong-willed preschooler and my nights working as a copy editor at the local newspaper. With whatever energy I could muster dayside, I tried to impose order on the continual chaos that was my home.

For reasons that will be obvious to anyone who has dealt with sibling rivalry, Sam had developed a penchant for following behind me and emptying every drawer I straightened or closet I organized. I was also smack dab in the height of positive parenting — which meant (like most social marketers) I had few punitive tools at my disposal to engineer voluntary behavior change.

But one day in early December, as Sam positioned himself in front of a linen closet ready to entertain himself by either a) carrying all of the clean sheets into the backyard while I was busy with his brother and sister or, b) engaging in the long, drawn-out battle of wills of a time-out, I had a flash of insight.

“If you take those sheets out of the closet,” I intoned with authority (mixed with equal measures of glee and guilt), “Santa won’t bring you presents this Christmas.”

My son stopped in his tracks. The sheets stayed put. I had three peaceful minutes to rock his brother and sister to sleep. And my career as a behavior change marketer was born.

Here are the top five things Santa can teach you about behavior change marketing.


  1. Rewards work better than punishment. If you’ve followed our work at Marketing for Change, you know our Fun Easy Popular methodology. These are the 14 common behavioral determinants that we leverage in our marketing campaigns. “Fun” can refer to both rewards and punishment — the carrots and sticks that drive behavior. In general, we’ve found people are more likely to respond to a potential reward — like the possibility of getting a present — than punishments. For example, a mom I knew threatened her son so many times with coal in his stocking that the child developed a self-standard around carbon. “Well, mommy,” he said, “I’ll use that coal to heat up the house so we won’t be cold this winter.”   


  1. Easy is anything but for the elves. Santa is magic. But any parent who has stayed up into the wee hours of the morning wrapping presents and stuffing stockings, only to have their kids shrieking with manic Christmas joy a few short pre-dawn hours later, can attest that making magic happen is hard. It takes a tremendous amount of creativity and drive to make a target behavior easy for your target audience to do.


  1. Norms are powerful. I am not a person who generally lies. For the most part throughout my children’s growing up, I followed the tenet that if a child asks a question, they are ready for the answer. But I lied, extensively and creatively, about Santa for more than a decade. I helped Sam track Santa on the NORAD website. I used special wrapping paper for Santa gifts that I hid at the back of my highest closet shelf, and I addressed the presents in cursive so my kids wouldn’t recognize my handwriting. I lived with this cognitive dissonance because that’s what every other parent around me was doing (except for the annoying ones who told their kids, and then you had to lie even more to assure your sobbing child that Santa was really real).


  1. Confirmation bias is even more powerful. Sam willed himself to believe in Santa long after he really believed (tricky territory for a parent who usually answers questions honestly). His sister, however, sensibly reasoned pretty early on that Santa and the Easter Bunny were parental concoctions. Leprechauns, on the other hand, were clearly of a different ilk. After all, they turned over furniture and left footprints in the house.


  1. You are your brand. Santa is one of the most powerful brands ever, as this hilarious brand book by Quietroom can attest. And like all good brands, Santa is an umbrella brand that holds its own even as it is flexibly adapted to different target audience needs. For example, Sam’s best friend was an only child whose parents had lots of money, and Santa filled his entire living room with presents. On the other hand — after one bad experience in which I caved on a way too expensive My Size Angel Barbie and Santa got all the credit — Santa only brought my kids a book and a small gift each. I easily explained away the difference. “Santa,” I said, “knows mommy’s values.”

But perhaps the most important thing Santa can teach us is that there is a miraculous power in harnessing the belief that each of us can do our part to make the world a better place. Happy holidays, behavior change marketers — go forth and make magic!

Sara is Principal + Director of Strategy and Planning at Marketing for Change.

Learn more about how to use 12 common behavioral determinants to influence what people do.

12 Determinants of Behavior

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