In contrast, it turns out that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has a much simpler story.
A content marketer made him up.
Well, nobody was really using the term “content marketing” back then, but that’s precisely what Robert May was doing. He was an “in-house” advertising copywriter for the Montgomery Ward Company, which was then the US’s second largest retailer after Sears.
The retailer had already been buying and giving away coloring books for Christmas every year. In 1939, they decided that they’d cut costs by doing it in-house. In its first year of publication, 2.5 million copies of Rudolph’s story were distributed by Montgomery Ward.
For context, consider this: 430,000 copies of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer-prize-winning Grapes Of Wrath were printed in that same year. Rudolph outdid that Great American Novel by 581%, or almost 6 times!
Why was Rudolph so popular?
1: Extremely refined craftsmanship.
Robert May may have been a relatively unknown writer at the time, but he put in a phenomenal amount of work. It was technically supposed to be “just a children’s colouring book”. He could have just thrown something together.
But he took it very, very seriously. He would “stress-test” the verses on his daughter, and modify or remove anything that she didn’t love. The final result was nothing short of a masterpiece. NPR released the full original manuscript, which you can check out here.
2: Powerful story that everybody related to.
May’s insight was expressed through plot. There are famously three “Great Plots” that almost always resonate with people. The overcoming of adversity through hard work, the exercise of creative insight, and the power of connecting with others.
Rudolph’s story featured all three. He was bullied for being different, but he earned everybody’s respect by saving the day. He took the high road and exercising his unique asset for the benefit of others. May reportedly channeled his own childhood experiences when writing about Rudolph. Some commentators have pointed out that Rudolph’s story was especially meaningful to the given context.
3: Relevance within the broader ecosystem.
Plot and craftmanship alone are necessary but insufficient. For everything to really come together, a piece of work needs to be relevant. It needs to somehow resonate with something that people already care about. People need to see how it fits in with their existing narratives.
Where did Rudolph get his continuity, his relevance? He got it by referencing the 1823 poem “The Night Before Christmas” by Clement C. Moore, which has been regarded as “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American”. It was Moore’s poem that introduced the image of Santa and his eight flying reindeer to popular consciousness.
Not only does May invoke a reindeer, he uses the same poetic technique and rhythm, almost implying that his work is a continuation of the legendary poem. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is another great example of something that creatively and masterfully references Moore’s seminal poem.
Done badly, such pieces can come across as tacky, uninspired “me-too” marketing stunts. The challenge is to reference the familiar but to introduce something genuinely refreshing. You can’t just slap something together, you have to make sure it’s deeply relevant and will withstand scrutiny. That’s where the insight and craftsmanship comes in.
As I reflect on Rudolph’s legacy, the things that strikes me the most are as follows:
1: The fact that Montgomery Ward was giving away children’s books to begin with.
It reminds me of Red Bull’s Red Bulletin, Kleenex’s competitions, Converse’s recording studios. Big, strong brands have the guts to give stuff away for free, and it communicates confidence and strength.
2: The amount of effort that Robert May put into Rudolph.
He didn’t have to work so hard. He didn’t have to put in that much effort into making it Insanely Great. He didn’t have to pour his own soul into his work.
I hope as you read this, you’ll be persuaded to take a chance in doing something for others- and to give it your best, not just your good-enough.