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Merkki Elff

Merkki Elff
little creature, big brand
by Robin Rusch
December 2, 2002

Most people I meet at cocktail parties or border crossings think my job is a laugh. How difficult can it be to manage the brand of an organization that gives presents away and expects nothing in return?

It’s true that we have an incredible brand with generally positive association. Being ‘first to market,’ we don’t really have to compete on our big annual occasion with other global events. The World Cup, Olympics, World Trade Organization protests, and so on are conveniently scheduled for other times of the year. Hanukkah and Ramadan are both right around our big event, but for the most part they have a different target market.

 
 

Some countries celebrate similar events (e.g., Bounenkai, Kwanzaa) but as long as people are exchanging gifts, the halo effect acts in our favor. Even our competitors (the Easter Bunny comes to mind) know enough to stay in hibernation while we’re on deck. We pretty much dominate the season.

As for our role in the economy, we are responsible for a tremendous annual boost both at the global and local level. It’s not just the merchandise of presents, but the annual event helps hundreds of related industries including cards, wrapping paper, decorations, Christmas trees, lighting, celebrations, alcohol, and shipping. The meaning of Christmas may be in dispute but the result is a definite up-tick in many local economies (Boxing Day is like the gumdrop on the gingerbread house). In the US alone, 2.1 billion cards are mailed each year at Christmas -– the highest number of cards sent among all the holidays.

But in fact, it’s actually nearly impossible to manage the brand of a concept that has been in the public domain for so long. When it comes to our storied history, most of us who work here don’t even know what is fact or fiction any longer. As for controlling our name, mission or images, we aren’t even sure how they’re being used, much less how to control usage.

Take our CEO, variously called Father Christmas, Papai Noel, Père Noël, Der Weihnachtsmann, Hoteiosha, Santa Claus, Father Frost, and so on. To appeal on a regional level, we don’t regulate these disparate referrals (although some of our followers insist these are all different people from different lands). However, we would like to regulate how he is depicted. Allegations of lascivious or inappropriate behavior on behalf of our Founder and CEO is usually the result of others appropriating the image as their own and is a situation that is becoming increasingly difficult to control. Of course the press loves a good story; so reports of goodwill and peaceful behavior get buried under headlines like 'Santa moons customers at liquor store after quarrel with boy over last year’s gift,' and other damaging reports.

What about our mission? What started out as a simple effort to bring joy to the wee ones has turned into a multipurpose foundation with every side of the issue dissected and questioned by every –ist group out there, not to mention every customer market thinks that the brand belongs to them.

Consider that over 160 countries celebrate our existence. This is an incredible figure for brand awareness and loyalty but representation of the brand varies widely in content and intent. Parents appropriate the brand for their own means (that admonishment to ‘be nice’ for the big payoff at the end of the year? That’s your parents’ misrepresentation). Other brands use our identity as an endorsement to hawk their own products. Individuals use the holiday as an excuse to overindulge in seasonal spirits or inappropriate behavior. Religions battle over our 'meaning.' The amount of groups laying claim to our event and organization is staggering and too varied for one poor elf to sort out.

This lack of ownership over a set mission and image becomes even more hairy when faced with the complexity of an enormous distribution channel. The time difference helps for covering most of the globe in a single night, but it’s still a huge market to cover. Take into account that we are still using filing cards to record our customer base (a system which was set up early last century), and you can be sure that occasionally we inadvertently miss a house. This apparent lack of consideration to customer satisfaction does nothing to enhance our image. So lately we’ve been relying more and more on our field representatives, also known as parents, to help compensate with distribution processes. These reps are not always reliable though and several reports come in by December 26 of fulfillment missed, presentation sloppy and/or expectations unmet.

So considering we have little control over distribution, representation and mission, I try to mainly concentrate on internal brand management and leave the external business to a time when the economy improves and I can hire a team to help out.

As a one-creature department, internal brand management can still be a job and a half. The recent suggestions in the press and popular media that we are a bunch of disgruntled, drunken elves is not always far from the mark and unfortunately does little to help with our recruitment efforts. We do okay in the months leading up to the big event when the Pole is festive and warm with the sparkle of new snow on the ground and the smell of fresh baked goods on the hearth. But come late January when the last of the celebrations have passed and the bitterness of winter takes hold in the minds and hearts of cold, lonely elves, and the term bleak comes especially to mind.

This is when most of the employees go on holiday to some equatorial region; we're lucky if half return. It’s my job to keep every employee from the animal tender to the packaging department and craftsmen feeling good about the organization and committed to their job.

We have excellent benefits, including the usual health, dental and vision, but also a fully subsidized dining hall, recognizing all diets and nutritional needs, a stocked gym, several group events based on outdoor sports, incredible talent nights and so on. What’s more, our unique profit sharing plan includes generous distribution of cookies, milk and occasional carrots that the Big Guy brings back from his trip.

Each quarter I put together an issue of the Little Creatures, Big News to get the message out about how we’re doing and recognize some of the efforts made on behalf of individual elves or teams.

We’re setting up a special training program to allow employees to work for a week in another department. The goal here is to align departments, share knowledge and discourage ‘silo’-ing between divisions.

This spring, as part of an initiative to live, work, eat, and sleep the brand, we will organize a painting party to decorate the interiors of the factory in our colors (red and green). Woolen uniforms will also be replaced with green and red cashmere versions, which will relieve some of the itch (and never mind the smell around here on a wet day) and inspire the elves to perform quality work, worthy of their quality clothing.

If the economy improves, the CEO promises to help me expand the department, in which case my first order of business is to conduct a brand audit to see how bad the damage is in our target markets. Until then I shoulder on in my department of one, making the best of the unlimited supply of egg nog and warm chocolate to get through the more tedious months on the job.

 
  
Merkki Elff welcomes comments and suggestions.
     
 
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