Santa's secrets to marketing success

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Who would you say is the greatest marketer in history? Some might suggest Henry Ford or Montgomery Ward. Others would cite Ray Kroc or even Bill Gates. But I would suggest someone else, someone whose efforts surpass these giants.

His name is Santa Claus. He operates the world's oldest, most successful toy and gift manufacturing and distribution business. I'm sure you've heard of him. In fact, I'm sure that many of you have been dealing with him for years and will be return customers this year. It's this sort of loyalty that proves how successful he really is.

How has he done it? It's not all magic. Santa simply applied commonsense marketing principles in order to maintain and expand his business:

• Niche market: Santa's customers are kids. He knows that trying to expand too far into the adult or senior market may prove lucrative at first but would weaken his brand. This is not to say that Santa doesn't run other businesses. His reindeer training seminars and North Pole real estate ventures have been quite successful, though his weight-loss products haven't faired as well. The point is that Santa Inc. consistently focuses on its core market year after year. When Santa sees other business opportunities, he creates different brands.

• Careful list management: Santa's customer list is second to none. He doesn't just make the list; he checks it twice. Everyone's name is spelled correctly. Addresses are accurate. Duplications are eliminated. And he adds value to his list with information related to past orders and to customer behavior, such as when they're sleeping, when they're awake, when they've been bad or good, and so on. Santa knows that his list is more than delivery addresses; it's his most important business asset.

• Great products: Santa started years ago as a one-man toy manufacturing company. From the beginning, he knew that quality was key. You can certainly unload shoddy merchandise and stay afloat, but you can't build a successful company that way. Over the years, he has expanded his product line to include the newest and best toys from factories worldwide. When you think quality and selection, you think Santa Claus.

• Fair prices: A glass of milk and two cookies is the going rate for most gifts. For computers and other high-priced items, you may want to add another cookie. He doesn't gouge. He doesn't hide profits in bogus shipping and handling charges. Santa knows that while it takes years to dominate a market, just a few greedy mistakes can irritate even the most loyal customers and invite competition. So he keeps things affordable, consistent and honest.

• Savvy promotion: Talk about guerrilla marketing. Songs, stories, movies, cards, poems, in-store displays, gift-wraps, lawn ornaments, tree decorations, you name it. Santa keeps his promotion costs low and his return on investment high. His image and message are everywhere during the holidays. The red suit gives him a unique look. The "ho-ho-ho" is the world's most successful catch phrase, despite recurring legal problems with the Green Giant people.

• Easy ordering: Just write a letter detailing your gift selections and mail it to the North Pole. Simple as that. You also can place your order personally in many stores and malls if you don't mind waiting in line. And these days, you can even contact Santa via e-mail. Santa knows that ease of ordering is a key to any successful business.

• Fast fulfillment: Move over FedEx. Santa delivers billions of gifts to homes all over the world in just one night. His system is proprietary. In fact, how it works is a complete mystery. But Santa understands how disappointed a customer would be if just one item arrived late. So he doesn't make excuses about out-of-stock merchandise or ordering snafus. He gets it right and delivers on time every time.

• Continuous acquisition: Santa has turned customer retention into an art form. Satisfaction is so high, once you're a customer you stay a customer. And when children grow up and move out of the core age range, adults help ensure an influx of new customers by encouraging their children to buy into the Santa phenomenon. Call it customer-get-a-customer or viral marketing or whatever, but it works.

By the way, though Santa focuses on his core kid market, he doesn't turn anyone away no matter how old. If you didn't place an order last season, try it this year. You may be pleasantly surprised.

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