The Marketing Machine Behind the NORAD Santa Tracker

santa tracker screen shotNOTE: Below is an update to a blog originally posted Dec. 19, 2013.

One of the most impressive youth marketing efforts comes from one of the least likely places – the U.S. military. The military has long been an aggressive marketer to get people to join, but few would put them on a short list for youth marketing. But the Santa Tracker from the North American Aerospace Defense Command (better known as NORAD) is part feel-good holiday story and equal parts marketing machine.

But first, a quick history of the happy accident that is now the Santa Tracker.

Sears Ad Santa ClausIn 1955, Sears ran a newspaper ad in Colorado Springs promoting a campaign for kids to call Santa Claus. The phone number in the ad (above) had a typo and the number was off by one digit. The phone rang at NORAD’s predecessor – the Continental Air Defense Command.

During those times, phone calls typically meant bad things. Colonel Harry Shoup picked up the phone only to find a little girl sheepishly looking for Santa. The Atlantic has a great summary of how that conversation went from there. Suffice to say for this blog that Col. Shoup played along in character and Santa tracking history started.

Fast forward to 2014 and now there is more marketing and promotion than one could imagine to bring this to life. My family is a faithful visitor to the Santa Tracker as consumers, but peeking behind the curtain you see an impressive military marketing operation. As a side note, former NORAD Public Affairs officer Bill Lewis  was a swim parent with the Falfins Swim Team in Colorado Springs and he did a presentation in 2012 to our marketing team about the Santa Tracker.

In 2012, there were 114,000 calls field and 11,000 emails from kids. The website had 22.3 million visitors from 235 countries according to the Department of Defense.

The 2013 (and now 2014) version of the campaign has all the perfect ingredients to a successful campaign:

Social Media:  On Twitter, @NoradSanta has now grown to more than 135,000 followers. In 2013, they aggregated social media conversations around key hashtags such as #santasighting for when you get a pic of the big man, #santapaws for when you dress up your pet in the holiday spirit and #holidayoverload for those just fatigued by the season. This was in a “Holiday Hub” but it doesn’t appear to have been brought back in 2014, at least not yet.

Sponsors: the Santa Tracker is supported by corporate partners and not tax payers. NORAD has 54 supporting partners including corporate partners, non-profits and other military groups. The most visible is Microsoft providing much of the technology behind the site with products like Bing and Windows Azure. It has the most visibility on the site with its “Rethink What the Web Can Be” tagline promoting Internet Explorer.

Copy Cats: If Microsoft and Bing can track Santa officially, then the Google Santa Tracker is going to come in and also try to do it better, which started in 2012. While not officially associated with Santa Tracker, Google also tracks St. Nick so rival Microsoft doesn’t enjoy the limelight alone.

Controversy: In the “any publicity is good publicity” department, in 2013 NORAD inadvertently stirred a few folks up by having military fighter jets accompany Santa, prompting some outcries of the “militarization of Santa.” Ah, the simple days of commercialization of Santa seem to be forgotten. The Huffington Post and other media quickly jumped on this one, which will only drive more traffic.

Creativity: The Santa Tracker has increasingly become more loaded with games and fun activities for kids, that a few of us adults have been known to play as well. Another addition this year is Santa Tracking in 3D. The app has had more than 1.5 million downloads.

hoodyMerchandise: What marketing campaign is complete without schwag? Yes, you can get your NORAD merchandise with Santa or a personalized letter and certificate for your child.

PR: Watch the news for more Satellite Media Tour (SMT) interviews than you can imagine.

Celebrities: The campaign will also feature well-known personalities taking a turn at answering the phone. Last year, First Lady Michelle Obama took calls along with more than 1,000 volunteers.

UPDATE – PR: NORAD seems to be even more media friendly this year, expanding services such as audio, video and b-roll libraries for media. They even open up tours of the NORAD Santa Tracker command center on Dec. 24 for media to come see it in operation.

UPDATE – Countdown: NORAD seems to be even more media friendly this year, offering embeddable trackers and great .

While it’s definitely fun to watch the magic of Santa this holiday season, it’s just as fun to watch the marketing.

Note: I will update this as it gets closer with other great examples. Follow along for updates on Twitter @mattfarrell_


UPDATES: New promotions for Christmas 2013:



Categories: Marketing

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