Cash tills ring, are you listening? Ho Ho Ho

Santa is the top Yuletide ambassador around the world - like all the best brands, he never fails to deliver.
Santa is the top Yuletide ambassador around the world - like all the best brands, he never fails to deliver.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

It's the ho-ho-ho-holiday season when many people are looking forward to time away from work, spending it with family and friends.

But Christmas and its top brand ambassador - Santa Claus - have some important lessons for our year-round business lives.

As Orchard Road lights up and gifts appear under trees, six professors from the National University of Singapore Business School give festive business tips.

SANTA THE MARKETING ICON

Associate Professor Leonard Lee, Department of Marketing

As a professor of marketing, I'm all about how well producers understand clients, delighting them by giving them what they want.

As expert marketers go, Santa Claus is world-class. He always knows his customers' needs, getting them to send him letters every year detailing exactly what they want. And he backs that up with behavioural research to truly understand what makes them tick.

He knows when you're sleeping and when you're awake, so he's got some pretty comprehensive consumer knowledge!

Perhaps that's because he's actually a product of some inspired marketing himself: The rotund, red-cheeked Santa we know today is a legacy of advertising by Coca-Cola in the 1930s. The image is now so famous and universally recognised that it has become self-sustaining.

In this globalised world, we're often told about the importance of cultural inputs in the development of marketing strategy. Santa is an example of the reverse: how really successful marketing can be applied to create a culture of its own.

INNOVATION FOR CHRISTMAS FUTURE

Assistant Professor Erin Scott, Department of Strategy and Policy Modern business is all about innovation, and Santa Claus must rank as a model innovator.

Santa's Workshop is where the magic happens, staffed by a diverse and highly driven team of gift experts known as the Little Helpers. But like many of the world's successful companies, Santa needs to keep ahead of the game - developing the most up-to-date toys to keep his customers happy. And he knows that the next generation of consumers will be even more demanding than the last.

So as well as undertaking regular toy research and development, Santa funds a special ventures division of expert Little Helpers dedicated to identifying and developing future-ready toys far beyond the imagination of kids today. It's this finely tuned operation that has kept Santa delivering on his promises and delighting his customers, beating their expectations year after year.

Successful innovative companies - Google and Cisco, for example - have taken this idea on board with their corporate venture capital arms. Staffed by highly skilled and diverse teams, they constantly research, refine and invest in the development of game-changing products.

GOOD SANTA, BAD MANAGER

Assistant Professor Amy Ou, Department of Management and Organisation

For many people, Santa seems like a great leader. After all, he runs a lean, efficient operation, getting millions of presents out to the right customers on time every year, without fail.

He also shows foresight by recognising the different skills and talents of others. Take Rudolph and his shiny red nose - the other reindeer don't have that skill but, on a foggy night, Santa saw the value in Rudolph's unique snout and promoted him to head of global delivery operations. So far, so good.

But what about the "better watch out, better not cry" approach to leadership?

To me, that smacks of an overbearing micro-manager who doesn't trust his staff! Such a punish-and-reward style of management might have been okay 10 or 20 years ago, but it doesn't go down well with today's Little Helpers, especially those from the millennial generation.

Increasingly, the best leaders are seen as empowering, giving their staff both autonomy and a sense of competence. Former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt often spoke of having confidence in his staff's ability to get on with doing what they thought was best. Santa might do well to take a leaf out of Google's book.

SUPPLY CHAIN PIONEER

Professor Teo Chung Piaw, Head, Department of Decision Sciences

He delivers a consignment of gifts weighing around 1.2 million tonnes to an estimated 378 million homes so I have to admire his abilities as a supply chain specialist.

This brutal delivery schedule means he has to dash about at approximately 3,708,000 kmh, and he uses eco-friendly transport (reindeer power) powered by ultra-low carbon fuel (carrots) - Santa has certainly got business productivity down pat.

He also knows he has to move with market conditions and engage in process innovation.

Once upon a time, last-mile delivery for Santa meant entry via chimney. But now, with more people living in apartments, he's adapted his gift delivery process to chimney-less conditions, ensuring that the customer experience remains unaffected.

And as drone technology evolves, he'll doubtless be looking at new delivery methods. It might be time for the reindeer to think of a different career.

PHILANTHROPIST EXTRAORDINAIRE

Senior Lecturer Lee Hon Sing, Deputy Head, Department of Finance

Among the world's great philanthropists, you are unlikely to find anyone more giving than Santa Claus.

Every year, without fail, he delivers millions of gifts around the world - and takes nothing in return, apart from perhaps a token shot of whisky or a carrot for Rudolph. It's probably the oldest and most successful philanthropic enterprise in history.

For decades, philanthropy has meant debt-laden and bankruptcy-prone non-profit organisations. Today, however, the focus is on sustainable philanthropy - something Santa can offer a few lessons on.

He is always giving, but still manages to be fully funded through all the booms and busts of economic cycles - so what is Santa's secret?

From his example, perhaps the key to sustainability lies in passion, compassion and volunteerism. Christmas elves, Santa's Little Helpers and flying reindeer all pitch in to give back to society. It shows we are all capable of sustainable philanthropy.

Start small, win big - and do good, for goodness' sake.

THE ULTIMATE BRAND

Associate Professor Prem Shamdasani, Dept. of Marketing

Father Christmas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Sinterklaas or even just plain Santa - if you want to learn about great branding, look no further than Santa Claus.

The big jolly fellow in his sleigh has built up a global brand identity that transcends borders, languages and many cultures. His iconic furry red-and-white outfit, topped off with that bushy white beard, is as much at home over in chilly Lapland as it is here in tropical Singapore.

On top of that, he has coined the ultimate in catchy catchphrases - after all, what could be simpler or more instantly recognisable than "ho ho ho"?

But Santa hasn't rested on these laurels. Every strong brand needs a good backstory and, to stay on top of the market, he's woven a carefully crafted tale about an old man toiling in the depths of the snowy Arctic Circle to deliver gifts to children around the world.

And of course, like all the best brands, Santa delivers on his promises - without fail, every year.

So hats off to you, Santa! (Red-and-white bobble hats, obviously.)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 06, 2015, with the headline 'Cash tills ring, are you listening? Ho Ho Ho'. Print Edition | Subscribe