HELSINKI – As a brand, Santa Claus has one major flaw: He is only really valuable for a few weeks at the end of each year. In Finland, they are trying to do something about that.
Petri Paarnio, director of Santa Claus Licensing, the firm that holds the rights to market the Santa Claus name in Finland, wants to see him generate business all year round and all around the world, starting with China.
“Santa Claus is an icon. He stands for symbols like good health, solidarity and values like giving without always expecting something in return,” Paarnio said.
Santa Claus Licensing and Finnish tourist authorities both feel the iconic brand could spawn a multimillion-euro industry including computer games, international events, theme parks and merchandising.
Each Christmas thousands of tourists flock to the Arctic city of Rovaniemi, the capital of Finland’s northernmost Lapland region, in search of the “authentic” Santa Claus experience.
But the sparsely populated area, which claims the North Pole’s most famous resident as its own, is not content with only filling hotels, activity centers, stores and restaurants over the holiday period.
“Father Christmas is Finland’s best-known brand, but we’ve not made the most of his image as Finnish,” Paarnio said, “maybe because Christmas just takes place over a short period.”
The Lapland region is largely inhabited by the Sami people, roughly 80,000 of whom are spread across a huge swath of land stretching from Norway across Sweden and Finland and into Russia.
Northern Finland also has the potential for a significant iron-mining industry, one of several threats to the unique way of life of the Samis, traditional reindeer herders who are the only indigenous people in the EU. Samis and environmental activists have protested against the plans for a big open-pit project for the past year.
Though the country is in the grip of recession and budgetary austerity, parliament in December gave the green light for €300,000 ($410,000) in funding to promote Finnish Santa Claus in China.
“In Europe, Christmas is traditionally seen as a short period. But in Asia, Father Christmas could be promoted as a completely separate character,” Paarnio said.
Selling Santa has been made easier by national airline Finnair’s increased links between Helsinki and Asia.
“We’ve always had very large numbers of Japanese visitors, but China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore are growing in importance,” Paarnio said. “And Russians fill the hotels after Christmas until early January.”
The traffic has not just been one way.
For the past two years, the white-bearded man of the north has made the trip from Rovaniemi to Fukushima to raise the spirits of children affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
In contrast to the roly-poly American Santa, the Finnish variety has no black boots or belt, instead wearing light brown boots made in Lapland, Paarnio said.
He also wears a long red cloak — not the red suit of the American character — and sports a much longer beard.
“The length of his beard is strictly regulated, and he’s in much better health — he is slimmer. And moreover, he doesn’t say, ‘Ho, ho, ho!’ like his U.S. counterpart,” Paarnio added.
The challenge will be to convince consumers that the Finnish Santa is the real thing.
But putting a price tag on his worth may be going a step too far — even for those who do it for a living.
“The concept of Santa Claus is not protected by copyright, so its market value is next to zero,” said Mika Maliranta, head of research at the economic think tank ETLA.
And trying to put a market value on Father Christmas may be seen as offensive in a country that takes the festive season very seriously.
“It might go against the values he stands for,” said Finnish stock market analyst Mikael Rautanen at Inderes. “And maybe the Christmas period is commercial enough already.”