The USPS collaboration with Santa Claus that resulted in an award-winning documentary

By Awards Analyst | The Drum Awards

UM Studios


The Drum Awards article

November 4, 2021 | 6 min read

UM Studios won the ‘Public sector or Government’ and the ‘Best creative content idea using video’ categories at The Drum Awards for Content 2021 with its ‘Dear Santa’ campaign for the United States Postal Service. Here, the team behind the winning entry reveals the secrets of this successful project...

The challenge

The United States Postal Service (USPS) has been reliably delivering mail and shipping packages for all Americans since 1792. However, the recent proliferation of private-label shipping, the rise of online mega-merchants, the entrance of big-box stores into the home delivery space, and consumer reticence toward traditional ad-supported platforms put the squeeze on USPS during the profitable holiday season. Despite repeated attempts to improve its ranking during the holiday season, the public consistently ranked USPS their third-choice shipping brand.

The strategy

Any campaign would need to effectively reach target audiences on streaming services, improve consumer sentiment and be so highly visible that it would organically and positively impact public opinion.

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We knew that to capture the public’s hearts, minds and business, we needed to focus on what makes USPS a venerated institution – its people, its logistical innovation, its commitment to the public and its priority holiday shipping offerings.

If price points and service promises couldn’t get consumers’ attention, then a tug at their heartstrings might push USPS to the top of people’s holiday shipping list. We decided that an initiative that combined USPS’s logistical and technical innovation with its existing but little-known social good cause-driven works would achieve those goals.

Operation Santa, USPS’s 108-year-old program to ensure those in need at the holidays don’t go without, presented an opportunity for a story of joy and generosity that highlights the best of USPS. Every year, USPS receives hundreds of thousands of letters to Santa from children across the country. Through Operation Santa, USPS opens up these letters for adoption by the public to help make children’s holiday dreams come true.

A story as big as Operation Santa demanded to be told in long form. Furthermore, despite the program’s age, it remained relatively unknown by the public. We recognized that a feel-good holiday movie spotlighting Operation Santa would increase the potential for widespread exposure and cut through holiday clutter to deliver big results in earned PR, despite the lack of a dedicated marketing budget for the film.

Dear Santa poster

The campaign

The concept of ‘Dear Santa,’ a branded documentary, was born.

As the public’s first major exposure to USPS’s Operation Santa program, it was imperative that ‘Dear Santa’ be authentic; as such, we tapped award-winning director Dana Nachman (Batkid Begins, Pick of the Litter) who, like a Christmas miracle, shot the film over 28 days in December 2019. Four film crews were activated on Christmas Eve alone to capture every moment of holiday magic from all angles.

To ensure ‘Dear Santa’ would be seen and embraced by the widest possible audience, the project was shopped to distributors, with distribution rights ultimately selling to IFC Films. This approach allowed ‘Dear Santa’ to receive both theatrical and paid VOD distribution during the 2020 holiday season.

Without a dedicated marketing budget for ‘Dear Santa,’ in anticipation of the movie’s December 4 2020 theatrical and PVOD release, USPS activated its extensive network to promote the documentary to every US household in print through their annual holiday mailer, the first time a film was promoted to every home by mail. In addition, ‘Dear Santa’ inserts accompanied the pay slips of all 630,000 USPS employees – another promotional first. To reach audiences out-of-home (OOH), we displayed eye-catching film posters in all 33,000 US Post Office locations, played the trailer on 4,000 digital information screens and featured a one-click option to watch the trailer on devices every time someone tracked a package.

Our PR strategy created interview and feature opportunities that targeted top entertainment publications and TV news programs, creating the breakout opportunity we desired during peak shipping season.

The results

‘Dear Santa’ premiered at the Heartland International Film Festival, where it was awarded Best Documentary Premiere and was an official selection of Doc NYC. The film was a critical success with mass appeal, reaching an earned media audience of 4.3+ billion.

‘Dear Santa’ and the surrounding promotional campaign drove sentiment and favorability in a challenging environment, with USPS unexpectedly embroiled in US election-related controversy. The film universally boosted USPS brand perceptions. Among consumers who encountered the film, USPS ranked No. 1 for shipping, +7 points versus non-exposed. Favorability increased +8 points among exposed consumers, who also identified USPS as their preferred holiday shipper by +5 points.

With zero additional media spend, ‘Dear Santa’ reached an earned media audience of 4.3 billion, garnering 4.7bn impressions and 783 press hits for an ad equivalency of $8,100,000+. Earned media coverage included Deadline, The Hollywood Reporter, Good Morning America, The Drew Barrymore Show and Variety, which touted the film as an Oscar contender.

Despite being heavily branded, the film was so cleverly produced that audiences did not realize it was branded content. To that end, ‘Dear Santa’ scored and maintains 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, the entertainment industry’s barometer for critical success. For context, Nomadland, the 2021 Oscar Best Picture Winner, currently has a 94% Rotten Tomatoes score. ‘Dear Santa’ was received positively by America’s most prominent film critics, including Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun Times, who called it “one of the most wonderful films of the year.”

The branded film so resonated with audiences that the number of gifts adopted and delivered spiked by 63%, eclipsing 2019’s total in the first week of the film’s release.

This project was a winner at The Drum Awards for Content 2021. Click here to find out which of The Drum Awards are currently open for entry.

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