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Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Financial Gift that Keeps on Giving

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Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer History

"Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" was the creation of Robert L. May in response to a request by his employer Montgomery Ward to develop a Christmas story that it could use for the purpose of marketing during the holiday season.

How it worked was Montgomery Ward would give away free books to customers' children during the Christmas season, and they assigned May the task of coming up with a compelling character the kids would be delighted with and relate to.

In 1939 the company printed over two million copies of May's book, and the response was overwhelming, as store managers, teachers and children from around the U.S. sent him letters. About ten years later Montgomery Ward's management gave May the rights to the story; until that time he had received nothing for creating it.

In this article we'll look at some of the numbers associated with the popular Christmas song, and how it continues to generate revenue via royalties and licensing deals.

The appeal of Rudolph to the American market

What continues to attract people to the Rudolph story for the American audience is Americans always like the story of an underdog that makes good, and that is definitely reflected in the character of Rudolph.

May's daughter, Barbara May Lewis, said her father's understanding of himself and what he went through as a child is what gave shape to Rudolf's story. She said he was very small and nerdy when he was younger, and had the opinion of himself at the time that he was a loser. He also skipped a couple of grades, which made him much smaller than his peers.

It seems that May transferred who he was in his early life into Rudolph, which apparently a lot of people continue to relate to to this day.

Copies sold and other revenue sources

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer is the second most popular Christmas song ever written, based upon sales, which has now reached over 150 million copies (including all covered versions); second only to White Christmas. It doesn't include the approximate 8 million copies of sheet music and over 25 million in choral and orchestral arrangements.

Gene Autry, the first artist to sing the song, accounts for an estimated 25 million copies of the 150 million sold.

Not only that, but there are also ancillary licensing and royalty deals that generate millions in revenue for Robert L. May, the creator of Rudolph, and his brother-in-law Johnny Marks, a songwriter that took May's book and wrote lyrics and setting it to music.

As of 2020, the “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” song continued to be very popular, as it was ranked the 20th most popular Christmas song for the year, being played close to 30,000 times on the radio in the U.S. market and over 75 million times on streaming platforms, according to MRC Data/BDS.

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Even though Marks passed away in 1985, the St. Nicholas Music publishing company he founded still owns the copyright to the song. Marks has reportedly made multi-millions from the rights to the song alone.

Concerning licensing deals, it's impossible to find the enormous number of deals made through the years, including theme parks and the various products made that were associated with the Rudolph brand. But there can be no doubt it is valued at many millions more.

Interestingly, Sewell Avery, the CEO of Montgomery Ward's at the time, believing the potential for Rudolph was only as a marketing tool for the Christmas season, turned over the rights to May, according to May's daughter. It was the first time Montgomery Ward's gave away that type of right.

At the time I'm writing this article, Character Arts licenses the image of Rudolph for a plethora of products.

Below are my two favorite versions of the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer song

Burl Ives

Gene Autry


It's amazing to see how creative stories and ideas associated with characters like Rudolph can morph into multi-million-dollar brands. Entrepreneurs and prospective entrepreneurs would do themselves a service if they look at the variables associated with Rudolph, which started as a basic pamphlet that was written by Mays and illustrated by Denver Gillen.

In what was originally done to promote gifts at Christmas time, and which wasn't that impressive when first presented to management at Montgomery Wards, became a brand that made millions for those who had control of licensing and copyright for the Intellectual Property (IP).

The key is maintaining rights to your IP while looking for ways to leverage a brand via licensing and royalty deals that produce passive income streams. That of course doesn't mean entrepreneurs can just sit back and let the brand go, because the public needs to be consistently reminded of the brand.

What's empowering for Rudolph is he has a built-in marketing tool in the Christmas holiday itself, which increases interest at that time of the year, keeping him in the minds of consumers.

This can be used as a model for tying in products and/or services to other special days that are celebrated throughout the year. Simply think of ways to generate interest in various days and themes that your brand can be associated with.

As for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, it's one of the more interesting stories I've heard, and a business model that can be used to generate a significant revenue stream for creative people that understand the market they're trying to reach.

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