He stands at the ice-encrusted, nearly wall-sized window overlooking his private business park at 1 North Plaza and sighs. The snow swirls and the melting ice in his scotch glass makes a gentle tinkling sound - not entirely unlike the sound of sleigh bells.
“When we were building all this,” he says, sweeping his gloved hand in a gesture taking in everything to be seen from his high office, “we thought we were on top of the world.” He pauses, his famously twinkling eyes giving voice to the chuckle that lay just behind his words. “You know what I mean: on top of the world in a figurative sense. We still are on top, if you want to be literal.” He takes another deep drink of his glass as he seems to weigh up what he wants to say.
“That’s the thing in business. We should have seen it coming. We swooped in on this vulnerable, volatile time of year, the Winter season, and took over the brand. Just like the Christians did to the pagans, you know. And once we had done that, and were riding the wave high, we got arrogant.” He shakes his head, the movement sending ripples through his entire gelatinous frame. “We stopped believing it could happen to us, just as quickly as we did it to them.”
I’m sitting in the main executive office at Kristopher Kringle’s North Pole plant – the headquarters of a global manufacturing and logistics empire that has spanned almost a century while encompassing nearly the entire industrialized world. I’ve been invited by the man himself, the founder and CEO of Claus Production and Transport, LLC., to participate in something he has never before granted: an exclusive interview.
I had arrived at the facility expecting fantastical, possibly even frivolous décor, through which I would be led by a jolly, quasi-elfin concierge. What I found was a clinically decorated and procedurally stringent manufacturing plant in full swing under the guiding hand of a world-wizened industry maven who was equal parts obsessive-compulsive perfectionist, pixie magician, entertainment and plaything boffin, and fatalistic, ‘get-them-before-they-get-us-even-though-we’re-all-going-to-be-dead-soon’ nihilist. Needless to say, the portrait of the man, and the industry he founded, that quickly emerged managed to shatter many of my long-held preconceptions.
Sitting behind his expansive oak desk, which is wrapped in barbershop pole colors and interweaving designs, the man continues.
“First, the people celebrated the Winter solstice. Then the Christians grafted their religious holiday onto the one people were already celebrating. I took a look at the situation, and saw potential for further co-opting.” He takes a quick sip, and then lays his open palm down firmly on his desk. “People didn’t like to talk about it when it was first happening, and they don’t seem to be capable of believing it now, but there was a massive cultural dying off of the Christmas season’s excitement – slow to take root, but exponentially accumulating – until I came along and got into the business.”
His voice doesn’t sound proud. If anything, he sounds sad.
"So that’s just what we did. We managed to disrupt the entire Christmas/Winter Solstice season’s religious focus in just a few years. We did it through the classic disruptive model. Our competitors were pushing Christmas as this ultimate spiritual reward, real top tier stuff. They were telling potential consumers, in essence, ‘Look, here’s our value proposition. You give us your sworn devotion, and we provide you with eternal existence in the afterlife.’ Big-ticket item, high price. Appeals to a person’s most noble properties, to their most abstracted sense of self.”
Claus pours himself another drink and continues. “I looked at what was going on in manufacturing right at that moment, and I said ‘We can turn this model on its head. They’re trying to award moral purity as a result of participation in a rite, ceremony, event, whatever. And what value are our competitors receiving for bestowing this reward of sudden sinlessness? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” He shakes his head, the end of his beard trailing his motions by a half-second or so. “Ass-backwards.”
He starts ticking off points on his fingers, still encased in their fuzzy white gloves (a few light brown scotch stains are noticeable). “This is what I said we’d do. We wouldn’t give anybody something valuable like eternal life. We’d give people worthless crap. Piles of it. Every year, every person. Those were the days when the manufacturing industry was coming up with new ways to turn raw junk into finished crap left and right, ways which required shockingly little effort and virtually no craftsmanship. We’d take advantage of that shift before the rest of them knew what they were looking at.” As he laughs, the memory of his long since passed stroke of genius sparkles in his eyes.
“And that was the kicker. They were giving out moral purity in exchange for participation in the rite. We gave out huge amounts of manufactured entertainment products during the rite, in exchange for a year’s worth of moral purity.” He slaps the desk again, clearly demonstrating pride for the first time in the interview. “Classic disruption. Classic co-opting. From the viewpoint of the established brands, what we were offering was at odds with everything they thought they knew about market forces and consumer wants and needs. They were offering a very up-market item in exchange for brief participation in a ceremony. We were offering many small, comparatively valueless propositions in exchange for a year-round good behavior commitment.”
“’Will never work,’ they said. And you can see why they might think that. But I dug deeper. I thought ‘They think this won’t work because the investment from the consumer – a year of high moral laudability – is too high for the consumer to even want to make that transaction. But look at what they were doing. What was their product? Moral purity. And they, despite getting everything else wrong, still had customers. Diminishing, unspirited customers, of course, but customers none the less. And what did those customers want? They wanted the moral purity that was supposedly the endgame of our competitor’s model. They wanted their sins to be forgiven.”
“Our innovation was realizing that if we made it easy for consumers to be ‘nice’ through the year, then our competitors’ product would become, in essence, our payment. We turned the whole model on its head and then stuck a hat on its feet. When we first announced what we were doing, people didn’t even understand. They’d look at our proposals, blink for a while, and then make polite excuses to leave. We knew what we had, though.”
His face is lit with a remembered reflection of the excitement of those times, before the pleasant feelings fall off his face like a poorly mounted clock dropping from the wall. He takes another drink. “Thinking back on it all, that’s what I just don’t get. I don’t see how I changed from one of us to one of them.” He looks up, as if realizing how personal his words have become. “What I mean is: when did I go from one of the hungry ones who could think outside the box, to being one of the entrenched old guys who think they know everything, that nothing could ever bring them down?” He shakes his head ruefully.
“Time is a cruel, cruel bitch, son.”
“We were easy to co-opt. Easier than I would have ever imagined. What we had done, with our manufacturing line, was fill the public with a burning desire for stuff. And with our logistics wing, we got people used to being able to get stuff from anywhere, and to get it very, very quickly. Well, that trend accelerated to a point where now the kinds of ludological, entertainment-only propositions that were making can be done without the use of manufacturing or logistics. Games, music, movies. It can all just appear in any house, any pocket, at any time. Digital distribution.”
He slides his thumbs thoughtfully over the rim of his scotch glass as he stares down into its depths.
“And once people got used to getting all that stuff – the consumer cost of which has plummeted to the point where it is more lucrative to shovel dog shit as a favor for an old neighbor lady every other week than it is to be a talented musician – they stopped seeing a need for two things. One: a seasonal cycle. Two: moral rectitude. And of the two, the moral self-editing has seen greater decline. The manufacturing sector is actually still fighting off the seasonal remnants of what we set up here at Claus P&T. Fighting it cleverly, but still fighting it.”
“They’ve been weaning the perception of the annual ‘exorbitant entertainment product purchases’ event away from being a time of intense gift exchange, while simultaneously de-associating themselves from the co-opted brand by shifting the event earlier and earlier in the year. It starts up about a month before Black Friday now, maybe even a little before. They’ll keep shifting until the seasonal connection is completely severed. Once that happens…”
The large man trails off, looking out the window at the box-like facilities below.
“That’s the final co-opting of magic in this world. Once that happens, there’s no place further down to take it. First, we took the pagan’s magic, which they saw as being all around them in a living world of mystery, and turned it into a simple auto-dealer loan proposition: ‘You believe in me, and I’ll give you eternal life.’ Sounds more like a transcript of a mugging than a mystical revelation. Then, we lowered magic’s bar even further. One day a year, a guy will fly into your house and give you a lot of cheap, discount store toys in wrapped boxes if you just ‘be good.’ Now, they want us to be happy with no magic. The new disruption is to be happy without magic.”
He scoffs. “And is that really a smart move? I mean, commercially, it probably is. They want to sell you a million different products that do everything, and none of it works by magic, but because of ‘precision engineering.’ You think brand, you think loyalty. Technology that seems mystical to your grandma but boring to your nine-year old niece, that’s the new magic. But does it really work for people the same way?” The red fur-clad man spins abruptly.
“What even is the story of Santa, really? It’s a lie so true that parents will tell it to their children even though they themselves don’t believe it. For the parents, belief is gone, replaced by a warm smile at the innocent wonder their children express at the magic of it all.”
Santa drains his scotch.
“A wondrous lie so alive with some distant truth that sane, loving parents tell it to their beloved children, hoping they’ll believe it?” He looks at me and smiles. “What more vivid demonstration of how badly people need magic do you want?”
The next disruptor, he assures me, will one day overthrow the incumbent system, displacing them with large amounts of cheap, instant, and disposable magic and wonder that will undercut the current, technology-based paradigm.
“I just wonder if they’re out there, right now, somewhere - with visions in their heads and fire in their fingers.”