Every Christmas, I settle down with my family to watch Miracle on 34th Street. It’s a 1947 film in which Macy’s, New York’s biggest department store, hires Santa Claus to be their…well, in-store Santa Claus. The drama revolves around whether Macy’s Santa Claus really is who he claims to be. But the story of the film is whether Christmas really is what it claims to be. Is Christmas a cynical commercial exercise exploiting consumer sentimentality in ever increasing ways? Or is it, as Kris Kringle, the film’s protagonist, claims not “just a day. It’s a frame of mind.”
The film is probably the first to tackle overtly the issue of the growing commercialism of Christmas; the central theme established in this clip:
What makes the film especially relevant for businesses, is that it offers some very simple insights into how ‘doing the right thing’ and ‘being commercially successful’ are not in conflict but should be complementary – and maybe even linked by cause and effect. By the end of the film, apart from the central message of having a child-like hope, we have learnt some timeless truths.
- Know who you’re doing things for – the film is driven by the simple insight that Christmas is not just for children, it is for the child in all of us; the child who believes anything is possible, who wants to play, laugh, love and who is unencumbered by the wearying need ‘to make a buck, make a buck’ or the fear of being accused of an ‘idealistic binge’ as one of the characters puts it.
- Give them what they want, not what you want to give them – Kris Kringle causes a revolution in retail to the horror of Macy’s store manager. Instead of directing children to the toys Macy has in stock, he sends them to rival stores where they will find precisely the toys they want.
- And they will give you what you want – to the amazement and delight of Mr. Macy in particular, the store is inundated with spontaneous telegrams and letters of praise for the new ‘policy’. Store traffic increases with more customers returning and new customers coming through its doors. Competitors are forced to follow suit.
- Purpose drives profit – Mr. Macy transforms a ‘merchandising policy’ into a statement of a greater purpose i.e. to put the customer first. He orders all departments in every store to follow the same policy, realizing that doing the right thing by the customer will build a more successful business:
“If we haven’t got exactly what the customer wants we’ll send him where he can get it. No high-pressuring and forcing a customer to take something he doesn’t really want. We’ll be known as the helpful store, the friendly store, the store with a heart, the store that places public service ahead of profits. And, consequently, we’ll make more profits than ever before.”
- Treat people with kindness and respect (and fire those that don’t!) – “It’s not just Kris that’s on trial. It’s everything he stands for. It’s kindness, joy, love, and all other intangibles,” says his defence lawyer. The film champions those who treat people kindly against those who see them as employees in a system to be controlled. I am not giving the plot away but a crowd-pleasing moment is when Mr. Macy fires the film’s antagonist, an employee who is ‘dishonest, selfish, deceitful, vicious’.
If you have not seen the film, please do. It features an Oscar-winning performance by Edmund Gwenn as the man who just might be Santa Claus, some wonderful set-piece scenes that will be familiar to anyone in business and a climactic trial scene with a satisfyingly logical if improbable twist.
But most importantly, it suggests some important principles for all of us in business. Put your customers first; treat people well and put your purpose before profit. My Christmas wish is that every business practices these principles not in the run-up to one day in the year but as a ‘frame of mind’ that endures long after we have eaten our last mince pie, sipped our last mulled wine and put the tinsel away for another year.
Have a very Merry Christmas and a peaceful, prosperous and kind New Year.