Can a Reindeer With a Diversity Agenda Topple the Christmas Elf From His Shelf?

A look inside the strange business of selling holiday traditions to Americans

Reindeer in Here comes with a book that details the character's adventures with its diverse friends—all for $29.99. Reindeer in Here
Headshot of Robert Klara

To hear Adam Reed tell it, the whole thing started when he realized that Elf on the Shelf was “going to scare the crap out of my daughter.”
It was three years ago, and Reed’s daughter Peyton had just been born. When winter rolled around, he wanted to start a holiday tradition that she’d remember. Like many people, Reed was vaguely familiar with Elf on the Shelf, which since its 2005 introduction had indeed become a tradition for families across America.
For the sake of the uninitiated, the deal with Elf is this: Santa dispatches a scout elf to your home, where he sits on a shelf you pick out for him. From that perch, the elf watches the family before “reporting back to Santa at the North Pole nightly,” according to the company. Parents are expected to relocate the elf every night, which creates a find-the-elf game the following morning. But under no circumstances are the kids allowed to touch the elf and, should they slip up, only an apology letter to Santa will set things right.
As of 2017, a reported 11 million shelf elves have been sold, but that didn’t do much to persuade Reed to buy one. “It’s the right tradition for a lot of people,” he said. “But it wasn’t right for my family.”
And this is where the reindeer entered the picture.
Reed, a TV producer by profession, had always had a talent for storytelling. So instead of shopping for an alternative to the shelf-dwelling imp, he decided to invent one of his own. Elf on the Shelf? Meet Reindeer in Here.
Reed had a feeling he wasn’t alone and that there were other parents looking for a slightly kinder, gentler version of the elf tradition. He also saw a chance to move the ball forward on the cultural playing field. There’s so much talk about diversity these days, he reasoned, so why not develop a holiday character that embodies the ethos of inclusion?
Since reindeer don’t exactly signify inclusiveness on their own, Reed designed one that would. In addition to cute features (mottled fur, big blue eyes), the animal’s antlers are visibly mismatched, one shorter than the other. It’s a small but deliberate cue that nobody’s perfect. Reed also penned a slogan—“Different is Normal”—and an accompanying book that details the reindeer’s adventures with a diverse array of friends including Zig and Zag, two penguins with strabismus.
Finally, Reed positioned the reindeer is “a Christmas friend,” a marked departure from the surveillance-oriented elf. The reindeer’s message is essentially that whoever you are, you’re cool. Kids can touch the reindeer all they want and, instead of sitting imperiously on a shelf, the reindeer functions more like a traditional stuffed animal kids can take to bed with them.
“What this has become is everything Elf is and everything Elf isn’t,” Reed said. “No stress. It’s a positive Christmas tradition.”
And a growing one, too. Reed launched his reindeer plush-and-book combo on Amazon in 2017, selling out his stock in two hours. He declined to furnish sales data but said that last year, he did “60 times the business we did in 2017.” For the 2019 holiday season, Reindeer in Here can be found at close to 2,000 retailers, including Bed Bath & Beyond.
“The reason this is working is because of the different-is-normal message,” Reed said, adding, “Because of the times we live in now, people want positivity.”
The only question now is: Do enough Americans also want a new holiday tradition that the reindeer can flourish in the shadow of the elf? For now, at least, that would appear to be the case. Just ask Neal Hoffman.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.