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.
Meanwhile, it’s also Hanukkah
Much like Reed, Hoffman noticed the popularity of the elf and, also like Reed, saw an opportunity to improve upon it. Specifically, Hoffman wanted a character that would speak to Jewish kids, who often feel marginalized at a time of year when 90% of America celebrates Christmas. In 2012, after his son asked Hoffman to buy him an elf, he heard himself say, “You can’t have an Elf on a Shelf—but you can have a Mensch on a Bench!” To Hoffman, a former Hasbro toy executive, if someone was actually going to make a Mensch on a Bench, it might as well be him.
With the stated aim to “put more funukkah into Hanukkah,” the 12-inch stuffed mensch (a Yiddish term for a person of noble character) comes to your home and hangs out wherever you put him. Each night, kids give him a Shamash candle to hold, then use that same candle to light the family menorah.
Hoffman put his idea on Kickstarter in 2013 and raised $22,000. After preselling his first 300 mensches, he made another thousand—and sold those, too. In 2014, he showed up on Shark Tank and raised $150,000 in equity from Robert Herjavec and Lori Greiner. To date, Hoffman has sold an estimated quarter of a million units.
Though the elf is a Christmas toy and Hoffman’s unabashed goal is to reinforce Jewish tradition, he’s clear on one thing: “I’m a huge fan of Elf,” he said. “I don’t think Mensch would be around if it were not for Elf on the Shelf.” (In fact, Hoffman said, Elf on the Shelf CEO Christa Pitts took him out to dinner a few years ago and shared some helpful advice retail and logistics.)
For his part, Reed would like it to be known that he, too, has nothing against the elf—“I’m not here to bash that brand,” he said. “I respect what they’ve done.” But unlike Hoffman’s mensch, Reed’s reindeer does have a more contentious relationship to the elf, if only because both of them are Christmas items and, in theory at least, are targeting the same demographic. As Hoffman put it, “Those two are fighting for the same mind space. I’m over in the corner celebrating Judaism.”
A representative for Elf on the Shelf declined to comment for this story.
The reindeer builds an online community
What’s a reindeer to do when it needs a competitive edge against an elf? In view of the fact that his reindeer wants kids to talk about their differences—and the fact that the elf already has a Facebook community of nearly 1.4 million—Reed decided to create a freestanding social community, a platform on which parents and kids could share their stories and build what he calls “something deeper and more meaningful” around the brand.
Built by engagement technology firm Social Media Link, Reindeer Town operates as a kind of online clubhouse though which Reindeer in Here fans can join discussions, take surveys, receive special offers, and share personal stories and photos. A vertical called I Am Me encourages kids to answer the question: What makes you amazing?
“That’s designed for parents and teachers to ask the children, ‘What’s different mean to you?’” said Social Media Link CEO Susan Frech, who believes online communities like Reindeer Town allow brands to build more genuine and interactive relationships with customers. “It’s actually an activation tool,” Frech said. The I Am Me feature, Frech added, is “an activity created by the child and uploaded by the parent—and what parent doesn’t want to share their child’s creativity?”
Reindeer Town launched about a month ago, and it’s already signed up more than 8,500 members. Among them is brand ambassador Angelica Hale, a 12-year-old singer who found national fame when she appeared on America’s Got Talent. Reindeer in Here brought Hale aboard to create video content, in large part because the “different is normal” message applies to her, too. Hale underwent a kidney transplant at age 5 and “that part of her story really resonated with the brand,” Reed said.
Is there enough shelf space for three characters?
Reindeer in Here’s message of diversity and inclusivity is certainly tailor-made for the zeitgeist, but it’s still a plush toy and a kid’s book. Does it have the staying power to become a major brand? Possibly. For one thing, Americans seem to have no brakes on spending money at holiday time. Gallup results show Americans have been steadily spending more on holiday gifts since emerging from the 2008 recession—spending that’s expected to break the $1 trillion barrier this year.
And Katherine Wintsch, founder and CEO of marketing consultancy The Mom Complex, believes Reindeer in Here is the welcome kind of brand that can relieve stressed-out moms at holiday time.
“If a brand can help build memories for children without adding a single item to a mother’s never-ending to-do list, then I’m all for it,” Wintsch said, adding that she also appreciates “the focus on inclusivity during a time when younger parents are longing to teach their children [the] valuable lesson [of inclusion].”
The reindeer still has quite a trot ahead of it, though. Reed admits that, despite the item’s encouraging popularity, he’s got his life savings on the line for the brand and is “still very much in the hole.” But he’s optimistic. “At the right time, we’ll start to see really big returns,” he said.