The Elf on the Shelf, the self-published book and toy elf kit that retails for $30, has been this year's holiday craze. Last month it was number two on USA Today's list of best-selling books. More than 2.5 million copies have been sold since it launched in 2005. The Elf blew up, balloon-style, in this year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. 
But the most fascinating thing about the Elf on the Shelf is not its meteoric self-published rise to fame.
No, it's the head-spinning frenzy it has inflicted on parents--namely, due to the pressure to find a creative hiding spot for the Elf, night after night, from Thanksgiving till Santa finally drops down the chimney. The gimmick is that the elf, an agent of Santa, comes to town to see firsthand if children have been naughty or nice--and every night reports back to the North Pole to give a daily verdict. He's back the next morning, cannily hidden in a new place.
Ultimately, what makes Elf on the Shelf so genius--and so successful--is that it establishes tradition while also facilitating self-expression. On the macro level, we admire--and crave--tradition. Tradition is sweet, fun, comforting. But on a micro level, we feel a need to buck traditional in favor of the original, driven by a desire to brand things our own way and put an individualistic stamp on everything we touch.
As a result, Elf on the Shelf has been as much an adult indulgence (or, for some, agony) as it has been a kid one. There are Pinterest boards dedicated to "Elf on the Shelf" ideas, daily Instagram updates revealing Elfin antics, and streams of Facebook posts that make less inventive parents feel like holiday underachievers, blaming their "defective elf," the one that--oops!--forgot to move overnight.
In our brand asset valuator database, which examines the perceptions of and attitudes of more than 17,000 consumers in the U.S., 80 percent of adults describe themselves as "traditional"--and yet 66 percent also describe themselves as innovative and unique.
Therein lies the yin-yang: We take comfort in what’s customary, but we derive energy from uniqueness. After all, good ideas are evergreen only if they stay fresh.
The Elf on the Shelf creators have an acute understanding of our need for customized customs. Want an elf with blue or brown eyes? Light skin or dark? Prefer a girl elf to a boy? No problem, an elf skirt will make the gender transition official. The book even invites your child to name the Elf. (Though even this task is not exempt from the pressures to be clever and original--one coworker of ours lamented that her toddler assigned his elf the name "Frank." Unimaginative or adorable? You decide.)
And they’re not alone--many other brands have effectively galvanized consumer interest by playing to this tension.
Consider, for instance, s'mores. The gooey chocolate, marshmallow, and graham cracker confection has long been a staple of campfires and summertime gatherings. Hershey Co., whose chocolate bar sales benefit hugely from the more in s’more, heavily markets this tradition--but it also recently given a nod to consumer individualism, with promotional sites that recognize personal interpretations of and preferences for the s’more. Do you like your marshmallow burnt or gooey? Triple decker or double? The implicit suggestion is that--much like the company’s other legacy candy, the Reese’s Cup--there is no wrong way to eat a s’more.
Even newer companies can attribute their success to coupling the comfort of tradition with the thrill of individualism. Instagram takes the ritual of sharing photos and puts it through a custom, creative lens. Pinterest energizes the comforting custom of recipe sharing by placing more emphasis on unique expression and recipe adaptation. And Paperless Post, the online stationary company, capitalizes on the tradition of opening an envelope, but does so with a modern, digitally customized twist.
Old customs, new spin: This may be the secret sauce that whets consumer appetite and makes them crave a craze. Marketers who give a nod to history and a license to think outside the box will find themselves in a very merry position this holiday season and beyond.
Will Johnson is SVP and Director of Global Brand Strategy at BAV Consulting at a Young & Rubicam Company. Julia Feldmeier is a senior strategist at BAV Consulting.
[Image: Flickr user Jason Mrachina ]