There’s a famous anecdote about President William Taft that claims his father was once viciously slandered by a gossip publication when the future president was a young man. The editor of the publication in question had managed to dodge every libel lawsuit that came his way for his misdeeds, to the point where people in the community had more or less given up on preventing him from printing falsehoods. That is, until Taft approached him one day in defense of his father and delivered an awesome, movie trailer-worthy line:
“My name is Taft,” he said, “and my purpose is to whip you.”
Then he pummeled the guy so badly that the editor fled town in terror the next day.
I know, I know. Violence isn’t the answer and we know that now. But that is a COOL story with a powerful message about standing up to bullies. In fact, it’s just one of many things that we all stand to learn from the amazing and fascinating men that have served as President of the United States.
As marketers, there’s no stone we won’t turn if we think there’s a relevant lesson underneath. And this Presidents’ Day, we can’t help but note the similarities between the great presidents of our country’s past and some of our culture’s iconic brands. As the leader of a big-time brand, or a nation, it’s a serious challenge to manage day to day priorities while juggling your public perception and long-term legacy, all while staying true to your stated mission and not losing sight of the big picture. Luckily for today’s brand leaders, they have a stable of exceptional men to learn from in this regard.
Here’s what brands can learn from our country’s greatest leaders this Presidents’ Day:
Thomas Jefferson – Purpose
Thomas Jefferson. Author of the Declaration of Independence and America’s third President. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. You’d be hard pressed to find a better example of the importance of having a purpose and devoting yourself to it. Jefferson believed in freedom and equality above all else. For that reason, he’s better known as a key figure in the American Revolution than anything else, but he also spearheaded the effort to abolish slave import in our country. For Jefferson, becoming President of the United States wasn’t about beefing up his resume or bringing glory to the Democratic-Republican party, it was about gaining the influence to enact his vision for our country. In fact, Jefferson wrote his own epitaph, in which he listed the contributions he’d like to be remembered by: Author of the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia. Missing from his tombstone? Any mention of his tenure as President.
Brand Example: In the late 1960s, only 15% of Americans had ever traveled by plane. In 1971, Southwest Airlines launched its airline with the specific mission of making air travel affordable to the masses. They designed eco-friendly practices, offered light snacks instead of full meals, and pioneered frequent flier miles – anything to cut costs for consumers. Their plan worked and, today, nearly 85% of Americans have the means to fly commercially.
Abraham Lincoln – Courage
Abraham Lincoln faced a difficult task, to say the least, during his time as America’s 16th President. When he took office, the nation was divided over issues of slavery and expansion. The Union was filled with competing ideologies and bloody civil conflicts in every corner of the map. Lincoln inherited an incredibly volatile situation and managed to preserve the Union and provide the anti-slavery movement with crucial victories, including the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. That’s not to say that his policies went over smoothly. As we know, they didn’t (see: the American Civil War). His push to eradicate slavery threatened the way of life and livelihood of many Americans. But Lincoln never backed down from what he believed would be the best path for our country, even in the face of passionate resistance, criticism, and ultimately, his assassination. Although heavily criticized and controversial during his time, Lincoln is now widely considered one of the greatest leaders in American history.
Brand example: Tesla Motors. One does not simply launch a start up automotive company in their parents’ basement. Auto manufacturing requires huge amounts of research and development money before a single part even hits the production line, not to mention the fact that the market is dominated by powerhouses like General Motors. That’s what makes Tesla Motors’ story so amazing. Not only did they shoulder their way into a highly competitive industry, they did so on the back of an unproven technology in electric cars. The risks the company took early required terrific courage. After a rocky start, and after losing nearly all of its start up investments, Tesla is forecasted to turn its first profit in 2013.
Teddy Roosevelt – Intellect
Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t your typical politician. He was a blunt and direct man, rarely willing to cushion or tip-toe around the point he was trying to make. But for all his masculinity and bravado, Roosevelt was also an avid reader and learner. He read tens of thousands of books, becoming a minor expert on topics like biology, history, and geography. He studied and wrote books on subjects that interested him. In general, he devoured information, and while his demeanor may have lacked the eloquence of an Abraham Lincoln or a Thomas Jefferson, his decisions were always backed by mountains of knowledge and data.
Brand example: Netflix. A lot of good and bad can be said about Netflix, but one recent brand decision serves as the perfect way to highlight the benefits of diligent research. The company has access to huge amounts of data about its subscribers and their viewing habits, and while sifting through the numbers they found a sizeable correlation between viewers of the original BBC series House of Cards, and viewers that enjoyed Kevin Spacey and David Fincher films. With that in mind, they decided to fund a remake of the House of Cards series, starring Kevin Spacey and to be directed by David Fincher. It sounds simple, but that’s not the way creative decisions are typically made. Netflix let the data drive their choice, and the early returns for the remade series are promising.
George Washington – Character
You’ve probably heard the famous tale about George Washington and the cherry tree. The legend has it that a young George took his brand new hatchet to his father’s prized cherry tree, and when confronted by his furious father, admitted to doing so, saying “I cannot tell a lie.” It’s said that his father took greater pride in his son’s honesty than he ever did in the beautiful cherry tree. It’s not a biographically accurate story, but it paints a picture of Washington’s perception at the time. He was held in high regard as a man of character, honesty, and loyalty. Also well known as a philanthropist, Washington famously said, “Never let an indigent person ask without receiving something, if you have the means.” It’s no surprise that he’s remembered as not only the first, but also one of the greatest Presidents.
Brand example: Home Depot. Arthur Blank made his fortune as co-founder of The Home Depot, then cemented his status as a business legend as owner of the Atlanta Falcons, but what really set his brands apart was Mr. Blank’s personal involvement. He and his partner at Home Depot, Bernie Marcus, used to walk around the sales floor at their stores, talking to customers and getting a feel for their concerns – rare behavior from high-level business executives. He may be even better known, however, for his work with The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. Including personal funds from Mr. Blank, the Foundation has granted over $250 million to charities around the country. Arthur Blank’s high character and generosity have helped give his business ventures a friendly and welcoming face.
All brands should aspire to the traits of great leaders. Purpose, courage, intellect, and character are just the tip of the iceberg. The best brands also possess empathy, along with the ability to inspire people and make good decisions under pressure.
Reaching elite brand status is difficult, no doubt about it. Good thing brand managers have over 30 role models (the actual number is 43 but, let’s face it, they weren’t all winners) to show them how to be amazing.