We should always keep our ears and eyes open, because there’s no telling where we can learn fundamental lessons in marketing communications – from long-gone presidents to tattooed bikers. Here’s what I mean:
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of D-Day, President Reagan used almost his entire speech to tell the story of a single World War II private, who didn’t live long enough to join the ceremony, but who was represented by his daughter.
“Quoting the daughter, Reagan said, “He made me feel the fear of being on that boat waiting to land. I can smell the ocean and feel the seasickness. I can see the looks on his fellow soldiers’ faces – the fear, the anguish, the uncertainty of what lay ahead. And when they landed, I can feel the strength and courage of the men who took those first steps through the tide to what must have surely looked like instant death.”
When I think about this speech, I’m bouncing in rough waves off the French coast, fate unknown. One lowly private whose story represents a huge piece of history.
In a PowerPoint presentation on the importance of building brands, a marketing executive clicked on a single image – a close-up of a burly biker’s forearm, which featured a tattoo of the Harley Davidson logo. No words (or word slides) could ever convey the power of brands better than this single, memorable photograph. This one image created a wonderful platform for the speaker to make his few key points clearly and succinctly.
A single image that speaks volumes about the much-hyped word “branding.” And high marks from a guy who’d never get onto a vehicle missing two wheels.
Abe Lincoln: marketing genius
Strong, compelling communications is a huge challenge these rough-and-tumble days. Just ask Abraham Lincoln. OK that’s impossible, but this wartime president, with only one year of formal schooling, understood how to communicate in tough times, better than just about anyone.
One could argue that Lincoln was our best president BECAUSE he was the best writer to live in the White House. He knew in his bones that words mattered. His writing skills not only helped to keep the Union together when it was at risk of crumbling, but his careful and at times poetic use of language – and his understanding of its impact on the public at a precise moment – eventually changed the direction of the nation. A great storyteller, as well, he would leave his friends and colleagues laughing – and thinking about the point he was making long after the silly tale was told.
In the book Abraham Lincoln, The Biography of a Writer, the author Fred Kaplan explains that Lincoln knew how to interweave precise language, concise phrasing and logical tightness with a “personal voice that was sincere, colloquial, anecdotal, and humorous, projecting a persona of dignified but amiable authenticity.”
Lincoln also understood – when photography was the new communications technology of its day – that images would create an intimacy with citizens he would surely never meet in person. So he sat for many portraits and had them distributed widely, starting with his campaign for the White House. Today we remember Lincoln as a brilliant, pivotal figure, largely because we know that craggy face so well. The man AND his story are still sticky 150 years later. In short, he was a heck of a marketer.
What are Abe’s lessons for today when most people have short attention spans, get bored easily, and don’t read very much or listen very well? Our best bet is to paint mental pictures and tell stories to capture their imaginations and keep them from zoning out. As Abe would show us, be sincere, colloquial, anecdotal, and humorous (when possible). Make each word count in projecting a “dignified but amiable authenticity.”
One story and one mental picture can often say it all. That’s really how people relate, understand, and remember. Abe knew. “With malice toward none, with charity for all…”