When last we parted, I had already nominated the Kardashian clan and Thomas Edison to the pantheon of history’s greatest marketers. For a list purportedly spanning all of human history, that’s admittedly quite American-centric and modern.
Rest assured, the remaining slots on this list will be filled by decidedly more international and more historic characters.
2. Napoleon Bonaparte
It’s the turn of the nineteenth century and the French army has just returned from a mostly disastrous campaign in Egypt and Syria, losing of some 30,000 infantrymen. One might expect the commanding generals to return in shame and under heavy scrutiny, as they face a reeling public, committees of review, and possible punitive measures.
And that’s exactly what would have happened were it not for Napoleon Bonaparte’s masterful marketing. Instead, there were no committees of review and the limited public outcry was directed at the conveniently dead, General Jean-Baptiste Kléber.
How was this feat of popular perception engineered? First, let’s put Napoleon in context. After over a decade of political and social upheaval extending from the Revolution, France was economically depressed, militarily engaged, and ruled by a council of five men known as the Directoire. Generally speaking, things in France were pretty awful.
Still, the people had overthrown a monarchy, enjoyed their greatest political empowerment, and hooked their minds on thoughts of liberty and collective prosperity.
In other words, the nation stood at a crossroads. The people simultaneous faced two conflicting truths. The status quo was unsustainable – as much emotionally as for any other reason – and it was believed that reality would break conclusively in one direction or another.
Of course, everyone hoped that things would break the way of progress and betterment, but justifications for that hope were few and far between. Indeed, hope itself was becoming a preciously rare commodity.
After his brilliant command in Italy, Napoleon was a prized source of hope. Napoleon knew this. He also knew that he would likely need to raise his profile even higher to assume his desired place in French history.
At the height of his successes in Italy, Napoleon proposed that France seize Egypt. This, he argued, would open and protect French trade interests and routes in the Levant and southeast Asia; while simultaneously subverting similar British interests.
Napoleon managed to secure mandate for the campaign by marketing to the pride of the Directoire – promising a speedy conquest that would serve France in her power struggle with Britain. Despite this, the manner of the campaign’s execution revealed it to be more an instrument for Napoleon’s own purposes. The campaign in Egypt and Syria would cement Bonaparte as France’s great hope and eventual leader.
Ironically, the Directoire was aware of Napoleon’s insatiable ambition and approved the campaign and its expansion in part to sideline him from internal French politics.
True to form, the campaign brought to fruition Napoleon's vision. One of history’s greatest marketers, Napoleon finagled this outcome while achieving none of the goals promised the Directoire – and despite humiliating defeats and an ultimate retreat.
In a time before journalists regularly embedded among troops in combat, Napoleon understood the value of controlling the flow of information. To chronicle his adventures, boost morale, and paint a picture for the world, Napoleon set up the Courrier d'Égypte.
The publication was essentially an outlet for Napoleon’s personally approved press releases. Except, coming from the front, (it was thought to be “rawer”) and before people were so accustomed to branded content, it was afforded greater perceived legitimacy.
By virtue of the Courrier d'Égypte being first to print and widely available, it replaced the trickle of government communiqués and first-hand accounts as the go-to source for information on the campaign. As a result, Napoleon managed to shape the campaign's portrayal, even in France.
Practically, this meant that successes were aggrandized and attributed to Napoleon while defeats were suppressed and attributed to others. By the time word of defeat would make its way to the public, the news cycle had already moved on and the populace had already developed a positive emotional association with Napoleon.
This structure of information flow dually benefitted Napoleon. First, the fact that bad news was never the most recent news, made it seem more remote and less significant than the latest, positive developments being reported. And second, new information conflicting with existing viewpoints was subject to cognitive dissonance and likely to be assimilated into existing schemas.
Irrespective of such rosy depictions, Napoleon saw that the campaign was deteriorating and waited for the right opportunity to return to France. When the British eventually provided that opportunity, Napoleon made haste, leaving scapegoat-to-be Kléber in high command.
Napolean returned home – without official orders – a conquering hero despite no such conquest having occurred. Somehow, with little more than marketing to anchor his reputation, the general’s good name and high regard only grew.
The vastly unpopular Directoire was in no position to punish the now wildly popular Napoleon for his “desertion of post.” Noting the Directoire’s show of weakness, Napoleon concluded that the time was ripe.
Having already seeded the political landscape with the necessary allies, Napoleon launched a coup d'état on November 9th, 1799. He restructured the government and placed himself at its helm, with near total powers.
Napoleon may be history’s best known proponant of the “content is king” approach to marketing. In the end, a forced retreat could not compete with a well constructed narrative. And Napoleon rode his narrative all the way to the throne.
Here are the top 3 takeaways from Napoleon’s career as marketer extraordinaire:
1. Have a Strong Plan
2. Time Your Moves
3. Be the First to Print
Napoleon is one of history’s greatest marketers as well as one of her most fascinating characters. There’s a lot we can learn from this man, for the good and the bad. When it comes to marketing though, it’s all good.
1. Paul the Apostle
Far and away, in my opinion, the greatest marketer in history is Paul the Apostle. Now, I don’t mean to imply that marketing in any way motivated Paul’s behavior, nor that Paul saw himself as a marketer, but all the same, in effect, Paul was exactly that.
The others on this list are notable because their marketing created value where it was otherwise questionable. Paul is different in this respect in that he only undertook to “market” Christianity after being convinced of its value. Unlike the others, he was not self-promoting and not an initial stakeholder in his “product.”
In this sense, Paul may be more accurately seen as a brand ambassador rather than a pure marketer.
There are three men primarily credited with the spread of Christianity. The first of course is Jesus Christ, who founded the movement; the second is Paul, who rebranded and popularized it; and the third is Emperor Constantine, who declared it the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire.
It goes without saying that Jesus is the most dominant and central figure within Christianity, but in his own time the movement was tiny and fledgling. Constantine, on the other hand, really got things moving. But that was arguably only possible after and because of Paul. Moreover, Constantine spread Christianity by force. Sure, it was a boon for the movement, but it had little lasting power through space and time.
So our attention turns back to Paul. Before Paul left his mark on Christianity, it was little more than a fringe sect of Judaism. Early Christians of that time were, generally speaking, rejected by Jews and oppressed by gentiles.
As the story goes, on his way to Damascus, Paul – an anti-Christian Jew – beheld a vision of Christ. He became convinced that Jesus was the Messiah and Son of God, and took upon himself to spread the gospel.
Paul is undeniably among the most influential Christians of the Apostolic Age. He’s also believed to have written the bulk of the New Testament’s 27 books. Influence and content, those are two important hallmarks of successful marketing.
I could stop there and you would certainly be convinced of the huge significance Paul played in spreading Christianity, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
After Jesus and before Paul, due to a generally hostile atmosphere, Christians were reticent to preach. Paul was not. Undeterred by occasional beatings and imprisonment, as well as near-constant denigration, he preached across Judea, Samaria, Arabia, the Mediterranean, and southern Asia Minor.
Paul was relentless and evangelical in his mission to advocate for and convert followers to Christianity. Not only that, but Christianity before and after Paul were two radically different entities.
Even today, there is debate among scholars and clergy alike whether Paul changed Christianity or revealed its true nature. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Jefferson, Leo Tolstoy, and Bertrand Russell are among the famous names who contend that Christianity as we now it know comes primarily from Paul.
For one thing, Paul fought to expand Christianity to non-Jews. Paul championed the position that converts to Christianity needn’t be Jewish, needn’t be circumcised, and need heed the restrictions of the Old Testament. So much was this simultaneously unifying and expansionist agenda assumed by Paul that he became known as "Apostle to the Gentiles."
In the same vein, Paul made a general distinction between the moral character invoked by the Mosaic laws and the laws themselves. Or as he gave expression to the idea, "Christ is the end of the law." According to Paul, all Jew or Gentile need do to attain salvation is accept Jesus and spiritually adhere to the values of the Mosaic tradition.
Paul argued that both Jews and gentiles were united as God’s children and lobbied to have Jewish Christians abstain from rituals and restrictions that would exclude gentiles or make them feel otherwise unequal.
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” — Galatians 3:28
Put simply, Paul made a reclusive Jewish sect relevant to the wider world and promoted it within that world. He was an effective communicator and enthusiastic brand ambassador, winning people over with the broadminded message of global harmony and moral progress.
When, almost 300 years later, Constantine adorned his army with the symbols of Chi and Rho as a show of commitment to Christ, it was a commitment to the legacy shaped by Paul. Without opening the movement to non-Jews and spreading the gospel of eminently attainable salvation, Constantine’s directive would be incomprehensible.
Today, there are almost 2 and a half billion Christians. Most of them practice a faith heavily influenced by Pauline teachings. Even those that subscribe to a decidedly non-Pauline brand of Christianity, would likely not be Christian at all were it not for the work of history’s greatest marketer.
The marketing lessons to be drawn from Paul are practically limitless. Nonetheless, these are the 3 lessons I find most compelling:
1. A Message from a Believer Is a Message Worth Listening to
2. Embrace Open Exclusivity
I do not contend – though others may – that Paul undertook to redesign Christianity for greater mass appeal. Still, there can be no doubt that after Paul left his mark, Christianity boasted a great deal more of it.
3. Seed Your Message Everywhere
So there it is, my list of history’s greatest marketers. In order: Paul, Napoleon, Thomas Edison, and the Kardashians. Of course, the opinions and views expressed here are my own and you’re free to disagree. Did I leave someone off the list that you think deserves inclusion? Let me know in the comments.
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