Four of History’s Greatest Marketers: Part II

Four of History’s Greatest Marketers: Part II
Marketing Strategy B2B Inbound Marketing Strategy

This is the second of a two-part series, exploring history’s best, most seldom appreciated marketers. For Part I, click here.

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. 

Napoleon_at_the_Battle_of_Rivoli.jpgIn 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.


Courier_egypte_116.jpgThe 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.

Napoleon_I_of_France_by_Andrea_Appiani.jpgThe 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

To me, what’s most remarkable about Napoleon’s story was that he was in complete control, even when he wasn’t. He laid such a masterful plan that no twists or turns of reality could derail it.
The man was a military giant to be sure, but he suffered defeats as well as victories. His genius was such that, understanding that both defeats and victories would be had, he endeavored to grow the impact of his wins and prevent losses from lingering. 
This may not immediately strike you as brilliant, but consider that for a man being hailed as the savior of an entire nation, he maintained a remarkable sense of humility and perspective. 
Napoleon’s plans were not predicated on any outcomes that he could not control and even allowed for a considerable degree of failure. He understood that if life were fated by the flip of a coin, he could only expect to win 50% of the time. His fortune then would be determined not by how often he won, but by how he made it count when he did.
Despite his remarkable military mind, his larger plan did not require him to deliver remarkable victories. As soon as he found success he moved to seize it and play it up in the minds of the people. Napoleon was less concerned with putting himself in position to conventionally succeed and more concerned with putting himself in position to control the perception of his successes and failures. There's no denying that his was a novel and throughly marketing-dependant approach.
This is evident in his maneuvering to lead the campaign in Egypt and Syria on the back of his success in Italy as well as in his running of the campaign. By moving the goal posts and changing the rules of the game, Napoleon conceived a wager that he could not lose. 
His path to Emperor was planned so comprehensively that it accounted for practically every contingency outside of his own direct control.
This should be a lesson to every modern marketer: Without a plan, you can’t succeed. With the right plan, you can hardly fail. This is as much true of KPI benchmarking, inbound marketing strategy, buyer persona and brand definitions as it is of war chronicling and coup staging. 

2.  Time Your Moves

This is easy to appreciate but difficult to execute. Napoleon knew that even the perfect plan is of little value if it’s not implemented with the right timing.
Napoleon did not wait to return from Italy before putting the plans for his next steppingstone campaign in motion. From the battlefield, he wrote to the Directoire, seizing on what may have otherwise proven to be his fifteen minutes of fame.
Similarly, on August 24, 1799, he took advantage of the temporary British withdrawal from the coast to return to France. Timing was paramount here as there was only a brief window of safe passage after Napoleon had cemented his status as superstar general and with space remaining to saddle Kléber with the eventual blame.
Finally, when Bonaparte landed in France, he assessed the situation and quickly mobilized the last stages of his master plan. 
Timing is critical to the success of all marketing. Whether it's knowing when to post your messages on social media, when to keep a low profile, when to newsjack, when to bribe your audience, or when to make an ask of them – there’s little you can do in the world of marketing that timing can’t make or break.

3.  Be the First to Print

The very instrument of Napoleon’s rise to Emperor – the campaign in Egypt and Syria – could have been his undoing were it not for his controlling its frame of reference. 
The case of the Courrier d'Égypte exemplifies the marketing value of being first to print (or digital). Whether it’s a scandal, a promotion, new product, or company announcement, being first to print means controlling the context.
 Breaking the story means that the story runs with your spin. By the time others insert their own commentary and spin, the story’s already gone stale. Better stiil, if you can play the initial disclosure to some sort of self-benefiting emotional association, as Napoleon did, most of what happens afterwards won’t matter.
 The best modern marketers make use of this strategy, realizing that a good situation can be amped up to generate widespread fanfare, while even a bad situation can be worked to evoke sympathy and/or understanding.
 Through perfect marketing manipulation, Napoleon jumped from one public relations stunt to another, amassing crucial popular support along the way. Then at the zenith of that support, and with incredible situational awareness, he seized upon all the momentum he had built in spectacular fashion.


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 


Saint_Paul_Rembrandt_van_Rijn_and_Workshop-_c._1657.jpgFar 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.

(James and Peter too were highly influential, but decidedly less so with regards to accelerating the religion’s uptake.)

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. 


Chi-Ro-Symbol.pngWhen, 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


Paul put his money, his body, his freedom, and his time where his mouth was. He was a true brand advocate and enthusiast. This wasn’t lost on his audience. And it won’t be lost on yours either. 
“At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, "Isn't he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn't he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?" Yet Saul grew more and more influential and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.”                                                                                  —  Acts 9:20-22
Paul’s behavior instantly exposed his honest enthusiasm for his message since it was otherwise uncharacteristic and without perceivable ulterior motive. This is the secret to winning over an audience and it’s pretty simple: Believe in what you’re marketing.
The utility of such conviction is both tried and true. It’s what made Steve Jobs such a compelling brand spokesman and what makes Elon Musk such a captivating figure. You could almost see their genuine excitement and appreciation for their products drip from their mouths.
It makes little difference whether your brand is defined by a particular outlook on life or a disruptive approach to technology; if you can’t get behind your brand one hundred percent, you won’t be able to market it nearly as effectively.

2.  Embrace Open Exclusivity

From a marketing perspective, this is probably Paul’s cleverest construction. Anything predicated on group identification is ultimately a sort of club. Christianity being no exception. Clubs can be an attractive thing to market because they afford members a sense of distinction, prestige, and belonging. 
As an expression and reinforcement of that sense of distinction, clubs naturally develop sub-cultures. Inevitably, those sub-cultures create a behavioral divide between the in-group and out-group. However, the demands of the sub-culture can and often do become burdensome in themselves while also breeding outside resentment and hostility. (Degrading any sense of prestige.)
Paul saw those problems afflicting the Judaism of his day and recognized in Christianity the opportunity for something different. He could offer the distinction, prestige, and belonging of a club without the burden and enmity that come with its laws and milieu.
By promoting the Christian club through a maintained Jewish ethic and history while absolving members of the exclusivism and ardors of Jewish laws, Paul did just that. In one fell swoop, he mended a human rift, drove the people of the world closer to harmonious coexistence, and created a brilliant marketing model. 
This “open exclusivity” is defined by a universalist subculture that is accepting of and welcoming to all. At once Paul's message was unifying and expanionist. If your brand is inaccessible and your product is difficult to use or invites scorn, you have a problem. Essentially, Paul found a way to reduce the costs of being a Christian while also increasing its value. 
In a way, this is similar to what many modern businesses have accomplished through alternative revenue models. So much of what we consume today as users is basically free to us. Think about Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Pandora to name some.
Of course, that's no simple task. Believe it or not, YouTube was actually a money sink for most of it’s existence. Finding a way to tow that line between open and exclusive requires a great deal of design and structural dexterity. Your brand must mean different things to different people at different times and your product must be leverage-able in different ways. 

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

Paul was from the Roman city of Tarsus and was converted on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus. One could argue that promoting Christianity in those three locations would have been natural and relatively easy for Paul. But he didn’t content himself with spreading his message only where it was easy.
 Paul travelled pretty much the whole of the known world missionizing and establishing footholds for Christianity. He spent most of his life going from one place to another. And to great effect.
 japple.jpgThis is why good marketers seed their messages everywhere, in both the digital and physical worlds. It’s the same reason why Penguin Strategies encourages all our clients to maintain Facebook pages, despite what many consider to be very limited B2B utility.
 The truth is, you just never know where your next lead will come from, so it pays to fertilize all soils. Taking your message everywhere is simply best practice. Whether you're building a religion or promoting a product, you can’t afford to neglect any social forum, social media, conference, convention, expo or meet-up.
Getting down in the trenches is how real and lasting impressions are made and how a network grows. It’s why musicians spend so much time and energy touring. A message carried over the airwaves cannot compete with a message carried through an experience and human encounter.
 Paul knew this and resolved to seed his message anywhere and everywhere he could. In your own marketing endeavors, you should aim for nothing less. 

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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The Penguin Team

by The Penguin Team on March 10, 2016

As a leading B2B digital marketing agency, We help B2B Technology Companies, enterprise software, and hardware companies increase brand awareness, reach more qualified leads and close more customers. Penguin Strategies is a Diamond Partner of HubSpot.