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Mark Twain's 10-Sentence Course on Branding and Marketing

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In this article you'll see how Twain...

  • Recognized the power of celebrity and personality in establishing and spreading a brand
  • Saw early what his audience wanted, and kept giving them more, in endless variation
  • Continued to refine and extend his brand over his lifetime

Quick, what white-suited, stogie-smoking, joke-telling wise guy delayed the publication of his autobiography for 100 years? And how could that bio, produced by a university press at 700+ pages—with more than 200 of them devoted to scholarly footnotes—how could such a moldy thing possibly be a best-seller?

Easy, because the writer made it richly public that the autobiographical materials were too hot to be published in his lifetime.

That, my friends, is marketing.

And the writer, over the long course of his career, became by virtue of rendered personality and poised presentation, the most recognized man in the world.

That, my friends, is branding.


No need to stop to see whether you can come up with the answer, because it's too obvious: Samuel Clemens created the cherished celebrity known as Mark Twain as surely and craftily as he created Huck Finn. The man had "platform" a century before the concept had circulation.

How did Twain get his cred? By skillfully employing the marketing and branding techniques of his time—and making up a few of his own. (Oh, being his country's greatest writer probably did him more than a lick of good, too.)

"In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language." Read that, and you know that Twain knew his way around a good line. If I dragged a net through all 700+ pages of my copy of Twain's autobiography, I could probably find 700 zingers that capture Twain's understanding of his own brand and his marketing.

But let's take 10 of his more well-thumbed quotes and see how they apply.

1. Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.

Seth Godin remarked that today's publishing, with its instant electronic availability, has made the physical book a trophy of sorts, a kind of souvenir. Twain was 100 years ahead of Seth. All of Twain's major titles were sold by subscription in advance, by an army of sales agents going door to door with prepared pitches. They carried a luxuriant prospectus of the book's content, with lavish illustrations and various selections of custom binding. The books were considerably more expensive than the editions that appeared much later in bookstores. His advertisements knocked on your door and said "Howdy do!"

2. Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.

The white suit, the tousled hair, the omnipresent cigar... Twain knew that his look and bearing were part of his success. His wildly successful lecture-circuit tours—at which he made multichannel marketing of his writing—were an object lesson in his mastery of making the most of his physical presence. He used expert timing, expression, and gesture to entrance his audience, and his use of pauses was legendary. He clothed his brand in pure Twain.

3. The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.

Twain used the cover of laughter to skewer Congress, the military, religious figures, so-called authorities, and people in positions of power in general. He suffered hypocrites not at all, but he marketed his hell-dipped pen by playing a kind of Shakespeare's fool, laughing with sharp teeth. As he put it, "Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government when it deserves it." Twain well knew that by making a reader laugh, his pen was welcomed into that reader's mind. Thus he kept his readers laughing—and agreeing—for his entire life. Marketing by mirth.

4. Sell yourself, not your content.

Twain always sold himself first. His public personality developed quickly after his first publications. He got a big advance to write a series of letters from his first extended trip abroad, and they were pure Twain: wry, musing, scolding, gossipy—and stamped with his personality. His burgeoning reputation filled lecture halls and greatly helped to promote his books, which he ever used to advantage. He even trademarked his name after incorporating himself as an enterprise, since he was getting paid to endorse products (and many scoundrels were using his image without permission). With Twain, there was never a New Coke. There was only Old Twain.

5. I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.

Part of Twain's brand was that he was fascinated with gadgets, science, and inventions, and willing to spend his money on them. He invested and lost a fortune on an early prototype of a typesetting machine. His own publishing house foundered after some early success. He had moderate success selling a self-pasting scrapbook dubbed, naturally, "Mark Twain's Scrap Book," and patented a peculiar replacement for suspenders. The first licensed Parker Brothers (of Monopoly fame) game was based on Twain's Innocents Abroad book of travel essays. But he kept taking risks, and kept his name in the public eye by doing so. His failures (and his writing about them) became a part of his brand.

6. I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.

Twain made it as far as age 12 for his formal schooling. Then he worked as a printer's devil, setting type in a print shop, where he learned more than a lead slug's worth of editing and the play of words. He was a restless sort, traveling early on with his brother Orion by stagecoach to the Nevada territory, and on to mining camps in California. All became fodder for his observations. That early travel, and his ability to see new things—and to seeing things anew—became a trademark for Twain. He lived and traveled extensively abroad and stateside, often pushed by debt but prodded by curiosity as well. His education was prompted by an overarching interest in events, people, and things of his day, and he regularly got out among his readers and his fans to glean ideas and to spread the gospel of Twain.

7. All you need is ignorance and confidence and the success is sure.

Twain tried many forms of writing, just to see what would stick. He was alternately and sometimes simultaneously an essayist, travel writer, short story writer, speechwriter, journalist, sketch writer, correspondent, playwright, literary critic, and occasional poet. He published in some of the most celebrated magazines of his day and in some of the most obscure newspapers. He was ignorant enough to not settle for being a celebrated novelist or lecturer, but confident in the persuasion of his writing across all genres. He was both calculated and naive in perpetually putting his work out in public, always cultivating and extending his marketing. And as he put it, "I am not one of those who in expressing opinions confine themselves to facts."

8. We are always more anxious to be distinguished for a talent which we do not possess than to be praised for the fifteen which we do possess.

Twain might have chosen to be an inventor rather than a writer. He had a long friendship with Nikola Tesla and spent a lot of time in Tesla's lab. He was fascinated by Thomas Edison's work with film, indeed being the subject of one of Edison's early film clips. Besides the underwriting of the failed typesetting machine, his work on his self-pasting scrapbook and his suspender substitution, he also patented a history trivia game and funded the work of other inventors.

But Twain recognized where his greatest talents and impacts would lie. In an 1865 letter to his brother, not long before the publication of his "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," he said, "I have had a 'call' to literature, of a low order—i.e., humorous. It is nothing to be proud of, but it is my strongest suit." He enthusiastically marketed his inventions, but he knew his real brand—as low of an order as it might be—was his writing.

9. The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

Twain was the first to use vernacular speech in writing to good effect. As with his timing in his lectures, he was painstakingly particular on word choice, syntax, and even punctuation. There is a passage of his where he rails about an editor that changed his punctuation; this quote underscores that: "How often we recall, with regret, that Napoleon once shot at a magazine editor and missed him and killed a publisher. But we remember with charity, that his intentions were good." He sustained his brand, and his marketing, by consistent content: the precisely right words.

10. Robert Louis Stevenson and I, sitting in Union Square and Washington Square a great many years ago, tried to find a name for the submerged fame, that fame that permeates the great crowd of people you never see and never mingle with; people with whom you have no speech, but who read your books and become admirers of your work and have an affection for you....It is the faithfulness of the friendship, of the homage of those men, never criticizing, that began when they were children...and you will remain in the home of their hearts' affection forever and ever. And Louis Stevenson and I decided that of all fame, that was the best, the very best.

To borrow from Seth Godin again, this is Twain talking about building a tribe, the base of true fans, who become your living marketing. This article, more than 100 years after Twain's death, is testimony to the concept.

Twain had some advantage over most content marketers. He produced high-quality work, he produced lots of it, and he produced it over his entire lifetime. Leave 'em laughing, and they will never leave you.


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Tom Bentley is a B2B and B2C copywriter who runs The Write Word. Besides scribbling for those strange acronyms, also writes fiction, essays, and travel pieces. 

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Comments

  • by Ann Handley Mon Jul 15, 2013 via web

    Great piece, Tom. I suspect Mark/Samuel would've been all up in blogging and social media!

  • by Mark W. Scherer Mon Jul 15, 2013 via web

    Thank you very much. Very informative and entertaining!

  • by Tim Blake Mon Jul 15, 2013 via web

    Fantastic article Tom. I had never even considered the prospect of Mark Twain as a brand. He was brilliant and so is this article. Can't wait to share it.

  • by Tom Bentley Mon Jul 15, 2013 via web

    Thanks you guys. And Ann, thank you very much for running it. Of course, the article is an object lesson in my writerly cheating: steal the writing of a much better writer than myself. Given Mr. Twain's quotes, the piece almost wrote itself.

  • by Dorothy Shapland Mon Jul 15, 2013 via web

    Excellent Tom! Twain as Brand is just brilliant!

  • by Carole Holden, Gelmtree Advertising Mon Jul 15, 2013 via web

    What a fun article! I've used Quote #1 as the 'motto' of my marketing/advertising consultancy since its inception in 2005. Love his special "brand" of humor - wouldn't it have been a hoot to know Mr. Clemens personally?

  • by Joel D Canfield Mon Jul 15, 2013 via web

    Your reverence for Clemens serves you well, maestro. Worthy quotes all; worthy of repetition, worthy of application.

    My next read is "A Full Cup" about the first celebrity CEO, Sir Thomas Lipton. It will be illuminating to see parallels with Clemens.

  • by Tom Bentley Mon Jul 15, 2013 via web

    Dorothy, much obliged!

    Carolyn, yes, yes—I've always thought that Twain would be the best dinner guest ever. Though you'd have to wade through the cheap cigar smoke. I smoke cigars myself, but Twain was known to favor the foulest ones. Thanks for the comment.

    Joel, I had to go check out Lipton. I presumed he was the tea-master, but didn't know he was an America's Cup master. I do wonder if the Lipton of today tastes anything like his original tea.

  • by Joel D Canfield Mon Jul 15, 2013 via web

    Funny thing about the man is that for him, it was strictly business: he didn't like tea!

    I don't drink Lipton, but I'll bet way back when, it was pretty good. Nowadays we buy Barry's from Ireland. By the case, actually.

  • by BJ Dooley Mon Jul 15, 2013 via web

    Excellent piece. Twain was also interested in meeting the technology of the day head on (typewriters, for example), focusing upon the most effective current mode of communications, and maximizing impact. Here's mine: http://bjdooleytoons.wordpress.com/2013/06/04/what-is-big-data/

  • by Tom Bentley Mon Jul 15, 2013 via web

    I'm with you on Twain's interest in tech in his time, BJ. What underlies that is what seems one of his best qualities: he was a curious man, interested in a crazy range of things. Got him into trouble sometimes, but deepened the course of his rare character.

  • by Ira Dember Mon Jul 15, 2013 via web

    Add this Twain gem: "The ancients have stolen our best ideas."

    If you've come up with something new in marketing, chances are someone -- perhaps Twain himself -- did a version of it hundred years ago.

  • by Sally Sisson Mon Jul 15, 2013 via web

    Yet another excellent piece, Tom. Will tweet it out to the masses!

  • by Gracious Store Mon Jul 15, 2013 via web

    Yes indeed "clothes make the man", what a person wears says much about who he/she is

  • by Kirsten Shaw Tue Jul 16, 2013 via web

    Great article, a good read and entertaining!

  • by Alison Jelfs CD/MD Two Lizards Tue Jul 16, 2013 via web

    Hi Tom

    Really enjoyed your latest article, a

    Best

    Alisonvery refreshing and 'zippy' style - excellent! However, on going to your site not quite so 'zippy'.. Really wanted to find out more about you and your work as we are always looking for associates to work with but got bored waiting for the site to load! You need help on that one.

  • by Tom Bentley Tue Jul 16, 2013 via web

    Ira, I love that quote—I would have used it had I known about it.

    Sally, Gracious and Kirsten, thanks a lot; I do appreciate your reading and the warm comments.

    Alison, yeah—I am changing the hosting services for my site NOW, and will be messing with it over the next little while. Unfortunately, that happened to coincide with this article's publication. Ahh, timing. Anyway, thanks for the nice comment, and the site should be zippier when all the new nails are hammered in.

  • by Randy Milanovic Wed Jul 17, 2013 via iphone

    Great post.

  • by T.Watson Tue Jul 23, 2013 via web

    Tom, great article. I've always loved Twain, but I never thought of him as a marketer before. Enjoyed the read and insights.

  • by Tom Bentley Tue Jul 23, 2013 via web

    Randy and T., very happy you liked the piece. Maybe I'll have to look out for "Mark Twain's Three Top Twitter Tips."

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