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The Greatest Marketing Geniuses of All Time

The Greatest Marketing Geniuses of All Time

by Geoffrey James

Marketing talent is rare enough, but marketing genius only happens once or twice in a lifetime.  Here are more than a dozen men and women throughout history who changed the face of marketing, creating entirely new concepts, or bringing good ideas to full fruition.  

If you think you might be a marketing genius, or just wish you were one, these are the luminaries whose thinking processes you should learn to emulate.  Although, in some cases, you might want to pick a different industry than the ones these geniuses chose.

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The Greatest Marketing Geniuses of All Time

John R. Brinkley, Inventor of Broadcast Advertising

John R. Brinkley, Inventor of Broadcast Advertising

John R. Brinkley, Inventor of Broadcast Advertising

Hard to believe it now, but radio was once originally considered akin to a public library, a cultural asset free of commercials.

All of that changed when Quack Physician John Brinkley built his own radio station in 1923 to hype his cure for male impotence, which consisted of implanting goat testicles in the human body.

Brinkley combined entertainment (booking some of the great country music acts of his day), bible readings, and a strong sense for the memorable turn of phrase.  His most memorable catch phrase: "You'll be a ram-what-am... with every lamb." 

Now THAT's infotainment!

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The Greatest Marketing Geniuses of All Time

Mary Kay Ash, Inventor of Network Marketing.

Mary Kay Ash, Inventor of Network Marketing.

Mary Kay Ash, Inventor of Network Marketing.

Network marketing (recruiting independent-agents to serve as distributors of goods and services, and then encouraging them to build and manage their own sales force) had been around for several decades when Mary Kay Ash founded her world famous cosmetics firm in 1963. 

But older companies, like Amway and Wachters, failed to what Mary Kay did: turn the network marketing concept from something on the fringe into an integral part of America's middle-class culture.

She did this by tapping a great underutilized workforce: housewives who were sick of the June Cleaver act but didn't want a 9 to 5 job.

Her most brilliant move: awarding top sellers pink Cadillacs, thereby transforming them into mobile advertisements for the company's products.  Beautiful.

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The Greatest Marketing Geniuses of All Time

George Wilkes, Inventor of Eye Candy

George Wilkes, Inventor of Eye Candy

George Wilkes, Inventor of Eye Candy

The journalist George Wilkes, along with his friend Enoch Camp, founded the world's first girlie magazine, National Police Gazette, way back in 1845.

The Gazette was packaged as a trade magazine for law enforcement, but featured numerous engravings and photographs of scantily-clad acresses, strippers and prostitutes.

These pictures were often facing pages of advertisements, which in those days were dull by comparison. 

Later, of course, the eye candy ended up in the ads, but Wilkes was the first to use sex to sell an unrelated product.

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The Greatest Marketing Geniuses of All Time

Andre Citroen, Inventor of the Electric Billboard

Andre Citroen, Inventor of the Electric Billboard

The founder of the Citroen automobile firm was always something of marketing genius.  He was one of the first auto execs to sponsor car races, for instance, and he promoted his car plant to tourists as "the most beautiful in Europe."

However, his real masterwork was renting the Eiffel Tower in 1925 and having the Citroen brand name emblazoned with in 125,000 incandescent lights. The sign remained in place until the company went bankrupt in 1934, partly because of the incredibly high electricity bills.  (The first act of the new owners was to flip the off switch.)

The lesson here: no matter how brillant the marketing, it's got to pay for itself somehow.

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The Greatest Marketing Geniuses of All Time

Conrad Gessner, Inventor of Viral Marketing

Conrad Gessner, Inventor of Viral Marketing

Conrad Gessner, Inventor of Viral Marketing

Viral marketing consists of creating a trend that carries along by word of mouth, creating demand for a product that previously wasn't on anybody's radar screen.

People tend to think of it as an Internet phenomenon, but it's actually far older.  Some scholars believe it began way back in 1559, when the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner waxed lyrical about the beauties of the tulip -- a flower then not well known in Europe.  

His remarks eventually spawned (in 1634... thing move a bit slower without the Web) what's now known as "Tulipmania."  During the craze, some bulbs sold for the contemporary equivalent of several million dollars.

One tulip fancier actually murdered his manservant for eating a particularly prized bulb, believing it to be an onion.

Now, that's brand loyalty with a vengeance!

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The Greatest Marketing Geniuses of All Time

Lily Langtry, Inventor of the Celebrity Endorsement

Lily Langtry, Inventor of the Celebrity Endorsement

Lily Langtry, Inventor of the Celebrity Endorsement

The best way to think of Lily is as the Madonna of her era (the singer, not the saint).

For decades, Lily acted, sang and condcuted highly publicized sexual escapades (including an affair with the future King of England), creating an image of glamor that was ripe to be exploited.

And exploit it she did, adding her famous name to a line of cosmetics.  The fee she charged the cosmetic firm: her body weight in gold... pound per pound.

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The Greatest Marketing Geniuses of All Time

Charles Ponzi, Inventor of CEO-centric Marketing

Charles Ponzi, Inventor of CEO-centric Marketing

Charles Ponzi, Inventor of CEO-centric Marketing

It's easily to vilify Ponzi as a conman, but what he did right was promote his company by promoting himself.  It's a technique that CEOs have been imitating ever since.

Ponzi may have intended to pay off all his investors eventually, but his marketing -- based upon a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption -- created so much interest that it all got out of hand.

At one point, Ponzi was taking in so much money that his offices in Boston were said to look as if a hurricane had hit a bank. 

Today, of course, Ponzi schemes are illegal, unless they are run by the U.S. government.

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The Greatest Marketing Geniuses of All Time

Julius Caesar, Inventor of the Advertorial

Julius Caesar, Inventor of the Advertorial

Julius Caesar, Inventor of the Advertorial

An advertorial, of course, is a published article that appears to be news, but which is secretly intended to promote a product.  It's a common way for companies to try to get their message across without being forced to cope with pesky concepts like accuracy and honesty.

When Julius Caesar was away in Gaul (now France), his enemies in Rome were busy trashing his reputation. So he invented the advertorial.

He started sending Rome reports on his progress, ostensibly to keep people informed, but really to make sure that everyone knew about his victories.

When Caesar finally crossing the Rubicon, he had a reputation to "die" for.

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The Greatest Marketing Geniuses of All Time

Jam Handy, Inventor of the Marketing Video

Jam Handy, Inventor of the Marketing Video

Jam Handy, Inventor of the Marketing Video

Ads were fine, but Jam Handy made actual movies about products and companies, with production values that rivaled the B-studios of the day. 

His films, most of which were made for the auto industry, gave numerous real actors their first start in films, and even today are surprisingly watchable.

Here's an example that has some pretty darn good animation:

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The Greatest Marketing Geniuses of All Time

James S. Bell, Inventor of The Ad Jingle

James S. Bell, Inventor of The Ad Jingle

James S. Bell, Inventor of The Ad Jingle

On Christmas Eve of 1926, radio listeners were treated to a new song "Have You Tried Wheaties" by four male singers known only as "The Wheaties Quartet".

Product sales in areas where the song was played spiked, causing James S. Bell, CEO of Washburn Crosby Company to decide to make into a national program.

As a result, Wheaties quickly became one of the world's most popular breakfast cereals.  

Here is the world's first ad jingle: WHEATIES SONG

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The Greatest Marketing Geniuses of All Time

Dracula, Inventor of the Publicity Stunt

Dracula, Inventor of the Publicity Stunt

Dracula, Inventor of the Publicity Stunt

In 1462, Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia (aka Dracula), learned that Sultan Mehmet (aka Mehmet the Great) was marching through his lands with a Turkish army.

Vlad needed a way to impress upon the Turks that he was not to be trifled with, even though he had a tiny army in comparison.

So he invented the publicity stunt, with a vengeance.

He captured 20,000 Turks and impaled them alive on the road on which the Turks were traveling. Aghast, the Turks turned back.

Vlad later became the world's first victim of bad press when Victorian author Bram Stoker immortalized him as a vampire.

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The Greatest Marketing Geniuses of All Time

Alfred E. Neuman, Inventor of Personal Branding

Alfred E. Neuman, Inventor of Personal Branding

Alfred E. Neuman, Inventor of Personal Branding

Early in his career, Neuman overcame the limitation of being an entirely fictional character to establish himself as an avatar of entire lifestyle.

He kept a firm control over his brand image, always appearing with the same expression, and his motto "What Me Worry?" perfectly expressed a certain philosophy of life.  

More importantly, his ability to establish his image in the marketplace was ample evidence that personal success comes from self-packaging, rather than from actual accomplishment.

The effectiveness of Neuman's technique can be gauged by the fact that Bill Gates clearly borrowed Neuman's image in crafting his own personal brand.

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The Greatest Marketing Geniuses of All Time

Stephan Paternot, Inventor of the Social Networking Service

Stephan Paternot, Inventor of the Social Networking Service

Stephan Paternot, Inventor of the Social Networking Service

Before there was Facebook, Myspace, or even Friendster, there was theGlobe.com, an internet startup founded in 1994 by Cornell student Stephan Paternot and his pal Todd Krizelman.

Most memorably, theGlobe.com made headlines by going public in 1998 and posting the largest first day gain of any IPO in history.

Alas, theGlobe.com did not stand the test of time, even though Paternot did become justifiably famous attending parties wearing plastic pants. 

Which was marketing genius of a sort, because people are still writing about it.

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The Greatest Marketing Geniuses of All Time

N.W. Ayer, Inventor of the Advertising Agency

N.W. Ayer, Inventor of the Advertising Agency

N.W. Ayer, Inventor of the Advertising Agency

Founded in Philadelphia in 1869, N. W. Ayer & Son created the kind of all-purpose advertising agency that plays such a big role in the world today.  The company was particularly well known for it's catchy tag phrases including:

  • "When it rains it pours" (1912)
  • "I'd walk a mile for a Camel" (1921)
  • "A diamond is forever"(1947) by Frances Gerety.[4]
  • "Reach out and touch someone"(1979)
  • "Be all you can be" (1981)
  • "Oops, we went out of business" (2002)

The company's headquarters (shown in the engraving) still stands as a monument to the advertising business. 

It is a condominium.

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The Greatest Marketing Geniuses of All Time

The God Thoth, Inventor of Print Advertising

The God Thoth, Inventor of Print Advertising

The God Thoth, Inventor of Print Advertising

Advertising on papyrus was common in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, but you have to all the back to Ancient Egyptian to find the first examples of papyrus being used for sales messages and wall posters.

Writing ad copy thus goes back to the dawn of civilization, so we'll have to give credit for the idea to the traditional inventor of writing: the Egyptian God Thoth.

As you can see from the picture, Thoth, like many ad copywriters, had the brain of a bird.

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The Greatest Marketing Geniuses of All Time

Ron Popiel, Inventor of the Infomercial

Ron Popiel, Inventor of the Infomercial

Ron Popiel, Inventor of the Infomercial

An infomercial is a commercial disguised as a television program.

Ron Popeil rented time on a television station in Florida in the late 1950s to sell "The Spray Gun" (a garden hose nozzle with a chamber in the handle for tablets of soap, wax, weed killer, fertilizer, insecticide, etc.).

But wait, there's more!

Ron launched a trend that would transfrom television advertising, creating an entire new channel for selling everything from computers to jewelry.

But wait, there's more!

Even today, Ron remains the champion of infomercial selling; he once went live on the QVC cable channel and, in a single hour, moved a million dollars worth of rotisseries.

But wait, there's more!

Uh, no, there's not.  Popeil is the last genius in this gallery.

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