I believe you can learn something from everyone—as long as you’re listening. We’re always building on the legacy and lessons of those who have come before us.
For marketers, this is quite a legacy indeed. Although the discipline of marketing only emerged in the 1900s, it builds on a foundation of sales, advertising, copywriting and relationship-building that is much older.
Some of its wisest teachings are hundreds of years old. Some of its big lessons happened only months ago. And for every brilliant marketer and thinker mentioned here, there are likely 10 more I haven’t thought of. (Would love to hear your picks in the comments!)
Nonetheless, I hope there’s some wisdom for the ages below. I loved learning about each personality and philosophy, and hope you will too. Here are 40 essential lessons from some of the most famous marketers in history.
1. ‘A brand is a contract’
Who: Simon Clift
What: The former Chief Marketing Officer of Unilever likes to say “a brand is the contract between a company and consumers.” The consumer has choices, and can simply choose to enter a contract with another brand if they find a company “in breach” of the contract. Are you holding up your end of the bargain with consumers?
2. ‘Always be closing’
Who: Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross
What: This famous line from Glengarry Glen Ross is a well known sales mantra expressing that everything you say and do should be done with only one goal in mind: closing the deal. A more modern, less ruthless take for today’s world? The customer is always listening and evaluating. Even if you’re not consciously selling, everything you do is part of your marketing.
3. ‘Appeal to the reader’s self-interest’
Who: John Caples
What: One of the most famous copywriters of all time, Caples hit on a winning formula early with this ad:
The ad works because it doesn’t sell piano lessons, it sells self-esteem. (And who doesn’t want that?) Caples would repeat this formula again and again, each time appealing to a reader’s deepest self-interest. How can you go deeper in your marketing to know your customers’ self-interest motivation?
4. ‘Become interested’
Who: Dale Carnegie
What: We are pretty big Dale Carnegie fans at Buffer, and his advice to truly be interested in others is no small part of why. One of his famous quotes on the topic: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
5. ‘Break the internet’
Who: The Kardashians
What: Media pundits thought Kim Kardashian would break the internet when she bared all for Paper magazine, but the Kardashians’ real power move is to make sure they’re offering a multi-platform experience—much more than you see on social media, including custom emoji and a branded content portal. “I see what we do on social media as the appetizer,” Khloe Kardashian told the New York Times. “Not everything we do can be captured in an Instagram shot.”
6. ‘Cash from chaos’
Who: Malcolm McLaren
What: The man who largely initiated the punk movement, managing the infamous Sex Pistols, made “cash from chaos” his motto. He bore it out in stunts like getting arrested outside the Houses of Parliament, spreading rumors about the band and intentionally canceling gigs. What can we learn from this bad behavior? Today more than ever, controversy gets people talking (case in point: Kanye West). Hey, no publicity is bad publicity, right?
7. Details matter
Who: Walt Disney
What: At Walt Disney’s Disneyland, every detail is thought through—to the point that the Disney team has planted “hidden Mickeys” throughout the park, which dedicated fans spend decades discovering and cataloging. When you pay attention to every detail of an experience, you can make fans for life.
8. ‘Eat your own dog food’
Who: Paul Maritz of Microsoft
What: This colorful colloquialism describes the idea that a company should be the biggest user and proponent its own products or services. The first recorded usage was in 1988, when Microsoft executive Paul Maritz e-mailed a colleague, “We are going to have to eat our own dogfood and test the product ourselves.” Are you your product’s biggest fan?
9. Educate your audience
Who: John Deere
What: John Deere may be best known for farm equipment, but he also has another distinction: He may very well have created content marketing. In 1895, he launched the magazine The Furrow, providing information to farmers on how to become more profitable. The magazine is still in circulation today, reaching 1.5 million readers in 40 countries in 12 different languages. Helping your audience grow and improve is always in fashion.
10. Find a star slogan
Who: Mary Frances Gerety
What: Charged with kickstarting the sales of diamonds following the Great Depression, copywriter Mary Frances Gerety came up with the timeless gem “A diamond is forever” in the middle of the night. The slogan has since been used in every De Beers ad and in 1999 was named the slogan of the 20th century by Advertising Age. Today, more than 80% of women in the U.S. receive diamond rings when they get engaged. Think her campaign was effective?
11. Get people talking
Who: Conrad Gessner
What: This botanist “invented” word of mouth marketing in 1559 with his passion for tulips. To familiarize Europeans with the then-foreign flower, he penned an easy-to-repeat poem that eventually spurred “Tulipmania”—some bulbs sold for what would be several million dollars today. What can you do to get people talking and create more demand?
12. ‘Give them quality’
Who: Milton Hershey
What: The founder of Hershey’s had a simple marketing philosophy: As long as consumers saw the high quality of Hershey’s’ chocolate, the product would practically sell itself. He’s know to have said: “Give them quality. That’s the best kind of advertising in the world.”
13. Harness your haters
What: When the world gives you lemons, just turn to Beyoncé to figure out how to turn them into lemonade. After getting negative feedback for her 2016 Super Bowl performance, including boycott calls, Queen Bey hatched a canny plan to turn the furor into a boon: She sold her own “Boycott Beyoncé” T-shirts on tour.
14. Headlines are everything
Who: Helen Gurley Brown
What: In 1965, Hearst hired Helen Gurley Brown to take over a flagging magazine called Cosmopolitan. Her revamp was heavy on sensational headline and earned millions of devoted readers, kickstarting the sexual revolution in the process. Today you can still get plenty of tips on writing great headlines right from the magazine racks.
15. Influencers make the brand
Who: Estee Lauder
What: The co-founder of Estée Lauder Companies, Lauder was the only woman on Time magazine’s 20 most influential business geniuses of the 20th century. Her marketing genius? Lauder gave her famous friends and acquaintances small samples of her products for their handbags; she wanted her brand in the hands of people who were known for having the best.
16. Issue a challenge
Who: Ernest Shackleton
What: Although its veracity isn’t certain, it’s still one of the most famous ads of all time. Explorer Ernest Shackleton supposedly sought to recruit men for a new expedition with this newspaper ad:
“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”
Whether or not it’s true, can we all agree it’s awesome? Don’t you wonder how you’d fare on this trip? To me, this taps the same impulse as modern-day hidden bars and speakeasies. We like a challenge, and tend to share it with others when it creates social currency for us.
17. ‘The job is not the work’
Who: Seth Godin
What: Marketers get pulled in a lot of directions throughout the course of a day—and a career. When this happens, maybe this philosophy from Seth Godin might help. In Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, he defines the difference between the job and the work:
“The job is what you do when you are told what to do….Your art is what you do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it. I call the process of doing your art ‘the work.’ It’s possible to have a job and do the work, too. In fact, that’s how you become a linchpin….The job is not the work.”
When you’re doing the job, remember to do the work, too. You’re the only one who can.
18. ‘Listeners will end up the smartest’
Who: Charlene Yi and Josh Bernoff
What: In an ever-changing media world, how do you keep up and stay relevant? The answer Yi and Bernoff proposed in their book Groundswell is a simple one: Keep learning, keep listening. “We’re all learning here,” they write; “the best listeners will end up the smartest.”
19. ‘Make the customer the hero of your story’
Who: Ann Handley
What: Everyone wants to be a hero. That’s the central idea of marketer Ann Handley’s contribution to our list, “make the customer the hero of your story.” Her suggestions to do this including content curation, user-generated content and using social media to tell bigger stories.
20. ‘Markets are conversations’
Who: The Cluetrain Manifesto authors Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger
What: In 2001, social media barely existed. But The Cluetrain Manifesto predicted a future of connectivity that would change the face of business, media, and culture.
“A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.”
What we learned then is still relevant today: We want a conversation, not a one-way ad barrage. Meet your audience where they are and get real with them.
22. ‘The medium is the message’
Who: Marshall McLuhan
What: When you communicate with someone, what’s more important: what’s actually said, or the method in which it’s communicated? McLuhan’s famous argument is that the medium is the message—that the two are so inextricably combined as to be one and the same. Now social media has proved him more prescient than ever. The reason we know when something is a Tweet vs. a Snap and understand the importance of choosing the right medium for each message? That’s McLuhan.
23. ‘Most ideas are a bit scary’
What: The healthy fear of hitting the ‘publish’ button is something that comes up a lot on the blog. Feeling uncomfortable is often a sign you’re on to something big, as legendary advertiser and art director Lee Clow puts so beautifully: “Most ideas are a bit scary, and if an idea isn’t scary, it’s not an idea at all.”
24. Name your audience
Who: Mel Martin
What: Hey, you! Yes, you right there. Media these days is fast-paced and confusing. Does your audience know you’re talking to them, specifically? If not, borrow a trick from copywriter Mel Martin and name them right in your message. Martin wrote headlines like “For golfers who are almost (but not quite) satisfied with their game — and can’t figure out what they’re doing wrong” and the above similar variation (hey, that means it must have worked, right?)
25. ‘Never stop testing’
Who: David Ogilvy
What: Considered “The Father of Advertising,” Ogilvy was among the first to perfect the split test for marketing, where two versions of an ad were published at the same time with a unique way for consumers to respond so the winning ad could be identified. One of his most famous quotes: “Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.”
26. ‘On fleek’
Who: Peaches Monroee
What: Never heard of Peaches Monroee? You might know the phrase she coined that’s been appropriated by everyone from Ariana Grande to Anderson Cooper to IHOP: “on fleek.” She tossed off the catchphrase in a June 2014 Vine video that now has more than 40 million loops (views, for non-Viners). “I gave the world a word,” she has said. “I can’t explain the feeling.” These days, it’s not high-paid marketing execs who are creating the taglines of the future. It’s more often young people, particularly people of color. Embrace it and learn from it, but don’t misappropriate it.
27. Power up your network
Who: Mary Kay Ash
What: Mary Kay cosmetics became a pioneer of multi-level marketing by tapping a great underutilized workforce: housewives. Her marketing innovations included expensive gifts (the famous pink Cadillacs) that extended the brand, offering incentives for recruiting others, and an emphasis on direct sales through friends and family. Learn from her: Your network can be a powerful tool.
28. Quarter-inch holes (vs. quarter-inch drill bits)
Who: Theodore Levitt
What: Why do people buy quarter-inch drill bits? It might not be the reason you think. In The Marketing Imagination, Theodore Levitt says:
“They don’t want quarter-inch bits. They want quarter-inch holes.”
The quarter-inch bit is only a means to an end. Marketing the drill bit based on its features (it fits into your drill) wouldn’t be as successful in this case as marketing it based on the benefits (you can create a quarter-inch hole). In other words, a feature is what your product does; a benefit is what the customer can do with your product.
29. Reinvent your medium
Who: Lin-Manuel Miranda
What: Chances are, you didn’t think much about Broadway until this year. What changed? Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash “Hamilton.” It’s the world’s first (as far as I know) hip-hop musical, it’s about one of the least exciting people imaginable, and it’s cast of mostly people of color. It’s truly something new, and audiences can’t get enough of it. Lesson for marketers? Whatever medium you’re working in, stretch it, bend it in new directions and reinvent it. Then you can own it.
30. Sex sells
Who: Helen Lansdowne
What: Could this be the first example of “sex sells” marketing in the Western world?
In 1911, Helen Lansdowne changed the face of advertising forever by being the first to harness sex appeal in an ad. Her Woodbury soap “Skin You Love to Touch” campaign focused not on the product but its effects—“the attention of dashing young gentlemen.” Then as now, a hint of the sensual both scandalized and worked—the campaign increased Woodbury sales by 1,000 percent.
31. Surprise and delight
Who: Taylor Swift
What: There seems to be no consensus as to who came up with the phrase “surprise and delight,” so I’m going to give the title to the modern-day master, Taylor Swift. “Surprise and delight” experiences focus on randomly selecting an individual or group to receive a unique gift or experience, and Swift is the queen. She’s popped up at bridal showers and weddings, and her Swiftmas gift-giving is legendary. “Fans are my favorite thing in the world,”she has said. Her fans seem to feel the same about her. Do yours feel that way about you?
32. Tell a (real) story
Who: P.T. Barnum
What: Hmm, this is a tough one. Creator of Barnum & Bailey P.T. Barnum is undoubtedly one of history’s greatest marketers, but what can the man of infinite hoaxes teach us today? Maybe that storytelling is powerful, but also that the story has to be authentic and real. Barnum proudly played a bit fast and loose with this, but then Twitter hadn’t quite been invented yet to fact check him.
33. ‘Think different’
Who: Steve Jobs
What: Why is Steve Jobs an enduring icon? Because he didn’t just sell us a phone; he sold us an experience. A way to live. An ideal to aspire to. Through him we learned to think different and to sell the dream as well as the product.
34. ‘Tune your message to them’
Who: Nancy Duarte
What: The writer, speaker, and CEO best known for working with Al Gore on An Inconvenient Truth has a simple message for would-be presenters: It’s not about you. As she writes in Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences, “The audience does not need to tune themselves to you—you need to tune your message to them. Skilled presenting requires you to understand their hearts and minds and create a message to resonate with what’s already there.”
35. Unique selling proposition
Who: Rosser Reeves
What: A “unique selling proposition “is the idea that successful advertising campaigns focus on a single, unique element that can nudge customers to switch brands. And advertising exec Rosser Reeves was the one to usher it into our vocabulary. Reeves’ ad is for Anacin, a headache medicine, was considered grating and annoying by many viewers but it also tripled the product’s sales. Another great Reeves example? M&M’s “melts in your mouth, not in your hand.”
36. Vulnerability connects
Who: Tavi Gevinson
What: How does a teenage girl create a media empire before she’s out of high school? For blogger, author and Rookie editor-in-chief Gevinson, the secret is relating deeply through vulnerability. “I think that when you make yourself vulnerable, the thing that you do next is better….The thing that bonds you to a new friend isn’t that you went to a fun party; it’s ‘cause you had a really weird, sad conversation.” Can you dig deeper and be more human with your community?
37. Write for someone specific
Who: Tim Ferriss
What: How did Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Work Week become such a huge hit (besides promising copious leisure time)? He focuses on trust, the kind that comes only when you know your audience deeply. It may feel like you have to write for everyone, but Ferriss says the opposite is true. “Write for two of your closest friends who have this problem that you have now solved for yourself.”
38. ‘Write something worth reading or do something worth writing’
Who: Benjamin Franklin
What: Instructions for creating a legacy, whether you’re a human or a brand: Listen to Benjamin Franklin. His quote is the end-all on the topic of getting attention: “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do things worth writing.”
39. 10x content
Who: Rand Fishkin
What: Moz’s Rand Fishkin coined the term “10x content,” which is content that stands out in our busy streams because it’s just 10x times better than anything else out there on that topic.
40. ‘Your culture is your brand’
Who: Tony Hsieh
What: “What’s a company to do if you can’t just buy your way into building the brand you want?,” the Zappos founder wrote in a pivotal blog post. “What’s the best way to build a brand for the long term? In a word: culture. We believe that your company’s culture and your company’s brand are really just two sides of the same coin…Your culture is your brand.”
Over to you!
Whose wisdom is missing here? I can’t wait to hear the lessons you’ve picked up from famous and up-and-coming marketers alike! Share your picks in the comments to add to our list.